John Griffin conducted a life-changing experiment of turning into a black man. He documented his experience of struggle and survival, and in 1961 published the book called Black Like Me. The public criticized Griffin as he had dared to reveal an unpleasant truth. He took his experiment seriously, consulting dermatologists and sitting long hours under a sun-lamp. The author managed to change his appearance beyond recognition to create another personality. Throughout the journey across Southern states, he faced hatred, disdain, and disappointment in the idea of universal human rights. As Griffin tried to survive and work through his way as a black man, he changed the behavior and went against who he was. This essay dwells on three arguments that support this notion.
Losing Privileges of a White Man
One of the first things that makes Griffin adjust his actions is a sudden absence of white privilege. Even though he feels the same, Griffin has to realize that the outer world sees him as an unworthy man. The writer highlights, “But now, though I was the same person with the same appetite, the same appreciation and even the same wallet, no power on earth could get me inside this place for a meal.” (Griffin, p. 42). While Griffin is reading the menu, he feels that people are looking at him with disrespect. The doors of the famous restaurants in New Orleans are not open for him anymore.
Black people were familiar with accepted codes of behavior, but Griffin had to adapt and forget his past habits. He learns that many Negroes display contempt for the Black community because it brings hardships. Later, in the park, he wants to find compassion from a stranger who does not look like a racist, but the reality proves different. Griffin slowly starts to accept the rules of the game, putting up with the idea that there is no place for him.
Light in the Darkness
On the road, the author gets a chance to encounter people with various backgrounds and opinions about the issue of racial segregation. He explores that the majority of strangers do not understand the complexity of the situation. However, on the way to Mobile, Alabama, Griffin meets a young man that possesses a different vision. The writer underlines, “He looked young, not over twenty, and I wondered how he had escaped the habit of guarded fencing that goes on constantly between whites and Negroes in the South wherever they meet.” (Griffin, p. 95). This unexpected acquaintance supports Griffin’s belief that social changes are possible and inevitable.
This young construction worker is the first person that does not express disgust or hostility just because of the skin color. Hence, Griffin concludes that this stranger is overwhelmed by unconditional love to his infant son. Griffin is impressed by the extraordinary power of kindness and fondness. He believes that ability to love, care and respect can cure American society and help build a just future. The author stresses that equal opportunities in education, healthcare and work will break the conventional framework and free Negroes. He gets confused why those simple notions are not evident for the white.
In time, Griffin is getting used to changing the skin color, being black during the day and white in the evening. This approach allows him to grasp the controversies of the segregated South. The writer points out that “I was the same man, whether white or black. Yet when I was white, I received the brotherly-love smiles and privileges from whites and the hate stares or obsequiousness from Negroes. And when I was a Negro, the whites judged me fit for the junk heap, while the Negroes treated me with great warmth.” (Griffin, p. 126). He cannot comprehend why someone’s identity and social status depend solely on skin color. Furthermore, Griffin is baffled to experience such a big gap between white and black communities.
In his role, Griffin is following behavioral patterns expected by the public. He rushes to carry a white lady’s bags because that complies with what black people have to do. Griffin shows obedience and respect to carry on and complete his mission. He has to challenge his fundamental principles in order to feel the burden of underprivileged individuals. Griffin goes through a conscious self-immersion into the blackness that let him discover the underlying truth of people’s survival. Nowadays, many other groups are still dehumanized and deprived of social benefits based on religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
Griffin finds out that black and white people tend to treat each other differently because they have little understanding of each other’s lives. By adapting to the lifestyle of Negroes, the writer discovers that blacks are eager to help him, treating him like a brother. He acknowledges that his facial expressions have transformed, including a cautious and defeated look. After a long journey, Griffin is not going to take the privileges of white people for granted anymore. Even though his illusions have been shattered, he continues to belive in the generosity of a human soul that can spread love and kindness.
Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. Wings Press, 2004.