Black Like Me, a memoir written by John Howard Griffin, tells the true story of Griffin’s time spent in the segregated south in the 1950s as a black man. Griffin, however, was not biologically black. In fact, he was a white journalist with a focus on racial equality- a white man who wanted to experience the truth of black life in a land supposedly “separate but equal”, a sugar-coated line which people knew even then to be a lie. In order to truly understand the plight of African Americans in the southern states, Griffin chemically dyed his skin black using pills normally reserved for treating vitiligo. With black skin and a deep-rooted curiosity, Griffin ventured into the south. What he found horrified him, and became the subject of his memoir.
In Black Like Me, Griffin addresses the dehumanizing conditions which were caused by segregation in the American south. Most people are aware of the immediate impacts of segregation. Black people and white people were physically separated from each other, barred from drinking from the same water fountains, using the same bathrooms, eating at the same restaurants, or even using the same seats on the bus. It served as a barrier, keeping black men and women from attaining education, or those with education from obtaining jobs which could provide livable wages. These are things taught in school, considered to be common knowledge. What fewer people are aware of, however, is what Griffin portrays to be the true result of segregation and racism: the very denial of the right to humanity. When no person affords you even the slightest common courtesy when people deem it unnecessary to look at you on the street, when you need to work hard each and every day to prove to the white man that you mean him no harm- what does that do to a human’s spirit? According to Griffin, the true horror of segregation is the degradation of humanity which naturally ensues from it. The result is a book that is hard to read without taking on the pain of the oppressed- a reaction which is not only desired by Griffin but which makes this book a truly unforgettable, essential read.
There is no specific demographic which I would recommend this book to. The truth is, everyone should read it. It is one of those once in a lifetime books which makes you think just as much as it immerses you in its story. Further, if you enjoy this book and would like to read another like it, I would highly recommend Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane (I wrote a review about this book, too).