50 Years Later, What We Can Learn From 'Black Like Me'
We claim to be post-race but instances of racism still ruffles our feathers
When white people darken their skin and present themselves as people of color today, it’s usually because they’re seeking to appropriate some sort of cultural capital or identity. It’s a particular problem in fashion, an industry that’s seen no problem with having Dutch model Lara Stone do an entire French Vogue editorial in blackface, and posed Crystal Renn and Claudia Schiffer pretending to be Asian. Halloween regularly prompts a spate of stories about white people who think it’s amusing to paint their skin and claim an identity not their own. In 2009, an Australian pop group found to their sorrow that Harry Connick Jr. was perhaps not the best audience for an attempt to honor Michael Jackson in blackface.
It’s particularly depressing to see this kind of ignorance persist fifty years after the journalist John Howard Griffin published his account of going undercover as a black man for a very different purpose. His journey by bus through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, printed first in Sepia Magazine and later as the book Black Like Me was intended to help him gain a greater sympathy for the hurdles African-Americans faced. As he put it, “I realized that I, a specialist in race issues, really knew nothing of the Negro’s real problem.”
Griffin made it hard for himself to back out of his experiment: he didn’t simply use paint or dye to darken his skin. Instead, he took a great deal of an anti-Vitiligo drug and spent hours tanning, meaning he couldn’t immediately wash off his new pigmentation and return to his old status as a white man in an instant. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a white family he could have gone home to, however odd his children might have temporarily found his appearance. And while his project may have been out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s jurisdiction, he still had vastly more access to the law enforcement system than the black men he impersonated and lived among.
Perhaps because of that limitation, some of Griffin’s most revealing realizations are about himself. He’s acutely uncomfortable with his appearance, delaying the moment when he has to shave his head to hide the texture of his hair, and feeling profoundly alienated from his final reflection int he mirror. When he goes outside, he observes that “this was the ghetto. had seen them before from the high altitude of one who could look down and pity. Now I belonged here and the view was different.” Before his departure, he asked one of the FBI agents he met with “Do you supposed they’ll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?” The agent tells Griffin something he won’t realize until he’s out on the street in his new guise: “They’re not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you’ll be a Negro and that’s all they’ll ever want to know about you.”
That basic challenge for the project isn’t something that’s simply evident now. In 1964, Brendan Gill wrote a scathing review in the New Yorker of the movie based on Griffin’s novel, arguing:
He is...rather simple-minded, for though he intends to turn his findings into a series of sensational pieces in a national magazine, he considers his ‘passing’ less a journalistic stunt than a self-imposed spiritual ordeal, the harsh consequences of which, in middle age and with many years of reporting behind him, he surely had little reason to be astonished by...he makes considerable trouble for his new-found Negro friends in the course of a masquerade that necessarily takes greater advantage of them than it does of whites, and that, in the end, merely confirms what has been a fact accepted for generations, however little it may have been acted on: that life for the Negro in a small Southern town is made tolerable only by his extraordinary feats of accommodation, most of them continuously humiliating.
But Dan Wakefield, in a New York Times review of the book published on October 22, 1961, suggested that such understanding wasn’t nearly as widespread as the New Yorker would suggest four years later. He wrote:
The daily indignities of living as a Negro in America are not ‘news’ and are seldom written about. Dramatic outbreaks of racial conflict make the front-page stories, but in order to begin to understand them—and what lies behind them—it is necessary first to be aware of the routine torments of discrimination as they plague the everyday life of particular individuals.
If fifty years has convinced some people that putting on blackface is an innocuous act, it hasn’t lessened the desire to see what happens when white and black Americans switch roles. FX repeated Griffin’s experiment and fused it with reality television in 2006 in a six-part series, Black.White., that not only had a black and white family exchange races, but had them live together in a more sedate version of a Real World house.
It may be easier to be a tourist in someone else’s life today than it was during John Howard Griffin’s expedition, and there may still be uncomfortable truths to be gleaned from those experiences. But all these experiments assume that visiting another country—even if it’s your own—will actually teach you what it means to live there. Sometimes the greatest possible act of sympathy is to acknowledge that you can’t understand the entirety of someone else’s experiences.