By Vincent L. Hall
John Howard Griffin, a native of Dallas, was born a White man in 1920. Like most DJs, I ain’t real crazy about playing requests. Most DJs have a system and strategy in mind to get the audience to dance upbeat, slow dance, and line dance at the appropriate moments. I’m no different, but my friend, Delton, asked me to do a piece on the 1961 bestseller Black Like Me. He is concerned that so many young people of all races have no clue how astonishing the book is. So on the 40th anniversary of Griffin’s death (September 9, 1980), l acquiesced to a personal appeal in hopes that we could create some awareness and appetite for this book. Especially in light of so many Whites who are loyal to the Black Lives Matter cause! John Howard Griffin was remarkable. By the age of 39, he was so beleaguered and affixed with race in America that he embarked upon a personal mission of research and discovery. In the fall of 1959, a weathered and obscure Griffin made a visit to a dermatologist in New Orleans.
Griffin was treated with large and accelerated doses of a skin darkening chemical Oxsolaren, sheared the straight hair from his head, and volunteered for Hell’s earthly litmus test; he became a Black man in the Jim Crow South. For most of us, that would have been enough. But Griffin went “Incog-Negro” for a year, pushing the limits of his personal curiosity and safety by posing as a brother among hostile whites in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. He discovered no real epiphany for Black folks, but he opened the eyes of White folks in America and throughout the world. Griffin wrote early on, “The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship.” And that was just the beginning.
Griffin fully exposed himself by thumbing rides and asking favors of unsuspecting people. He lived among Black people, which meant he lived below his White privilege. Griffin decried his experience, “an important part of my daily life was spent searching for the basic things that all White men took for granted.” Delton, a White brother in his mid-70’s, is cool and an oddity among his contemporaries. He is puzzled that most Americans lack a sound historical knowledge of issues like slavery and Jim Crow was really about. Delton has moved from an avid reader of every bit of news he could consume to a virtual hermit. He had all he could stand of Donald Trump early on and admits that he cannot contain himself. He just will not watch. Delton praises his time in the military because it exposed him to Black people. After the book, John Howard Griffin became famous for his literary work and for his unfettered fight for social justice.
After regaining his birth pigment and trying to go on with his life, he was haunted by Southern racists who scorned him and even burned an effigy in his likeness. He fled from his Texas home in Mansfield to Mexico and finally back to Fort Worth. Griffin, was a journalist and musicologist. Unfortunately, he was blinded during his service to the military. Griffin died in 1980 at age 60 of diabetes. He continued to fight racism and ignorance. The BLM movement supported by fair-minded Whites in Portland and throughout this nation mirror his spirit. John Howard Griffin was never “Black Like Me,” but he sacrificed a lot to try and understand.