When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, with its scheduled first printing of two million copies, is published on July 14, it’s sure to send readers, old and new, back to Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird, with its story of Atticus Finch, a small-town, white, Alabama attorney, who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, was published at exactly the right political moment and went on to sell more than 40 million copies. Although set in the ’30s, Lee’s novel dramatized the kinds of racial injustices the modern civil rights movement was dealing with in the ’60s.
There’s another book, though, now less often remembered, that should be read alongside To Kill a Mockingbird. That book is John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir Black Like Me, which was once treated as a breakthrough nonfiction work and eventually sold 10 million copies.
At the core of To Kill a Mockingbird is the ethic Atticus Finch constantly preaches to his daughter, eight-year-old Scout, the story’s narrator: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Black Like Me shows that ethic lived out. To write his book, Griffin, a white writer who grew up in a Texas culture he characterized as Southern, passed as black. He darkened his skin, relying on ultraviolet treatment and the help of a dermatologist who supplied him with the medication used to treat vitiligo, the disease that causes skin to lose pigment and white spots to appear on the face and body. Then Griffin travelled through the Deep South, recording his experiences in a journal that he kept from October to December 1959.
The disguise worked. Griffin was able to record the daily humiliations of being an African American in the South of the late ’50s. He was pursued by a young white man who took to calling him “Mr. Shithead,” told not to sit on a park bench in Jackson Square, New Orleans, and elicited the comment, “They’re getting sassier every day,” when he made eye contact with a white woman on a bus.
When his account of his travels was published, first in Sepia magazine, which had helped pay for his travels, then in book form, it created a sensation. Griffin got favorable reviews in The New York Times and Newsweek and was interviewed on national television. A 1964 movie, starring James Whitmore as Griffin, was made from the book.
In an era when the kinds of humiliations Griffin endured had already been described movingly by black writers ranging from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison, his book should not have been needed, but Griffin had not misread the racial climate of his times. He was able to reach readers who were not typically available to Wright and Ellison.
Griffin stressed that he had changed his appearance, not his identity, in Black Like Me. He was not writing as if he were African American. “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?” was the question Griffin insisted he was out to answer.
Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), a black-power advocate, who was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1966 would say of Black Like Me that it was “an excellent book for whites.” It was not a judgment with which Griffin disagreed.
Griffin’s story followed him back to his home in Mansfield, Texas, where a dummy of him, half black, half white with his name on it and a yellow streak painted down its back, was hung from the red-light wire on Main Street. But as the times changed, Griffin appeared less often in public in the belief that the country had taken major strides in distancing itself from an era “when whites would not listen to blacks.”
A devout Catholic, Griffin had no desire to overstay his time in the spotlight. Like the reclusive Harper Lee, he understood that he had written a period piece in which what was heroism in the past would need to be rethought if it were to make sense in the future.
Nicolas Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.