Richard Rees is a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University.
When John Howard Griffin took his famous journey in 1959 as a temporary Black man, recorded in Black Like Me, he did not seem to be aware, nor is it widely acknowledged, that another white Northerner had already blazed the trail. Others to make the trip since have been Grace Halsell in 1969 and Joshua Solomon, a University of Maryland student, in 1994. But it seems that the first white to pass as Black for journalistic purposes was Ray Sprigle, a 61-year-old writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in 1947.
In 1938, Sprigle made a name for himself by winning a Pulitzer for a series he wrote exposing Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black's membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Nine years later, he once again took up the issue of white racism with an idea from the popular novel and film, "Gentleman's Agreement," in which a reporter poses as a Jew in order to uncover the subtle dynamics of anti-Semitism. In this case, however, the ruse was adapted to discover first-hand the forces of racism experienced by the "Negro" in the South. The results were published first as a twenty-one part series in the Gazette and thirteen other newspapers and then as a pamphlet sensationally titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days." After receiving a Headline Club Award and several offers from publishers, a version of the series was published as In the Land of Jim Crow (1949). The serial boosted circulation for the Gazette and was widely read on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. It even prompted a counter-series in defense of the South. Today such an experiment in "blacking up" may seem suspicious as yet another white appropriation of Black experience. But Ray Sprigle deserves credit for aiding in the post-World War-Two struggle against segregation because his daring stunt helped bring greater awareness to an issue that would soon become the focus of national attention.
Sprigle's disguise raises some interesting questions about the nature of racial ideology in America. Unlike Griffin, neither he nor the chemists he consulted could find a suitable means of turning his skin dark. Experiments with various dyes and chemicals, like walnut juice and iodine, proved failures and Sprigle's only option was to shave his head and get a Florida suntan. Even though his skin remained relatively light, he learned that "much of [his] concern over acquiring a dark skin was wasted worry and effort" because he "encountered scores of Negroes as white as I ever had been back in Pittsburgh" (Crow 22). The ease with which Sprigle was able to "pass" prompted him to reflect on the artificiality of America's racial categories. "I was to learn that the color line that separates the races is an extremely dim and tenuous one. Thousands of Negroes cross that line, back and forth, at will" (Crow 22). Sprigle's considerations on the practice of passing, in both directions, lead him to realize that the perceived differences between skin colors, upon which racism depends, are a product of social interaction rather than nature. As a result, the divisions along the spectrum must be constantly policed -- as his story of a white conductor suggests. Upon mistaking a light-skinned African-American for "white," the conductor insisted the man "git on up in the white coaches," advising him that it was against the law for him to "ride with these niggers" (Crow 5). Sprigle took this anecdote to demonstrate why the imaginary line must be so scrupulously monitored and reasserted:
Probably the conductor hadn't reasoned the thing out thoroughly, but undoubtedly he realized that, come the day when neither he nor any other white could be certain of distinguishing great numbers of the Negroes from their white cousins, Old Jim Crow was in for a terrible lacing. (Crow 5)
Yet despite the caprice with which the line is drawn between black skin and white, Sprigle came to realize the stark reality of the difference between the two worlds. What Sprigle discovered was that stepping across the color line was like stepping through the looking glass. "Now I was black and the world I was to know was as bewildering as if I had been dropped down on the moon" (Negro 1). Walter White, then executive director of the NAACP, guided Sprigle and provided him access to the strange and twisted world of Jim Crow. Unlike Norman Mailer's cavalier and exploitative version of the "Black Experience" ten years later in "The White Negro," Sprigle's account was a serious attempt to document the real material conditions of South Black life.
Many of the people that Sprigle encountered along the way bore witness to the way Black life in the South revolved around sharecropping. Sprigle documented the exploitative conditions that made farming for most little more than slavery in a new form of "grand larceny on a grand scale" (Negro 14). The men who worked the land were given half the value of what they produced minus what they owed for "furnish." The Black sharecroppers he met reported to have earned 30 to 200 dollars annually in the final account. Sprigle also described the impoverished living conditions of most sharecroppers and their families. But Sprigle also discovered a few men who had become prosperous farmers through luck and perseverance. Sprigle also seems to have enjoyed a good meal and occasionally treated the reader to long passages describing the spreads of Southern cooking his hosts provided.
Sprigle let us see how different were white and black worlds when it came to education and medical services. He reserved his most bitter acrimony for the reality of "separate but equal" on those two issues. Comparing a dilapidated Negro schoolhouse, a "leaking old wreck of a shanty," with its neat brick counterpoint for whites in the same county, Sprigle wrote, "So far as the education of little Black American citizens is concerned, that 'equal' in the South's pet catch phrase is a brazen, cynical lie and every white man knows it" (Negro 23). Similar circumstances prevailed in medical services. Many hospitals were white-only and many white doctors refused to treat other than white patients. So Sprigle related several tragic stories in which Blacks were refused emergency medical treatment and died en route to the special "Negro hospitals." One gets a sense of how his disguise might have allowed him and his white readers to empathize a little with their Black fellow citizens when Sprigle realizes the jeopardy his project has put him in: "I could see myself riding around in a Jim Crow ambulance, hunting a Jim Crow hospital while I slowly bled to death" (Negro 28).
Through Sprigle's eyes, white Northerners were exposed, many perhaps for the first time, to the degrading and frequently life-threatening rules of Jim Crow. But we also see how the most routine activity that whites could take for granted, like buying a pair of shoes, dealing with a telephone operator, or swimming in the ocean, could become an almost overwhelming nuisance for a person of color. Sprigle told his readers that at the store, Black Southern women were not allowed to touch, much less try on, a dress before buying it. To try on a hat, a cloth had to be pinned between a Black woman's head and the hat. Sprigle described the reprimanding a person was likely to receive for asking an operator to use "Mr." or "Mrs." to address a party the operator thought was Black. In states like South Carolina and Florida, there were special beaches set aside for Black people but in Georgia, "there's not a single foot where a Negro can stick a toe in salt water" (Negro 30). Sprigle's readers may have been aware of the more blatant outrages of Jim Crow, but many of his white readers may have never considered how segregation was, and perhaps still is, inserted into the details of daily life.
The after-effects of World War Two are evident in Sprigle's account of Jim Crow. He repeatedly used "the master race" to refer to Southern white supremacists to encourage his readers to make the identification with Nazism and fascism. An anecdote about a Black maid who was instructed to take her mistress's poodle swimming at a beach which was off limits to Blacks reminded Sprigle of "the jokes about Hitler that used to be current in Germany and....witticisms at the expense of Stalin, that came out of Russia" (Negro 30). There is also the bitter irony of the Black soldier who risked his life to defeat fascism and racism in Europe only to find apartheid waiting for him when he returned stateside. Sprigle recounted the story of PFC Maceo Yost Snipes from Georgia who returned only to be reminded in no uncertain terms that Blacks would not be allowed to vote. The warning that the first Negro to vote would be killed only strengthened his determination, so Snipes stunned the election board by showing up and filling out a ballot. But as Sprigle put it, it was a dead man that voted and "the white folks just let him walk around another week before they buried him" (Crow 94). He was called from his house and shot while his murderers were found innocent on the usual grounds of "justifiable homicide in self-defense."
Among the most interesting aspects of Sprigle's journal are the effects it had on his own racial identity. Sprigle's attempt to see America from the Black point of view permanently altered his sense of his own whiteness.
In weeks to come I was to become seriously concerned about the psychological change that was taking place in me. There were to be nights when I would sit for hours listening to grim tales of injustice and cruelty and the wanton shedding of blood, so that I began to be worried over the problem of turning my mind "white" again. To tell the truth, I doubt if I will ever regain the satisfied, superior white psychology that I took South with me. (Crow 15)
It is still useful to anti-racist "white" people today to consider Sprigle's brief but intense exposure to whiteness from a non-white perspective. His brush with what it might be like to be Black in a white supremacist society alienated him from his routine psychological identification with that group. "These whites already were a people entirely alien to me, a people set far apart from me and my world" (Negro 5). At least momentarily, his normal unreflected association with the white majority underwent a significant and positive change.
It is not surprising that the reactions to this
race traitor were quick and numerous. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
publisher William Block said that no series had ever received more attention
(Brennan). While "about 70% were critical of his stand," only
one threatened violence -- a man in Rhode Island promised Sprigle a
horsewhipping. Sprigle claimed to be surprised by the degree of the
negative reaction and his reply seems a little evasive and contradictory.
"I didn't intend to be a crusader," he said in response, "I
had no desire to champion the cause of the Negro. All I was interested
in was to see that justice was done to a group that is grossly oppressed"
We might attribute Sprigle's ignorance of structural racism to the limitations of a white liberal position. While able to protest the blatant abuses of legalized apartheid, Sprigle's perspective deserves criticism for its inability to detect the more subtle and often invisible mechanisms of institutional and cultural racism that continue to characterize American society on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Nor should Sprigle escape the sort of criticism that Eric Lott has brought to bear on John Howard Griffin. That is, we need to consider the degree to which his project perpetuated the legacy of American blackface. The experiment itself implied a disregard for a long tradition of African American writers who had spoken quite eloquently of their own conditions. The implicit need for white verification of Black experience offered the same insult and racist thinking that Sprigle attempted to expose. At its worst, Sprigle's cooptation of "the Black experience" to sell newspapers might be criticized as parallel to the way minstrel shows coopted the image of the African American to sell tickets.
Still, of course, there are differences between Sprigle's project and the tradition of blackface. The effect of his work was to expose himself and his readers to the conditions of Black Americans more than to exploit them. In fact, it might be argued that Sprigle represented a break in the tradition of black face. We might see Sprigle's contribution in terms of a moment of self-reflection in which whiteness attempted to examine itself, albeit in limited ways, from the position of the Other. In any case, he is to be recognized for his initiative in discovering what white Americans are slow to learn: that the Black experience is fundamentally different from white because the assurances of justice and fairness, limited and tentative as they may be for most people in a capitalist society, have even less meaning in the life of African Americans. Given the limitations of the white liberal position, Sprigle's work shows a rare degree of empathy in white American letters. He used his byline to advocate voting rights and educational reform for African Americans, major planks in the civil rights platform. Though his concerns as an investigative reporter for liberal reform were not devoted exclusively to the fight against racism, and his blackface experience may have lost its strategic utility, anti-racists should remember Ray Sprigle for his courageous efforts to expose and discredit white supremacy.
Brennan, Edwin F. "Sprigle Series Stirs Letters, Lecture, Book." Editor and Publisher 2, Oct. 1948: 26.
Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. New York: Signet, 1960.
Halsell, Grace. Soul Sister. New York: World, 1969.
Lott, Eric. "White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness." Eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease. Cultures of Imperialism. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Mailer, Norman. "The White Negro." Advertisements for Myself. New York: Andre Deutsch, 1964.
Solomon, Joshua. "Reliving 'Black Like Me': My Own Journey Into the Heart of Race-Conscious America." Washington Post 30 Oct. 1994.
Sprigle, Ray. "I was a Negro in the South for Thirty Days." Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1948.
---. In the Land of Jim Crow. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1949.