Deep South Journey, 1959
October 28, 1959
Sitting in his office on his parents’ farm in Mansfield, Texas, Griffin reads a report about the rise in suicidal tendencies among Southern blacks. This dire report contradicts claims of white Southern legislators who maintain they have a “wonderfully harmonious relationship” with blacks.
What, Griffin wonders, is the true state of racial relations in the Deep South? Although a specialist in race issues, Griffin realizes that he actually knows very little. It is hard for a white reporter to find out the truth, since black people have learned to mistrust whites and will not speak honestly and openly with whites about racism. The only way for Griffin to understand is to become black himself. He decides that he will journey to the South disguised as a black man.
Griffin goes to Fort Worth to discuss his idea with his old friend George Levitan, the white owner of the African-American magazine Sepia. Levitan says it’s a crazy idea and fears for Griffin’s safety, but he is also excited by the plan. He agrees to sponsor Griffin and to publish Griffin’s articles about the experience. Adele Jackson, Sepia’s editorial director, warns that Griffin will be the target of hate groups as well as inspiring resentment among well-intentioned whites who believe it’s best not to “stir up” things.
Next, Griffin shares his plan with his wife. She is astonished, but supportive, and willing to care for their three young children during Griffin’s absence. Alone in his barn office, Griffin begins to feel the terrible loneliness and dread of what he’s about to do.
Griffin meets with Levitan and Jackson and three FBI agents from the Dallas office. Although his project is outside their jurisdiction, Griffin wants them to know about it in advance. Griffin decides he will not lie to anyone he meets during his experiment. If asked his identity and what he is doing, he’ll give his real name and profession. One of the FBI agents says that nobody will ask any questions of a black man.
November 1, New Orleans
Griffin arrives in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He had been there while blind, and now he enjoys all the sights along with the other tourists. He passes garish girlie bars, where women dance to blaring jazz, and hawkers beckon him inside. He has dinner in an elegant restaurant, then phones a friend. He’ll stay at the friend’s home while he makes his transformation into a black man.
Griffin goes to see a dermatologist. They decide he will take medication and go under an ultraviolet lamp. The medications are meant to treat vitiligo, a disease that causes white spots to appear on the skin. When Griffin takes the pills, they will gradually turn his skin dark. He takes the pills and goes under a sunlamp. He decides he will not tell his friend and host about the plan because he doesn’t want to get anyone involved. Later that evening, he takes a trolley into town and walks around black neighborhoods in New Orleans. He wonders how he will manage to pass from one world into the other.
Griffin has spent the last four days taking medication and lying under a sunlamp at his doctor’s office. The medication is making him tired and somewhat nauseated. The doctor, knowing of Griffin’s plan, begins to have some doubts about helping him. He warns Griffin to be careful, as there is a lot of black-on-black violence in the community. Griffin assures the doctor that he knows about this. He says his black friends have told him they are concerned, too, and are making strong efforts to work against the violence.
The doctor also passes on advice he’s heard from black people, that light-skinned blacks are more trustworthy than dark-skinned ones. Griffin is astonished that the intelligent doctor would believe such a racist myth. He also finds it sad that blacks would believe such a racist idea.
Each evening Griffin goes to wander the city. He meets a black shoeshine man named Sterling Williams, who he decides will be a good contact to have during his entrance into the black community.
Analysis of Preface, 1961 and Deep South Journey, October 28–November 6, 1959
As author John Howard Griffin states in the Preface to his work, the book takes the form of a diary of his experiences while disguised as a black man in the South. Griffin chose the diary form because he knew that a simple first-person narrative would have far more impact on readers than a scientific article laden with statistics. Ultimately, Griffin wanted his story to reach a wide audience of blacks and whites and to play into readers’ sympathies. Had Griffin published the results as a scholarly article, he never would have reached such a wide audience, and his story might not be known today.
As you read, remember that Griffin was a skilled journalist. While the details of his experiment are all true, this is no raw, unedited diary of his experiences as he lived them. Rather, the story was carefully crafted from Griffin’s extensive notes after he concluded the experiment. Griffin was free to include the specific anecdotes and observations that would best communicate his central message. He uses descriptive language that evokes particular feelings in the reader, and employs other techniques of fiction to bring his story to life. Thus, although the story is nonfiction, its style has more in common with an exciting novel.
Contemporary readers may find it hard to understand how dangerous Griffin’s experiment was and how brave Griffin was to have undertaken such a project. At the end of the 1950s, the United States was in the midst of violent unrest over the subject of racial inequality. While the federal government enacted desegregation laws, white groups throughout the South fought to keep schools, restaurants, and other facilities segregated. By posing as a black man, Griffin put his life at risk from racist individuals and hate groups. He also staked his reputation and that of his family. After his story came out, the backlash against Griffin was so great that he and his family were forced to move out of their hometown.
It may also be difficult for contemporary readers to understand why Griffin would need to go to such an extreme as to disguise himself as black in order to have any real conversations with Southern blacks. In the 1950s, segregation in the South was so complete that many of Griffin’s conversations with black people in the book would have been impossible had he attempted them as a white man.
Griffin’s experiment was controversial then as now. As he acknowledges in the Preface, readers may be skeptical of his findings or offended that a white man would think he understands what it is like to be black after a few short weeks in dark makeup. Of course it is true that black Americans living their whole lives in the South were much better qualified than Griffin to talk about racial discrimination. Griffin himself knew that very well. The problem was that nobody listened. When black people spoke publicly about racism, white audiences became uncomfortable, defensive, and even angry. But when a white man like Griffin spoke about his experiences with racism, people listened and applauded. Griffin was thus able to act as a mouthpiece for those whose complaints were not being heard. He often said, however, “I don’t stand up here and represent myself as a spokesman for black people,” emphasizing that his was just one man’s story.
A significant part of Griffin’s experiment was his decision not to change any aspect of his identity other than his skin color. By keeping the same identity throughout the experiment—that of John Griffin, the writer and civil rights advocate—Griffin ensured that the white John Griffin and the black John Griffin were exactly the same. If people treated them differently, it could only be because of the color of their skin.
The first entries in the journal describe how Griffin conceived the project and how he was able to transform himself with the help of a dermatologist. Griffin also builds suspense in these entries, sparking the reader’s interest in how Griffin will be received once he enters the world as a black man.
Throughout the book, Griffin points out and criticizes whites’ racist attitudes, although he is careful not to demonize or ridicule the characters he encounters. He makes sure to show that even well-meaning and highly educated individuals harbor racist attitudes and perpetuate racist stereotypes. For instance, the dermatologist who treats Griffin is well-educated and clearly does not hate black people, but he is nonetheless a racist because he believes the myth that “the lighter the skin the more trustworthy the Negro.” (Note that throughout the book, Griffin uses the word “Negro,” which at the time, in 1959, was the preferred term for people of African-American descent.)
George Levitan and Adele Jackson are the real names of the owner and editorial directors of Sepia magazine, an African-American magazine founded in 1947. Levitan, who was not himself black, worked to create jobs for black people on the editorial staff of the magazine. Adele Jackson was an African-American editor who rose from a secretarial position to become editorial director of the magazine.