One of my favorite passages in Walker Percy’s 1966 novel, The Last Gentleman, begins when Will Barrett, a young Southerner temporarily exiled in the North, is hitchhiking south from New York. Sitting patiently on the side of the road for an hour and a half, Barrett is almost ready to give up when a bottle-green Chevrolet pulls over. The driver is a well-dressed Negro in a brown suit. Barrett takes him for a preacher, or possibly a teacher. His name is Isham Washington. A bit of good fortune, thinks Barrett: this is the sort of colored man who will converse on all manner of high-minded subjects. Barrett stows his gear in the back seat and climbs in.
But there is something odd about the man. Barrett can’t quite put his finger on it. This man talks about Einstein. He carries on about air-conditioning, and landscaping, and how they upset the balance of nature. “There is the cause of your violence!” he all but shouts. This is not the way an educated colored man talks, thinks Barrett. An educated colored man does not cry “Capital!” and “Marvelous!” in a nervous, reedy voice.
As they drive, the man leans over to Barrett and says, “I have a little confession to make to you.” “Certainly,” Barrett replies. The colored man continues. “I am not what you think I am.” He pushes up his coat sleeve and shows Barrett a light patch of skin on his arm. He is not really a Negro, he tells Barrett. Nor is his name Isham Washington. His real name is Forney Aiken, and he is a photojournalist on an investigative trip to the South—“below the cotton curtain,” as Aiken explains it. He is doing a journalistic series on the “behind-the-scenes life of the Negro.” And what better way to do such a series than to become a Negro himself? Aiken tells Barrett that he persuaded a dermatologist friend up North to administer an alkaloid to turn his skin dark, and that it can be reversed with a skin-lightening cream. He then acquired the personal papers of a black man called Isham Washington, an agent for a burial insurance firm in Pittsburgh. Aiken has just begun his journey south in disguise, and Barrett is his first test. Aiken has a hidden camera in his necktie.11xWalker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1965; London: Panther Books, 1985) 110–12.
Americans who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s will recognize Aiken as a fictional stand-in for John Howard Griffin, the best-selling author of Black Like Me.22xJohn Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (1961; New York: Signet, 1996). Griffin was a novelist and journalist who, like Aiken, underwent dermatological treatment to darken his skin in 1959, and then spent six weeks disguised as a black man in the deep South. His account of his experiences was serialized in the magazine Sepia, then published in book form in 1961. Black Like Me turned Griffin into a minor celebrity and a spokesman on Civil Rights. Many white Americans found themselves deeply moved by Griffin’s account of the racial prejudice he experienced as a black man. But others vilified him. In his hometown, Griffin was hung in effigy.
Black Like Me has had a curious legacy. On one level it was hugely successful. It became an international bestseller and a standard text in many school classrooms. Once a minor novelist, Griffin became a wellknown media figure. Even today, Black Like Me is included on the syllabus of many African-American Studies courses. For white Americans in particular, Griffin’s experiment seems to have an enduring appeal. In 1964, Black Like Me was turned into a Hollywood movie with James Whitmore. Four years later Grace Halsell, a White House aide in the Johnson administration, repeated Griffin’s experiment, living as a black woman in the South and in Harlem. She published a book about her experience called Soul Sister.33xGrace Halsell, Soul Sister (New York: World, 1969). As recently as 1994, Joshua Solomon, a student at the University of Maryland, undertook his own Griffininspired experiment and wrote about it for The Washington Post.44xJoshua Solomon, “Skin Deep: Reliving Black Like Me: My Own Journey into the Heart of Race-Conscious America,” The Washington Post (30 October 1994).
Yet there has always been an undercurrent of discomfort with Griffin’s experiment. Many black readers were uneasy with the preposterous idea that it took a white man’s testimony to verify racial prejudice in the South, and as the 1960s came to a close, Griffin found himself marginalized within the Civil Rights movement—a development he admits with bitterness in his later writings, yet never quite seems able to understand. Griffin also became an easy mark for satire. In The Last Gentleman, Percy turns him into a clownish Yankee who hangs out with Hollywood actors intent on staging a “morality play” in Alabama. Percy refers to him as “the Pseudo-Negro.”
What accounts for the lasting appeal of Griffin’s experiment? At least part of it, I suspect, comes from the actual intervention itself—the concrete, physical act of darkening your skin. This is not posturing, or at least not in any simple way; nor is it merely an act of imagination: the body actually changes color. And what American cannot identify with the existential thrill of taking on the identity of another person, of becoming a stranger in your own body? But it is this very exercise in body-snatching that makes many of us cringe involuntarily at the thought of what Griffin did. However good his intentions, Griffin was never really black. Self-transformation has its dangers, and one is the danger of fakery, to yourself as well as to others. This is part of what Percy is hinting at with the figure of Forney Aiken, who is less an investigative journalist than a voyeuristic thrill-seeker. One danger of the way we live now lies not just in the way that our selves are packaged and given to us by others, but in the promise of liberation through self-transformation. These days, self-transformation is part of the package too.