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But that man had been white. This man was brown-skinned. Rag in hand, the shoeshine man said nothing until the hulking man spoke. John Howard Griffin had embarked on a journey unlike any other. Many black authors had written about the hardship of living in the Jim Crow South. A few white writers had argued for integration. But Griffin, a novelist of extraordinary empathy rooted in his Catholic faith, had devised a daring experiment.

To comprehend the lives of black people, he had darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta. Griffin revealed that what they were saying was true. It took someone from outside coming in to do that.

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And what he went through gave the book a remarkable sincerity. A half century after its publication, Black Like Me retains its raw power.

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Still ased in many high schools, it is condensed in online outlines and video reviews on YouTube. But does the book mean the same in the age of Obama as it did in the age of Jim Crow? Griffin, however, has become the stuff of urban legend, rumored to have died of skin cancer caused by the treatments he used to darken his skin temporarily.

Nearly forgotten is the remarkable man who crossed cultures, tested his faith and triumphed over physical setbacks that included blindness and paralysis. Born in Dallas inGriffin was raised in nearby Fort Worth. He would always recall the day his grandfather slapped him for using a common racial epithet of the era. Griffin was gifted with perfect pitch and a photographic memory, but his most vital gift was curiosity.

When he told an informer of a plan to help a family escape, his name turned up on a Nazi death list. After getting blasted with shrapnel in an enemy air raid a few months before the end of the war, Griffin awoke in a hospital, seeing only shadows; eventually, he saw nothing. The experience was revealing. Over the next decade, he converted to Catholicism, began giving lectures on Gregorian chants and music history, married and had the first of four children. He also published two novels based on his wartime experience. Then inspinal malaria paralyzed his legs. Blind and paraplegic, Griffin had reason to be bitter, yet his deepening faith, based on his study of Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, focused on the sufferings of the downtrodden.

After recovering from malaria, he was walking in his yard one afternoon when he saw a swirling redness. Within months, for reasons that were never explained, his sight was fully restored. An acquaintance told Griffin the idea was crazy.

Soon Griffin was consulting a dermatologist, spending hours under sunlamps and taking a drug that was used to treat vitiligo, a disease that whitened patches of skin. As he grew darker day by day, Griffin used a stain to cover telltale spots, then shaved his head. Oblivion proved worse than Griffin had imagined. Alone in New Orleans, he turned to a mirror.

The transformation was total and shocking I felt the beginnings of a great loneliness. Applying for menial jobs, he met the ritual rudeness of Jim Crow. You always hear it, and always it stings. Sometimes passing whites offered him rides; he did not feel he could refuse. He roamed the South from Alabama to Atlanta, often staying with black families who took him in.

He then took refuge in a monastery. Before Griffin could publish reports on his experiment in Sepia magazine, which had helped bankroll his travels, word leaked out. Returning to his Texas hometown, he was hanged in effigy; his parents received threats on his life. Any day now, Griffin heard, a mob would come to castrate him. He sent his wife and children to Mexico, and his parents sold their property and went into exile too.

In OctoberBlack Like Me was published, to wide acclaim. As the civil rights movement accelerated, Griffin gave more than a thousand lectures and befriended black spokesmen ranging from Dick Gregory to Martin Luther King Jr. Notorious throughout the South, he was trailed by cops and targeted by Ku Klux Klansmen, who brutally beat him one night on a dark road inleaving him for dead.

Throughout the s, Griffin struggled to move beyond Black Like Me. Hatred could not penetrate his hermitage, but diabetes and heart trouble could. Inosteomyelitis put him back in a wheelchair. He published a memoir urging racial harmony, but other works—about his blindness, about his hermitage days—would be published posthumously. He died inof heart failure.

He was By then, the South was electing black mayors, congressmen and sheriffs. DuBois wrote about. Fifty years after its publication, Black Like Me remains a remarkable document. John Howard Griffin changed more than the color of his skin. He helped change the way America saw itself. Continue or Give a Gift. SmartNews History. History Archaeology. World History. Science Age of Humans. Future of Space Exploration. Human Behavior. Our Planet. Earth Optimism Summit. Ingenuity Ingenuity Awards. Innovation for Good. Featured: A. Featured: History Through Hip-Hop. Travel Virtual Travel.

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Race, Socioeconomic Status and Health: Complexities, Ongoing Challenges and Research Opportunities