John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin injected with chemical that would turn his skin dark brown“Black Like Me”

This is the story of a man who was truly courageous and how he gathered information to write a non-fiction book.  But it’s not solely about the stories which were both treasured and hated at the time.  It’s about a remarkable and intrepid man and what he was able to accomplish throughout his life.

For those of you who are too young to remember a series of articles originally published in Sepia in 1961, a photojournalistic magazine, this account of life in pre-civil rights America may surprise you.  Eventually they were published in a book titled “Black Like Me”.  You might consider downloading it to your “Kindle” or “Nook”.

John Howard Griffin, a white man, born in Texas, had himself injected with a chemical that would turn his skin a dark brown when exposed to the sun.  The year was 1959.  He shaved his head, and journeyed to the Deep South.  He would pass himself off as a black man to experience what daily life was like for an African-American.

In his autobiography he described his treatment.  He was insulted, harassed, threatened, and not allowed to cash his traveler’s checks.  Bus drivers wouldn’t let him off to use the restroom, and would frequently refuse to let him off at his stop.  He was turned away from restaurants, and kicked out of public parks because he was black.

In the book you can read about specific incidences in greater detail.  It’s well worth reading.

This in itself would have been a remarkable accomplishment.  I never came close to what he experienced, but I remember coming from Los Angeles to the South, and how amazed and appalled I was at what I saw.

I enlisted in the USAF in 1964.  Basic training took place in Texas, and then on to “Tech” school in Mississippi in 1965.  The civil rights movement was growing in strength.  While I was riding in a car with a black Airman, gunshots streamed over the vehicle.  We believed it was a police vehicle, and were positive later when we learned they received “bounties” for arresting black Airmen.  When we were given passes into town, there were many signs on closed restaurants and bars with signs posted “off limits to Airmen”.   This was because of mistreatment of black members from the base by those establishments.

Griffin’s early life was just as amazing.  His mother was a classically trained pianist, and taught piano lessons.  His father was a radio personality.

When he was only 15 years old, he wrote to a French boarding school offering to exchange work for tuition.  They accepted.  After boarding school he stayed in France.  He worked at an insane asylum to help pay for his continued studies in music and psychology.  He used what he learned to devise a therapy for the inmates based on Gregorian chants.

At age 19, he joined the French Resistance.  He enlisted as a medic to help Jews escape the German invasion.  His ruse was to disguise them as mental patients, even to the extreme of putting them in straight-jackets.

When the United States entered the war, Griffin returned home to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps.  While he was serving in the South Pacific, he suffered severe head wounds in an explosion.  He was left for dead by the medics, but the burial crew discovered he was barely breathing.

The explosion had damaged his eyesight.  His vision continued to deteriorate.  He returned to France to finish his studies, but was forced to resign and return to the States when he became blind.

Griffin turned to writing.  His first book, completed in 1952 was “The Devil Rides Outside”.  Its subject was a man who attempts to resist a worldly life, and live more spiritually.  It became part of ‘obscenity hearing’ before the Supreme Court in 1957.  A bookseller had been convicted for selling a “sexually charged” book.  The Court overturned the conviction.

Griffin wrote four more books.  He settled down, converted to Catholicism, married, and had two of his four children, when a miracle happened.  His sight returned.

Just as he had been appalled by the persecution of Austrian Jews when he worked in the French Resistance, he was revolted by the maltreatment of blacks by whites in America.  His deep feelings for right vs. wrong prompted him to change his appearance and travel to the Deep South.

When “Black Like Me” was published in 1961, it was a best seller in parts of the country and denounced in other parts.  When he was burned in effigy in Mansfield, Texas, he moved his family to Mexico until he felt they were out of danger.

Nine months later the Griffin family returned to Texas.  He discovered he was suffering from bone deterioration and tumors.  Between 1960 and 1970 he had 70 operations.  During that time he was appointed the official biographer of another Catholic convert, Thomas Merton, who wrote “The Seven-Story Mountain”.  Griffin never stopped writing, teaching, and lecturing.

His illness created rumors that the injection he took was the cause of his maladies.  They were untrue.  He didn’t die from skin cancer, or any disease related to the skin-darkening drug.  He’d been in poor health most of his adult life, and died of diabetes-related complications in 1980.  He was 60 years old.

James Turnage

Columnist-The Guardian Express

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