The following question has haunted Griffin for a number of years: “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?” Furthermore, Griffin wants to know what it’s like “to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control.” Sitting one night in his personal office in Mansfield, Texas, he reads a report about the high suicide rate of black people in the South. Griffin knows that, despite these statistics, white society insists it has a “wonderfully harmonious relationship” with African Americans. Disheartened by this discrepancy, Griffin decides to change his skin color. “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” he writes.
Griffin’s initial question is worth paying attention to because it articulates an obvious but important idea—namely, that black people are forced to lead drastically different lives than white people in America. After all, why else would Griffin want to know what “adjustments” a white man would need to make if he were suddenly to become a black man? Indeed, the only reason Griffin has the good sense to ask this question in the first place is that he is already aware of a great disparity between how whites and blacks experience everyday life in the country. What’s more, his decision to darken his skin color suggests he believes that physical appearance is the only difference between whites and African Americans—an important point, considering that many people at the time believed there was a fundamental difference between the two races, an idea that bigots used to promote the absurd concept of white superiority.
Griffin believes it’s necessary to “become” a black man in order to fully understand what it’s like to be African American in the South. Indeed, he knows that the communication between whites and blacks is stilted and misleading, since “the Southern [black man] will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.”
Griffin articulates the unfortunate fact that African Americans aren’t able to honestly communicate with white people. Indeed, there is a disincentive for blacks to speak openly about what it’s like to live under racism, since doing so often leads to violent repercussions. As such, white people are able to tell themselves the lie that black people are happy with the current racial dynamics, thereby enabling themselves to go on oppressing African Americans. By making this point early in the text, Griffin subtly explains why he has chosen to write this book, since only a white man could undertake such a project without putting himself in immediate danger.