Black Conspiracy Theory 101: Did The White Author Of ‘Black Like Me’ Die From Skin-Darkening?

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John Howard Griffin (pictured) was born in 1920 in the “good ol’ boy” state of Texas. During his childhood, Griffin, who was Caucasian, was quickly schooled in the White supremacist ideologies of his surrounding community. When Griffin reached adulthood, he felt compelled to contribute toward ending racism, so he embarked on a journey.  Disheartened by America’s racial climate, Griffin wanted to see what life would be like as a Black man, so he concocted a daring experiment, where he would pose as one in order to understand the plight of “Negroes.” Griffin drastically darkened his skin and inconspicuously traveled throughout the rabidly racist South for nearly two months during the height of the civil rights era in 1959.  He chronicled his emotionally charged discoveries in his book published two years later entitled “Black Like Me.”  Even though Griffin’s skin-darkening methods were perilous by today’s standards, did he in fact die of the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, as a result of his experiment?

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Griffin’s memoir recounts the medical treatments he endured in order to darken his skin pigment. After the journalist found a dermatologist who agreed to take part in his outlandish experiment, Griffin began the skin-darkening process by ingesting a pill daily then subjecting himself to 15 hours a day of an ultra-violet sunlamp treatment for seven days straight. Once the week was up, Griffin shaved his head, and when he looked in the mirror, a Black man stared back at him (pictured).

In his controversial book, Griffin explains how segregation and racism reigned supreme in the South and how he was also privy to acts of Black solidarity that forever remained ingrained in his soul. Griffin also exposed the ugly and dehumanizing treatment he received as a Black man, such as not being able to use public restrooms, being denied housing, having to work as a laborer for the leisure or pleasure of serving Whites, and becoming the target of brazen insults and indignities.

After Griffin’s book was published, it ignited a firestorm, both good and bad. Many praised the book for his raw and unique look at how Blacks were treated in this country at the time, while others trashed it.  In fact, when Griffin returned to his birthplace of Dallas, he was burned in effigy on the main street of his hometown. The “Black Like Me” author was also forced to flee from his home for fear of possible persecution from White hate groups.

Griffin had become a target, branded an “N-word lover,” and there were racist Whites, who felt he needed to be taught a lesson, so he and his family relocated to Mexico, where they lived for years before returning to the United States.

After fighting all his adult life for the fair treatment of Blacks, Griffin, a humanitarian who received the National Council of Negro Women Award and the Pope John XIII Pacen in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, passed away in 1980, but not as a result of the deadliest form of skin cancer as it had been rumored.

While undergoing the skin-darkening process, Griffin had been carefully monitored by his physician and only suffered temporary and minor side effects from the treatments.  He had also received blood tests to make sure his liver would not be damaged by the oral medication, oxsoralen, he had taken to help accelerate the skin-darkening process.

Griffin suffered a serious heart attack in 1976 while on a lecture tour. During subsequent years, he suffered additional coronary attacks followed by surgeries that left him in a debilitated state.

On September 9, 1980, at age 60, Griffin passed away from complications due to diabetes.

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