It is 1959, and journalist John Howard Griffin is sitting in his office five miles from his home in Mansfield, Texas. After reading a report about the high suicide rate of African Americans in the South, Griffin thinks about the fact that white people claim to have a “wonderfully harmonious relationship” with black people, despite all evidence to the contrary. To learn the “truth” about what it’s like to live in the South as an African American, then, Griffin decides to “become” a black man himself by darkening his skin. Having made this decision, he visits his friend George Levitan, the owner of Sepia magazine. George, for his part, thinks Griffin’s plan is crazy, but he can’t deny that it’s a good idea, so he finances all of Griffin’s expenses in exchange for several articles about the experience. At this point, Griffin discusses the project with his wife, and once she agrees, he meets with several local police officers before he goes. With Levitan, the police officers, and Adelle Jackson (Sepia’s editorial director), Griffin concludes that he shouldn’t change anything about his actual identity other than the way he looks.
Griffin travels to New Orleans and stays with a friend, though he informs his host that he might leave without warning. This is because he doesn’t want to involve his friend in the project, knowing it might attract negative attention once racists hear about it. After visiting a dermatologist, Griffin starts taking pills that darken his skin. He also spends hours at a time under a sun lamp to ensure that his coloration changes enough. Although the dermatologist was onboard with the experiment at first, he begins to have regrets about helping Griffin disguise himself as a black man. Because he can’t do anything to stop him, though, he warns him about the dangers he might face throughout the project, saying a number of racist things even though he claims to believe in “the brotherhood of man.” As such, Griffin encounters this first of many white people throughout this experience that pose as beneficent supporters of equality while simultaneously holding bigoted views and refusing to admit their own prejudices.
When Griffin is finally about to step into public for the first time in his disguise, he looks in the mirror. He has shaved his head and applied stain to his face to enhance the overall effect, and he’s taken aback by the reflection he encounters. “I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being,” he writes, shocked to discover how thoroughly disoriented he feels by the experience.
After spending his first night disguised as a black man in a depressing hotel, Griffin makes his way to a shoeshine stand he’s been frequenting as a white man while in New Orleans. At first, the shoeshine, Sterling Williams, doesn’t recognize him, so Griffin reveals his identity. To Griffin’s relief, Sterling laughs, and then he teaches Griffin how best to present himself in conversation so that nobody will suspect his true identity. He even lets Griffin work for the day at the shoeshine stand—an experience that proves valuable to Griffin’s overall project, as he learns that many white men aren’t afraid to ask black men lewd questions about where to find prostitutes. To that end, Sterling says, “Yeah, when they want to sin, they’re very democratic.”
During his first few days looking like a black man in New Orleans, Griffin eventually finds a clean place to stay near the local YMCA, where he starts visiting a café frequented by a number of intelligent black “civic” leaders. In this café, Griffin has insightful conversations with the owner and other men, speaking at length about the “lack of unity” in the black community. The owner raises important ideas about “economic injustice” and education, suggesting that young black people have no incentive to earn college degrees because they know doing so won’t help them secure good jobs after they graduate. Worse, black people are at a financial disadvantage because they can’t pay taxes very easily (due to unfair employment opportunities), and this enables white people to dictate public policy, since they’re the ones who pay the majority of taxes. This, the owner suggests, is how white society perpetuates patterns of systemic oppression that keep black people disenfranchised.
One morning, Griffin goes to the shoeshine stand, where Sterling tells him that a Mississippi jury opted not to indict a group of white men who lynched Mack Parker, a young black man accused of rape who was taken out of jail before his hearing and killed. Because of this terrible news, everyone in the black community is outraged and in a state of despair, feeling as if Mississippi has effectively told white people that they’re free to do whatever they want to black people without repercussions. Hearing this, Griffin decides he must visit Mississippi himself to gain firsthand experience of the state, which most black southerners agree is the most racist and dangerous state in the country. As such, he goes to the Greyhound station to buy a bus ticket, but the woman at the ticket window refuses to break his ten dollar bill, giving him a “hate stare.” Though she eventually sells him the ticket, she throws the change at him so that it scatters on the floor.
On the bus, Griffin sits in the back with the other black passengers. At one point, a light-skinned black man named Christophe boards and makes disparaging remarks about the other African American passengers, eventually getting into a verbal altercation with another man—a dispute that nearly leads to a physical fight, though Christophe moves to sit next to Griffin before this happens. He then falls into conversation with a reluctant Griffin, saying that he sat next to him because he seems capable of “intelligent” conversation” and admitting that he has disdain for dark-skinned African Americans. He also reveals that he has just gotten out of prison, openly weeps, and says he misses his church community. When Griffin encourages him to return to religion, though, Christophe says he can’t because has to go “shoot up a couple of guys.” With this, he gets off the bus, and everyone is relieved to see him go.
At this point, Griffin gains a new seat-partner: a man named Bill Williams who is kind and helpful, giving Griffin tips about how to stay out of danger in Mississippi. When the bus stops and the driver lets the white passengers off to use the bathroom and stretch their legs, Bill slips out, too, and though the driver calls at him to return, he pretends not to hear. Meanwhile, the driver sends Griffin and the other black passengers back to their seats, refusing to let them off. Upon Bill’s return, the driver asks him why he didn’t stop, but Bill says he couldn’t hear him. After all, Bill points out, the driver was calling out “Boy,” which isn’t his name.
In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Griffin makes his way to the African American part of town, and though Bill has helped him find reliable people who give him what they claim is a safe room, he’s overcome by fear and depression. This is because the entire atmosphere of the town is steeped in an ominous sense of foreboding, as if racially inspired violence could break out at any moment. In keeping with this, a car full of white men slows down and throws a tangerine at Griffin before screaming at him and driving away. Unable to bear this constant state of dread, Griffin calls the only person he knows in the area, a “newspaperman” named P.D. East. Thankfully, P.D.’s wife, Billie, tells him that P.D. will pick him up and that he can stay with them as long as he doesn’t work on his project while he’s at their house. She makes this request because their family has already attracted considerable amounts of negative attention, since P.D. has become an outspoken civil rights advocate. Riding in P.D.’s car, Griffin feels a strange tension and realizes that he has grown accustomed to being on his guard when in the presence of white men. Nevertheless, he manages to relax once he gets to P.D.’s house, where he reads a manuscript of P.D.’s memoir, which tells the story of how he changed his newspaper, The Petal Paper, from a publication that only published what racists wanted to hear to a paper that didn’t shy away from tackling tricky racial issues.
Shortly after Griffin leaves Mississippi, he decides to return, this time hitchhiking through Biloxi. Although he doesn’t get picked up much during the day, he suddenly starts getting rides from white men at night. However, he quickly sees why—these men want to ask him questions about his sex life, since they think that, because he’s black, he’ll have lewd stories that differ from their own sexual experiences. The questions they ask often put him in uncomfortable and dangerous situations, as they urge him to admit that he desires white women—something he knows he shouldn’t admit because it’s generally unsafe for black men to speak this way about white women in the South.
After Griffin’s long night of uncomfortable rides with white men, he finds some respite from racism, as he manages to meet a black man who invites him to his family’s tiny two-room home, where Griffin eats dinner and spends the night. Despite the fact that he has a good time with this family, though, he wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming after having had a nightmare he’s been having rather frequently. In the dream, white people advance upon him as he stands with his back against the wall.
Griffin travels rather extensively throughout the South, encountering a range of compassion and hatred, often benefitting from the kindness of black strangers and feeling overwhelmingly thankful for their willingness to help him navigate through harsh, racist environments. Eventually, his skin begins to lighten enough that he can again present himself as a white man, though there’s a period during which he alternates between both identities, carefully noting how his experience changes depending upon the color of his skin.
When Griffin finally returns home to Texas, Levitan tries to convince him that it might not be worth it for him to go through with his plan to write about the experience, but he refuses to listen. In fact, he even gives a handful of television and radio interviews, ensuring that everyone in the country—and especially everyone in his town—knows about what he’s done. As a result, a group of racists hang a dummy of him in the middle of Mansfield. However, he doesn’t let this intimidate him, standing strong even when an out-of-towner pulls up next to him at a stoplight and tells him that an unidentified group is planning to castrate him. Before long, Griffin moves his family to Mexico, but he himself stays in order to give the racists a chance to attack him like they promised. This, he writes, is because he doesn’t want them to be able to say they “chased” him away. And although the racists promised to castrate him on August 15, they never actually arrive.