Black Like Me '94

  by Joshua Solomon  

WHAT I noticed at the start of it, my first few days living as a black man, were the small things, the differences in the way people treated me. The doorman at my brother's apartment, a man I'd walked past every day for a month, stopped me, asked my name and where I was staying. A white woman on an airport shuttle looked away when I smiled at her. The hostess at a restaurant told me there would be a long wait, even though there were several empty tables.

I'd thought about the idea of living as a black person ever since I read John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me" in high school. In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the rural South. In the 1970s, a white woman named Grace Halsell followed in Griffin's footsteps, writing three books in three years about living as a black woman, an Hispanic woman and a Native American.

I picked up Griffin's book by chance one morning at the Springbrook High School library; I sat there all day reading it, oblivious to everything else, to the end of the school day. Then and there I decided that sometime soon I too,would become black. It's as simple as this-I wanted to know what it was like.

So it was that, in February of this year, I talked with Aaron B. Lerner, a physician who heads the department of dermatology at Yale University. I told him that I, a white, 20-year-old University of Maryland sophomore, had dropped out of school for a semester to live as a black man. And I wanted his help.

Lerner was surprisingly nonchalant. Unlike others I'd told, he didn't dismiss me. Instead he explained that Griffin had used a derivative of the drug Psorlen to change his skin from white to brown. He also explained that it was suspected that Griffin's early death in 1980 was partially due to liver damage caused by the medication. I told the doctor that I'd had a heart condition since birth, that I was used to the dangers of potent medication and to life-and-death choices. "Why," Lerner asked. "Why are you doing this?"

I had prepared a neat answer. Now I stammered and forgot what I'd planned to say.

"I don't know," I finally said. "It's just, growing up in Silver Spring, I've always had a lot of black friends. Whenever something went down, they always said it was racism. Education, jobs, crime, poverty, social misunderstandings-they blamed everything on color. 'It's a white man's world,' they would say."

That's what I told Lerner. But there was something else-I'd sympathized with my friends, and I wanted to support them, but secretly, inside, I'd always felt that many black people used racism as a crutch, an excuse. Couldn't they just shrug off the rantings of ignorant people?

In February I left my parents' house to move in with my brother in Baltimore, not wanting to have to explain my change of complexion to the neighbors. I began taking six Psorlen pills a day. After four sessions at a tanning salon, my face was badly swollen and my body ached. A week or so later, my brother, Jon, and I drove home to Silver Spring for dinner. The change in my skin color must have been dramatic. My 9-year-old sister screwed her face into a horrible grimace the first time she saw me. "You're ugly!" she cried. I wanted to smack her but realized she was not really talking about me.

Or was she?

It was about a month after I had started the process of transforming myself into a black man that the doorman at my brother's apartment stopped me. Normally, he was polite and deferential. Now he did not bother to hide his rudeness as he asked my name, where I was staying and lots of other questions.

"I've walked past you every day for the past month," I said. "I'm Josh. I'm staying with my brother Jon in 708."

He looked me up and down, sputtered and stammered. "Just trying to keep it safe," he said. The Psorlen was obviously working.

In early April I decided my complexion had changed enough for me to pass. Over two months the color of my skin had changed from olive to reddish-brown. Someone said that, with my straight nose and full lips, I looked Haitian. It was time to go. On the steps outside our house, my brother shaved my head. I'd had my hair cut pretty short already, and my scalp was tan. Still, just for good measure, Jon rubbed some theatrical skin stain over my head to even the color.

When he'd finished I looked in the mirror. It was scary. I wasn't me anymore. I was black.

I was going to make Atlanta my first stop. Waiting at Dulles for my flight, I noticed for the first time how few of the travelers in the airport were black. Most of the black people were working behind metal detectors or pushbrooms. When we boarded the shuttle to go to the plane, I took the first available seat. It was next to a white woman. I smiled at her, the way I usually do. She cut her eyes to the ground. A white man placed a bag on the vacant seat next to me and continued to stand. I wondered why he didn't sit. And then I asked myself if I was looking for things that weren't really there.

Nonetheless, during that short ride, I couldn't help noticing something-the moment I met a white person's eyes, that person immediately turned away. Once I landed in Atlanta's bustling airport I went to the information desk, where a kindly gray-haired gentleman behind the counter was answering questions. When my turn came, his manner changed. "What, you don't have reservations?" he asked in a stern, hard voice. I was well-dressed, in khaki pants and polo shirt, the same clothes I often wore to classes as a white guy at the University of Maryland. I had $1,500 in my pocket.

"We have conventions in town, most hotels are full," he said.

I found myself trying to be polite to an extent that was foreign to me. I gained new insight into why a black person would act like a so-called Uncle Tom-I was desperate for a little respect. Finally he suggested I take the subway downtown to the Peachtree station and look for the Comfort Inn, a place he described as "pretty inexpensive, at least for the city."

I checked into the room, took a nap. When I woke up at 10 p.m. the city was dark and I was hungry. On International Avenue, I walked into a fancy restaurant. The maitre d' haughtily told me, "Sorry, reservations required." I asked him for an alternative selection. He told me to try across the street.

It was an old, greasy diner. Several black men loitered around the entrance drinking out of paper bags. One offered me "some good weed." I kept moving. A little farther along I found a Mexican place. "Long wait," said the woman at the door, "very long." I peered over her shoulder. Inside were well dressed white people and several empty tables. Discouraged, tired, I went back to my room. I fell asleep thinking about eggs.

The next morning when I went to a nearby drugstore, a white employee followed me around the store. At the drink refrigerator, I turned suddenly and stared right at her, letting her know that I knew what she was doing-shadowing me as if I were a potential thief. I'd hoped to embarrass her, but she didn't flinch. She stared right back, hands on her hips.

"Are you gonna buy something or not?" she asked.

I grabbed some orange juice.

"That'll be $1.94," said the woman behind the counter.

"Pretty expensive O.J." I said. "Then don't buy it," she countered.

I checked out of my room, went to the bus station. My destination was Gainsville, Ga., the closest bus station to Forsyth County, which I had chosen because no blacks live there. Following the rape of a young white girl in 1912, two black men were convicted. Several lynchings were recorded following the verdict; the accused were eventually hanged. Using force and intimidation, the white community drove all black residents from the county. The 1990 census statistics on Forsyth County today show "N/A" under all categories for black people.

A light-skinned black man called me "brother" and asked where I was going.

"Man!" he said, shocked. "You don't want to go to Forsyth. They got old ways down there, the lynching mentality. You should stay in the city."

"I'm sure it isn't so bad," I said, "Things have changed a lot, don't you think?"

"Okay, okay, man, it's your hide," he said, backing away from me. "Be safe, brother, be safe."

In Gainsville I climbed off the bus. Man, I felt alone.

After checking into the Ramada Inn, I went out to explore. From what I could see, walking through the north side of the city, it was like a movie set for an old Southern town, complete with a statue of a Confederate soldier in the square. Three churches within two blocks, some store fronts, few people in evidence. Continuing up Green Avenue, the residential area began, a beautiful neighborhood, the sidewalks shaded with majestic boxwoods. On one porch, two ladies chatted. As I passed, their conversation stopped. I kept walking. When I looked back, they were still watching me.

I circled back to my room, called everyone I could think of, needing somebody to talk to. Finally I got through to Earnest Sharpe, a reporter who had written the most recent article on John Howard Griffin. He'd been supportive when I'd called him before. I was confused and angry about the intense emotions that petty indignities stirred in me. I'd hardly started on my journey, but I was already furious, almost to the point of paralysis.

I began to cry as I recounted the events of the last two days, the drip-drop of indifference and fear from the white people I had encountered. Their lack of patience, their downright contempt. He gave me the number of some of his friends in Atlanta. He told me that if things got bad, I could go there. I asked if they were white. I would stay with white people if they knew I wasn't really black. When I looked through the window the next morning, the clouds were gray and the asphalt was wet. The outside looked like I felt inside. I took a shower and then rubbed more stain into my head and face.

I headed for a diner I had seen the day before. All of the tables were occupied by white customers. There was one black patron at the counter, and I took a seat next to him.

"Where you from?" he asked.

"Around D.C." I told him.

"Stay there." he said. "Why you want to come down here?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Look, you're here cause you heard about the New South, right? You've heard we've come a long way and you want to find a new place to start. Well, let me tell you. Atlanta might be the New South, but here in Gainsville, in all these little towns, this is still the Old South," he said. "What do you think happened to all those fellows who used to tell me and your daddy to sit in the back of the bus or to go around back to find the black bathroom? You think all those people died when they killed Mister Crow?"

We walked together out of the diner, to the town square, said our goodbyes. I continued down the street, heading south this time. There was an abrupt change in the landscape. Pool halls, liquor stores, all the buildings run down. The black side of town. A young, black teenager, bald like me, was hanging outside a pool hall. He had a fierce expression on his face.

I smiled.

"Whazz up?" he said.

A few blocks farther a police car passed, made a U-turn, stopped directly in my path. The cop waved me over. I walked to the car, put my hand on the roof of his cruiser.

"Get your hands off my cruiser," he said. I put them in my pockets.

"You don't want to do that either."

I folded my fingers in front of my chest like a choirboy. He regarded me a moment.

"You're new in town, aren't you?" he asked. His breath stank. "Well, we've had plenty of trouble down here. I hope you don't have any more in mind."

"No way. No, sir," I assured him. I prayed that he wouldn't ask for my ID. How would I explain this white man's driver's license in my pocket? Visions of Rodney King flashed through my head.

"Okay," he said, "Stay out of trouble now, you hear?"

I went back to my room and wrote everything down. When I was done I headed toward the square, where there was a poultry festival going on; it consisted of tents and steel drum barbecues and picnic tables in a parking lot, scored with the live music of a twangy country band. The first thing I noticed was the lack of black folks. There was only one family, eating at a picnic table.

The aroma of chicken filled my nose and stirred my stomach. I anted up, took a seat at a table not too far from the black family, near an obese white woman, hoping to spark some sort of conversation.

"Hell-o," she sang, real friendly in a sweet Southern strain. "Are you enjoying the festival?" she asked.

I told her the barbecue chicken was great and that I was from Washington, D.C.

She asked where I was going next.

"Forsyth County?" she repeated, a look of disbelief crossing her face. "Why would you go there? You looking for trouble?"

"Of course not," I said. I told her that I was sure it couldn't be as bad as people said. On top of that, I said, "I'm an American citizen. I can live anywhere I want to."

She snorted. "Well, not there," she said. "They'd make you leave."

"How could they do that?"

"They'd make your life miserable. Nobody would give you a job. They could change your mind, trust me." The tone of her voice, her argumentative posture, was frightening.

"Well I think I'll just go and check it out for myself," I said.

Her face turned even redder. "You people never get it," she chided me. "Some folks just don't like living with you people. Look what you do to your neighborhoods. You make everyone leave. You ruin everything. You think . . . "

Across the street someone began calling: "Ma, Ma! Are you all right?"

She looked over at a young, overweight boy, waved her hand, raised herself off the bench.

"Well, goodbye," she said. "Don't be stupid now, you hear?"

I felt tired and sick. I went back to my room and slept the rest of the day and night. The next morning I took refuge in a church. I entered the stately blue doors only to find a room empty, save for a homeless guy, blond-haired, blue-eyed. I asked him about the church's shelter in detail, leading him to believe I was homeless too. His name was Chris. He'd been living on the streets for five years.

I asked Chris if he had ever lived in Forsyth.

"You don't want to go down there," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because you're black. Simple as that."

When I got to the room, it hit me. I was sick of being black. I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to throw up.

Enough is enough, I thought. I didn't need to be hit over the head with a baseball bat to understand what was going on here. Usually, I'd made friends pretty easily. I was nice to them and they were nice to me. Now people acted like they hated me. Nothing had changed but the color of my skin. I went to the closet, pulled out my suitcase. After all of two days, the experiment was over. Maybe I was weak, maybe I couldn't hack it. I didn't care. This anger was making me sick and the only antidote I knew was a dose of white skin.

I called my mother and told her I was finished with my journey. All the hurt, all the anger, all the inhumanity. I started to cry.

On the way to the bus station I saw Chris across the street. I called and waved. He motioned me over to the sub shop where he was standing.

"I was trying to get a cup of water, but they can't help me. Do me a favor and ask for one, they might help you because they don't know you."

I went in and got him a cup of water. I asked him if he wanted anything else.

"How about a steak and cheese, and make that a lemonade instead."

I paid with a $20 bill. Chris's eyes bugged out. I told him I was leaving town and, wanting company, asked him to walk me to the bus station. He resisted, saying he was tired and didn't know his way around that part of town well. I reminded him that I had just bought him lunch.

We walked down Butler Avenue. This time I noticed the pawnshops, cheap food and liquor outlets, the standard ghetto businesses, all of the town's vices packed into this small black community. An old wrinkled black man, his mouth full of gold, sipping on a bottle of Mr. Boston's Gin. We walked on, past black children at play, women hanging wet clothes on makeshift lines, bass music thumping from an open window.

"Lazy niggers," Chris spat.

My body quivered, my spine tingled. A shadow must have come over my face, for suddenly Chris became apologetic. I guess he thought I was ready to kick his butt.

"Oh not you, I didn't mean you, you're different," said this guy who carried all his possessions in a tattered green duffle bag, who wore every article of clothing he owned on his back.

"Of course," I said, "I just bought you lunch."

We walked in silence after that. When we got to the bus station Chris asked if I would walk him back to his part of town. "See you later," I said. I thought: Sink or swim, white boy. The bus came into Gainsville at about 3 p.m. The quiet ride ended in Atlanta at about 4:30. I took the subway back to the airport. A young black woman leaned against the seat next to me. She dozed off occasionally. In her arms she cradled a sack of books. Around her neck hung a stethoscope. Why hadn't she given up? I could return home to my comfortable world. I could wait for my skin to turn white again. She would have to endure.

Joshua Solomon is University of Maryland student.

 DESCRIPTORS: Racial and ethnic groups; Blacks; Whites  

Washington Post 

 (c) 1994 Washington Post. All rts. reserv. 

 2218955 Skin  Deep   Reliving  'Black  Like  Me':  My Own Journey Into the Heart of Race-Conscious  America. The Washington Post, October 30, 1994, FINAL Edition By: Joshua Solomon Section:  OUTLOOK, p. c01 Story Type: Features Line Count: 252    Word Count: 2778