Black Like Me is a non-fiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin first published in 1961. Griffin was a white native of Mansfield, Texas and the book describes his six-week experience travelling throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia passing as a black man. Sepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles.
Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book.
In 1959, at the time of the book's writing, race relations were particularly strained in North America; Griffin's aim was to explain the difficulties facing black people in certain areas. To expedite this, under the care of a doctor, Griffin artificially darkened his skin to pass as a black man.
Robert Bonazzi subsequently published the book Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.
The title of the book is taken from the last line of the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Variations":
To complete the illusion, Griffin used dyes to cover uneven areas and closely cropped his hair.
During his trip Griffin made it a rule that he would not change his name or alter his identity; if asked who he was or what he was doing, he would tell the truth. In the beginning, he decided to talk as little as possible to ease his transition into the "black world", i.e., the social milieu of southern U.S. blacks.
After he disguised himself, many people who knew John Howard Griffin as a white man did not recognize him. A shoeshine man named Sterling Williams in the French Quarter, a man whom Griffin regarded as a friend, made no connection with his looks now that he was black. The only way Sterling realized it was Griffin was because he recognized his shoes, and Griffin opened up to him, explaining his research .
An episode on the bus reveals the climate of the times. Griffin began to give his seat to a white lady on the bus, but disapproving looks from black passengers stopped him. He thought he had a momentary breakthrough with the lady, but she insulted him and began talking with other white passengers about how "sassy" they are becoming.
Not only did many people hang his effigy in the town center, a few people also sent negative letters threatening to kill him if he didn't recall his book. However, the majority of letters were positive, helping him to get through this challenging period in his life.
It has been erroneously claimed that the large doses of Oxsoralen John Howard Griffin used in 1959 eventually led to his death in 1980 at age 60 from (the claim asserts) skin cancer. However, Griffin never had skin cancer; the only negative symptoms he suffered because of the drug were temporary and minor. The worst, arguably, were fatigue and nausea.
Griffin had suffered from myriad health problems for much of his adult life: in addition to a severe head injury he suffered in World War II, Griffin contracted malaria, which attacked his spine and temporarily paralyzed him. He later developed both diabetes and osteomyelitis. In 1976, Griffin suffered a heart attack during a lecture tour; he would suffer several more in the final four years of his life.