John Howard Griffin is a middle-aged newspaper columnist and former rancher living in Texas in 1959. Writing in his diary, Griffin, a white man, recounts how he hit upon the startling idea to change his skin color and attempt to experience life as a black man. Deeply preoccupied by the growing racial conflict in the United States, Griffin reads a troubling report about the rise in the suicide rate among American Negroes. He realizes that, as a white man, it is virtually impossible for him to understand what life is like for blacks, especially in the South. Committed to the social cause of black Americans and desperate to understand their situation, Griffin thinks that his only hope of obtaining insight is to transform himself into one of them—an idea that frightens him as much as it attracts him.
Griffin travels to Fort Worth to discuss his idea with his friend George Levitan, the editor of Sepia, a magazine devoted to Negro issues. He tells Levitan that he wants to change his skin color and become a black man for a short period of time, in an attempt to bridge the racial divide that prevents blacks and whites from understanding one another. Griffin hopes that Levitan will fund his project in exchange for being allowed to publish excerpts from the book he plans to write about his experience. Levitan is shocked by the idea, as is Adele Jackson, his editorial director. They warn him against the social repercussions to which he will subject himself if he goes through with his scheme. They say he risks everything from his family being ostracized by the community to outright violence perpetrated by racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the risks, Griffin is insistent that he wants to go through with his plan, and Levitan finally agrees to fund the transformation.
Griffin returns home, where he tells his wife about his idea to temporarily change his skin color. Though she is shocked by his plan, she recognizes the strength of his convictions, and she agrees to care for their three children while he is living out his experiment. As night falls, Griffin sits in his office in the barn, fighting against a powerful sense of fear.
He decides that after he undergoes the change in skin color, he will keep the same identity: he will not pretend to be anyone other than John Howard Griffin, the writer. This will allow him to gauge the responses of whites, and to see whether they will be able to treat him as anything other than an anonymous black man. He suspects that they will not. Griffin informs the FBI about his plan. One FBI agent is skeptical and warns him that if he becomes a Negro, he can only expect to be treated as a Negro.
Griffin travels to New Orleans, where he will undergo dermatological treatment to change his skin color. He wanders contemplatively through the white French Quarter section of town, observing the high standard of living among New Orleans whites, and wonders what he will find in the black part of town, where he will live after the treatment. He remembers a time in his life when he was temporarily blind, and thinks that, in a sense, his eyesight is still faulty, because he cannot see the city with the eyes of a black man.
Griffin treats himself to an opulent candlelit dinner in an outdoor restaurant, thinking of how he would be treated as a black man in a restaurant such as this. He calls a friend, and tells him that he is in New Orleans on a secret assignment. The friend offers to let him stay at his house while he is in New Orleans, and Griffin decides to do so, at least while he is undergoing the treatment.
Black Like Me, which is written in the form of John Howard Griffin's diary, is not a novel, but it is not a real diary, either. The book chronicles Griffin's real experiences—in 1959, he really underwent skin therapy to transform himself into a black man temporarily—but he did not keep a diary as he was going through them. Instead, Griffin wrote his "diary" only after he had resumed life as a white man, thinking that a diary narrative would be the most direct and personal form he could employ to tell his powerful story to the world.
What this means for the reader of Black Like Me is that, though it is very important to remember that the story is not fictional, it is also important to remember that it is a story. That is, rather than being a merely personal record of events and experiences designed only to be read by Griffin himself, Black Like Me is written very much with a reader in mind—Griffin consciously sculpts his narration in such a way as to interest, move, and enthrall his readers, and ultimately to persuade them of the crucial importance of the social cause of tolerance and racial justice.
When studying Black Like Me, then, it is important to be mindful of how Griffin tells his story so as to draw the reader into it, and to try to ascertain Griffin's intentions in framing his story as he does. For instance, the scene in this section in which Griffin sits in his barn office and looks forward anxiously to his future as a black man is full of evocative description and naked emotional declaration. Griffin tries to bring the reader fully into his experience by sketching a scene as palpable to the senses as anything one would find in a novel.
Sensory evocation is one of Griffin's main techniques for bringing the reader into his story. Another technique he uses is to give his story a definite narrative shape, emphasizing rising action and moments of climax. In this section, for instance, Griffin gradually builds tension by first introducing his idea to become a black man, then emphasizing his increasing awareness of all the dangers that his plan will involve, bringing the reader into his nervous anticipation. He also ensures that the reader will see his plan as a noble search for truth, as he saw it, rather than as a mere eccentricity.
To create this atmosphere, Griffin often employs the dialogue of secondary characters: for instance, his wife clearly states her belief that, despite the dangers involved for the family, Griffin's plan is brave and important. By the same token, Griffin uses George Levitan and Adele Jackson, in the Sepia office scene, to make the point about the dangers Griffin will face as a white man posing as a black man in 1959.
For those who read Black Like Me without having lived through the era of the Civil Rights movement, one of the most difficult things about the book is simply coming to terms with its setting—the nuances of its climate, as well as the era's open, public racial intolerance, can be somewhat alienating to a younger reader. It is important to pay careful attention to the details of the novel's setting in order to immerse oneself in it. In this section, for instance, we are given a sense of the gap between black America and white America by the fact that Griffin seems to learn more about blacks by reading newspaper articles than by actually speaking to or observing any of them. Moreover, the volatility of the era is implied by the danger that Griffin's plan will lead to violent reprisals by white hate groups.
Finally, Griffin conveys the sense that, though most whites seem to be either too intolerant or too frightened to oppose racism, there are still a number of good white men and women, even in the South. George Levitan is one such man, a white man who has dedicated his life to the cause of blacks. Throughout the novel, the theme of good surviving even when surrounded by evil is extremely important: rather than writing an angry attack on the injustices he saw in the system, Griffin instead chose to emphasize the redemptive possibilities of love, kindness, and tolerance, implying that goodwill and positive emotions, rather than anger and violence, are the most effective catalysts of social change.