“Black Like Me” Is Blackface Too

Should good intentions ever matter with blackface?

Sam McKenzie Jr.

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On October 28, 1959, a few days before Halloween, John Howard Griffin, a writer from Texas, decided to “stain” his white skin to experience life as a black man in the South.

Griffin’s purpose for black-stained skin was to research white racism because according to him there was no other way to know about white racism.

After his “experiment,” Griffin published his journal entries to narrate and aerate the horrors that haunted his new black hue so white audiences like him could better understand.

His book, Black Like Me, became a best seller. It sold over 12 million copies with versions in at least 16 languages, and many schools have made it required reading.

The front matter of the book claims it’s “the single most important documentation on American racism of the twentieth century.”

Well, excuse me! That’s where I heaved and hacked. Isn’t that a bloated boast given the steady testimony of firsthand witnesses who didn’t have to change their skin tone?

The foreword to the book opens by asking, “What is it like to be the Other?”

And the foreword in the book responds to its question with these words:

“very few thoughtful and heroic whites over four centuries have considered that question and one man, John Howard Griffin, thought the unthinkable and did the undoable: he became a Black man.”

Here’s my analysis— Griffin’s best seller is blackface. While Griffin’s book and his experience do not mock or dehumanize Blackness, I still see a silhouette of blackface.

I don’t define blackface with narrow lines. I give it ample room for condemnation. Blackface is a made-up black mask of some sort that people who aren’t Black can wax on and wax off at will while standing in as someone’s definition of Blackness.

Looking at Griffin’s blackface again, even as a tutorial for white people, his blackface wasn’t necessary.

Black people exist and persist. We’ve been writing, speaking, and protesting white terrorism for centuries from the start. Our words and our blood are enough to make and close the case.

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