In 1959, the writer John Howard Griffin decided to go through with a daring, personal experiment. Using drug medication and a sun lamp, he transformed his skin to change from a white man to a black man. He shaved his head and added a dark cream. His plan was to tour around the South and write about his experiences under a secret guise. Close friends and family thought he was crazy when he discussed the idea, but he had such conviction to find out for himself what it would be like for a white man to experience life as a black man in the South in 1959.
Starting out in New Orleans and traveling to Mississippi, Alabama, back to New Orleans and on to Atlanta, he discovered all the raw hatred of racial prejudice, the complexities of racial tensions within the black community, the injustices and indignities places upon people merely because of skin color, but also surprises in the way people can show kindness to a stranger. Griffin first published his findings in a series of articles for Sepia magazine and then as a complete book, Black Like Me. It is a powerful story of what happens when we see life from another person's point of view.
For example, Griffin is forced to endure racial epithets and has food thrown at him while walking down the street minding his own business. He gets refused time and time again to enter certain businesses or to have a traveler's check cashed. He is glared at by whites when he sits in public places or simply buys a bus ticket at the counter. He searches miles for a bus ticket or a bathroom -- all because of his skin color.
Keeping a diary of his experiences from Oct. 28, 1959 to Aug. 7, 1960, Griffin reports on open hostilities, the smoldering hatred that arises from inequities, conversations he has with people of different walks of life, and the insights he discovers while living among strangers. He learns firsthand how prejudice dehumanizes people, almost to the point of absurdity.
While reading this book today -- some 40 years after it was written -- we might say, "We've come a long way, baby!" However, blatant and subtle forms of racism and prejudice continue to persist like strains of a virus that resist the toughest antibiotics. How we treat subgroups in our society -- whether it's targeting people because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, age or other -- will inform us as to whether we may truly progress as a civilization striving to live to the fullest of our democratic ideals. Griffin's experience calls us to look into ourselves and see how we are all capable of carrying out acts of kindness and love — or perpetuating the very evils we would not want cast upon ourselves or the ones we love.