American journalist, novelist, and civil rights advocate John Howard Griffin is best known today as the author of Black Like Me (1961), a diary of the six weeks he spent in 1959 disguised as a black man in the racially segregated South. The book raised awareness about the harrowing psychological impact of racism.
John Howard Griffin was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 20, 1920. Dallas was part of the segregated South, and Griffin accepted the reality of racial segregation during his formative years, having been taught, in his words, to believe “the whole mythology of race.” At age fifteen, Griffin responded to a newspaper advertisement for a private boys’ school in France, the Lycée Descartes. To his surprise, he was offered a scholarship. Although he spoke no French, he persuaded his parents to buy him a one-way passage to Europe. In the French school, Griffin was shocked to see white students having lunch with blacks. The experience made him question the racist ideology he had been brought up with as a child growing up in Texas.
Griffin went on to medical school at the University of Poitiers, and during World War II, when France was occupied by Germany, he was left in charge of a psychiatric hospital. He helped the underground resistance by treating wounded soldiers in the hospital and smuggling Jewish families, disguised as mental patients, out of France. In 1940, Griffin learned that the Gestapo (the German secret police) was planning to have him killed, and he escaped back to the United States.
In 1941, Griffin enlisted in the Air Force and was assigned to work in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Living in a remote island village, he studied the language and culture and gathered strategic information about the enemy Japanese. Griffin even married a local woman, although he later had the marriage annulled. He later wrote a novel about his experiences in the South Pacific, called Nuni (1956).
In 1945, while working as a radio operator in the war, Griffin was injured in an explosion. Soon after, he became blind as a result of the injury. His eyesight miraculously returned in 1957. Griffin wrote of his experience of blindness and recovery in the memoir Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision (2004). He also wrote a book, Handbook for Darkness (1949), for sighted people about how to communicate with the blind. Griffin’s experience with discrimination as a blind man likely prepared him in some ways for his later journey as a black man in the segregated South.
John Howard Griffin studied with the Benedictine monks and learned the Gregorian chant. In 1951, he converted to Catholicism. His first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (1952), is about a man who is torn between the desire for romantic love and a desire for life as a monk. Griffin chose romantic love, marrying seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Holland in 1952. They had four children together.
In 1959, Griffin embarked on his journey through the South, disguised as a black man. Upon his return, he published a series of articles for the African-American magazine Sepia and spoke about his experiences on a number of nationwide television and radio news programs. The articles and interviews angered many people in the South, even in his own community. His family received death threats and was forced to move out of their hometown of Mansfield, Texas. They resettled in Mexico, but Griffin later moved his family back to Fort Worth, Texas. His book, Black Like Me, was published in 1961. It was a great success, selling millions of copies, and was made into a film in 1964. In the mid-1970s, the book suffered from a backlash and was pulled off library shelves, censored as “objectionable, obscene and perverting.” By the 1980s, however, the book again enjoyed a status as required reading in many schools.
Griffin wrote a number of other books on racial issues, including The Church and the Black Man (1969) and A Time to Be Human (1977). Often called upon to lecture about the impact of racism, Griffin continued to be a controversial figure and even suffered a brutal beating at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975. He died in 1980 of complications from diabetes and other health problems. His legacy lives on, however. Black Like Me has been translated into fourteen languages and has sold over eleven million copies worldwide.Even today, nearly fifty years after its first publication, Griffin’s book is required reading in many middle schools, high schools, and universities.
Black Like Me: Biography: John Howard Griffint