In 1959, white Texan John Howard Griffin used a combination of medication and skin dye to turn his skin black, and then travelled through the Southern States as a black man, to see for himself how he would be treated by people there. This book is his diary of his journey and his experiences.
It makes for uncomfortable reading at times. This was a time when segregation was still very much a reality – and in fact the expected norm – in certain states. Black people could not use many of the cafes and public toilets which white people used, and always sat at the back when using public transport. What is equally disturbing is the contempt with which strangers treat people on the sole basis of the colour of their skin. In one incident for example, a bus stops for ten minutes and while all the white people are let off to use the bathroom, the black people are prevented from getting off, seemingly for no reason other than to make them uncomfortable and to show that they are considered second class citizens.
Most people are well aware of how segregated the deep south was at the time of the writing of this book, but here we see it from a personal standpoint. Griffin knows that in all ways except for the colour of his skin, he is still the same person he has always been…but where he has previously been treated with courtesy and respect by fellow white people, now he is feared and distrusted.
Also disturbing is the description of the repercussions of the experiment which he and his family suffered after his experiment was over and people found out what he had done.
Griffin examines how people who don’t consider themselves to be racist do in fact show themselves to be exactly that in their speech and mannerisms, although in the interest of fairness and truth, he also details incidents of kindness and kinship shown to him by both black and white people.
The book was easy to read – the writing flowed and never got boring – at less than 200 pages, it didn’t have chance to. However, there were times when I felt that the author was second guessing what people were thinking. In one part, a young man is abusive to him, but his insults are never related to colour. Griffin presumes that this would not have happened if he were white, but the truth is that he and we cannot know whether this is correct or not. Other than this though, it is an interesting book which held my attention.
It was written just over 50 years ago, and therefore feels somewhat dated. The segregation laws described no longer exist – thank goodness – and people are more enlightened. However, there is no doubt that racism still exists, and this is one man’s account of his personal experience of it. It may not teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it is certainly interesting and disturbing reading.