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Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, March 10, 1960

March 10, 2010 |  2:33 pm

March 10, 1960, Mirror Cover

The book Coates is talking about is, of course, "Black Like Me."


A White Man Turns Negro

Paul Coates

(This is the first of two exclusive columns on the remarkable story of a white author who turned "Negro" to get the facts on discrimination in the South.)

    Male, white, American.  Age 40.  Born, Dallas, Tex.  College graduate.  Married.  Three children.  Talks with slight Southern drawl.

    These are the statistics that describe John Howard Griffin.

    And with them, as his lot, his heritage, he became a successful citizen of the United States.  He was a respected man of comfortable means.

    Then, last fall, he changed one of his vital statistics.

    He became a Negro.

    Through pills, ultraviolet ray treatments and dyes, he changed the color of his skin.  That's all he changed.

March 10, 1960, Combs

 Grim New Life

    Next, leaving his wife and three children at home in Mansfield, Tex., he walked into the streets of New Orleans to begin a bizarre new life.

    As a Southerner, an author with a probing mind, and an individual of keen sensibilities, he wanted to sort the fact from the fiction about the Southern Negro and his plight.

    He wanted answers -- both economical and psychological -- that no white man ever found, because no white man can really know what it means to be a Negro.

    In his six weeks of traveling through the South -- working as a shoeshine boy, menial laborer, earning an average of $1.50 a day, being refused job after job for which he was qualified -- he visited the business districts, the slums, the backwoods country.

The Hate Stare

    And he got his answers.

March 10, 1960, Carole Tregoff    Some were stark and immediate.

    The restrictions.  The fears.  The white man's "hate stare."  The animal fight for survival.

    In his first 24 hours learned that basic human needs can become daily crises for the Southern Negro, unless he plots his every move in advance -- when to "keep moving," to sit, to smile; where to get his next drink of water, his next mouthful of food.  Or where he can go to the bathroom.

    Other realizations came more subtly, more slowly.

    The existence of a protective Negro "underground," similar to that which the Jews built up two and a half decades ago in Nazi Germany.  The new and powerful economic purge of the Southern Negro.  The danger of even looking at a billboard picture of a white woman movie star.

    John Howard Griffin's skin once again is white, but as he recounted his story to me this week, I got the feeling that he could never again look upon the insane bigotry of the South with white man's eyes.

'I Can Do It'

    "When I undertook the project," he said, "I made myself one promise -- to report the truth whether it showed either or both races in a bad light.

    "I feel I can do it, but there were times during my experience when I wondered  whether some of the emotional experiences I had could ever fall into proper perspective in my mind."

    Griffin prepared for his masquerade with the help of a New Orleans dermatologist.  In an accelerated treatment program of seven days,  he was given pills which darken the skin pigmentation (a medication, incidentally, which can have harmful effects on the kidneys) and ultraviolet ray baths.  His head was shaved to a burr beforehand, and final touches were made with a vegetable dye.

Black Shadow

    "The transformation was horrifying," he said.  "I was inside the flesh of a  stranger -- and not a very pretty one at that.  A fierce-looking bald-headed Negro.

    He had walked into the small rented room where the treatments were given as a rather distinguished-looking first class citizen of the South.  At midnight of the seventh day, he made his exit out the back door, with the feelings of loneliness and fear his black shadow already.

    He caught a bus -- careful to take a seat near the rear even though the buses in New Orleans aren't segregated -- to the Negro section of town and registered at a Negro hotel.

    The next morning he caught another bus downtown.  On it, he got his first lesson on how to behave as a Southern Negro.

Hate Stare Again

    As the bus filled up approaching town, a few whites were standing in the aisle but the seat next to him remained vacant.

    He nodded to a woman in her 40s who was standing next to it, as if to offer her the seat.

    She gave him what he came to know as the "hate stare."  "What," she demanded loudly, "are you looking at me like that for?"

    "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm not from here."

    She turned, commented to a stranger, "They're getting sassier every day," and launched into an easily audible discourse about "uppity niggers."

The Hard Way

    Arriving at the French Quarter, he returned to a shoeshine stand which as a white man, he had visited a few times before in his preliminary reconnaissance of New Orleans.

    The stand's proprietor did not recognize him, and after a brief conversation, Griffin the Negro had his first job:  bootblack.

    In new Orleans, he applied for a variety of jobs, but was hired for none except those of common laborer, in spite of the fact that he went for his interviews in suit, white shirt and tie.

    He learned that the markets were good about giving the colored folk catfish heads to eat and that green bananas, taken from markets' garbage cans, would ripen in a few days if wrapped in newspapers. 

    On the sidewalk near the shoeshine stand, he cooked over a small stove and ate coon, turnips, rice, and other delicacies with his coworkers.

    This was one of the privileges which the people of New Orleans extended to their second-class citizens.

    After a week there, living and eating off the streets, Griffin decided to explore the meaning of his new life in the grim country where they lynched Mack Parker.  He bought a bus ticket to Mississippi.

    It was then that the full, brutal impact of being a Deep South Negro hit him after an incredible experience.

No Comfort for Him

    His bus made a "comfort" stop some miles from his destination, Hattiesburg.  The white passengers filed off, Griffin followed, but at the bus door, the driver blocked him with his arm.

    "Where do you think you're goin' boy?" the driver demanded.

    "Wanted to get off and go to the bathroom," Griffin replied.

    "Your ticket's straight through to Hattiesburg.  Don't say nothing on it about you getting off this bus before then."  The driver pointed a commanding finger to the rear of the bus, where the rest of the Negro passengers had remained seated.

'Get Back There'

    "Now you get back there and don't move till we get to Hattiesburg.  I can't be bothered rounding up all you people when we're ready to go."

    John Howard Griffin had been frightened as a Negro trying to exit in the relatively cosmopolitan city of New Orleans.  But now he was a Negro in the backwoods of Mississippi.  And suddenly, he felt the terror of what that meant.