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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin


November 2–8, 1959

page 1 of 3


After an extensive search, Griffin finds a dermatologist who is willing to help him change his skin color. The doctor consults several colleagues, and they settle on a method of ultraviolet radiation combined with oral medication designed to darken his skin pigmentation. The dermatologist says that this method could take as long as three months. Griffin says that this is too slow, and insists on accelerating the treatment. After he begins the treatment, Griffin has a conversation with the friend at whose home he is staying. The friend is an enlightened white man opposed to racism, but Griffin still decides not to tell him about his plan. He simply warns him that his secret journalistic assignment could require him to vanish, without saying goodbye, at any time. Alone, Griffin wanders through the teeming, impoverished black section of New Orleans, trying to determine how best to enter this intimidating world once the process of his transformation is complete. He feels that he will need a contact, a Negro who is willing to help him assimilate into black culture—but he is not sure how he will find one.

The medical procedure Griffin is undergoing is neither tested nor safe and he experiences painful side effects to the ultraviolet light and to the medication. After four days, he has bouts of intense nausea and acute anxiety. His discomfort heightens when the dermatologist reveals his own latent racism in his conversations with Griffin. The doctor insists that lighter-skinned Negroes are more moral and more trustworthy than darker-skinned ones. He also claims that, as a race, blacks are inherently violent. He describes watching a knife fight among a group of New Orleans Negroes to back up his claim. Griffin is appalled that an educated, liberal man could indulge in such hateful fallacies.

After scouting out the black section of New Orleans, Griffin is at last able to make a contact: Sterling Williams, an old man who shines the shoes of white people. Williams is engaging and articulate, and Griffin likes him immediately. He tells Williams that he is a journalist who has traveled to New Orleans to write about the conditions of the Negroes, but for now, he keeps his larger plan a secret.

On November 7, Griffin's treatment has come to an end and the doctor is troubled by the side effects that Griffin has experienced. The doctor makes him promise to contact him if anything else should go wrong. Griffin shaves his head and applies a stain to his skin to make it even darker. He gazes at himself in the mirror and immediately begins to panic: he does not recognize himself at all, but feels as though his identity has been swallowed up by another person. Even his wife and children, he thinks, would simply see him as an anonymous black man.

Full of anxiety and trepidation, Griffin goes out into New Orleans for the first time as a black man. He rides a trolley and is forced to sit at the back. He goes into a drugstore, and realizes that, though he is the same man he always was, he is now forbidden from ordering a drink at the soda fountain. Griffin checks into the cramped and dingy Sunset Hotel, located in the black part of New Orleans. Everywhere, whites seem to look at him with suspicion and hostility. Griffin's only comfort is that blacks, both in the hotel and on the trolley, seem to treat him with solidarity and kindness, accepting him as one of their own. Griffin has his first sense of how human love and affection can resist the conditions of oppression and hatred.

The next day, Griffin rides a crowded bus to the Negro YMCA, where he hopes he will be able to find a room. On the bus, he starts to offer the seat next to him to a white woman. The other black passengers look amazed that any black man could be so stupid, as white passengers would rather stand than sit next to blacks. Griffin goes to find Sterling Williams, who does not recognize him. When Griffin carefully tells Williams his secret, the old man is delighted and offers to help him in any way he can. Griffin says that he wants to shine shoes, and Williams agrees to let him work at the stand with Williams and his partner Joe. Noticing that Griffin has light hair on his hands, Williams takes him to a Negro toilet to shave his hands, helping to preserve the secret of his identity. The men share a meal of raccoon and rice, and though Williams is at first shocked by the crudeness of the food, he quickly realizes that simply having enough to eat is a mark of dignity to Williams and Joe.

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by different2209, February 12, 2015

im certain that he didnt die from diabetes but from the skin dyes, tablets and injections that allowed his skin to go black. He died alittle later when he finished writing the book and wasn't alive to see the influence it had on American society.


by southafricasbest, January 12, 2016

He died in 1980, 19 years after 'Black Like Me' was published you tool. He died of diabetes just accept it.

Passed away from the skin dyes

by Lindainportland, July 07, 2016

I had always heard he passed away from what the skin dyes did to him as well.

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