Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin, Signet, 1961, 176 pp
I don't read much non-fiction for My Big Fat Reading Project. When I do, I choose books that give me the sense of living amidst the times or that fill in parts of history I never fully learned. Black Like Me gave me a great deal of insight into what life was like for southern Blacks in the early years of the Civil Rights struggle.
The premise is almost unbelievable. A white journalist from Texas, by means of medication and dyes, turns himself into a Negro and spends time with other Negroes in various towns: New Orleans, small towns in Mississippi and Alabama, Atlanta.
Griffin may have invented immersive journalism. He had a contract for the story with a magazine called Sepia and as far as I can tell, his experiences were the real deal.
He discovered that though he already believed racism to be a terrible thing, white people really had no idea what it was like to be a Negro, especially in the South. He could enter a drug store and make a purchase, but could not sit at the counter to eat. Negroes could only eat at Negro cafes. He could not even get a drink of water and often had to walk many blocks to find a restroom he could use.
Worst of all was what he came to call "the hate stare." The constant degradation got to him so much that there were times when he felt insane.
It is a moving story and goes far to explain the complex barrier Black people in America have to overcome to gain rights that are inalienable according to our Constitution. Once Griffin's article came out he became an overnight celebrity in the North but was so reviled and threatened in his home town that he moved his family to Mexico to protect their lives.
This is a short book, well written, and should be read by every American citizen.
(Black Like Me is available in paperback on the Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)