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John Howard Griffin (JHG) is a specialist for the hard life of Negroes in the south of the USA in the 1950s. His idea is to change the color of his skin for being able to experience the discrimination on his own. He visits George Levitan, one of his old friends and owner of the magazine SEPIA. After discussing the idea, Levitan pays for all the expenses for changing JHGs skin color and his trip through the south of the USA. He flies to Louisiana to meet doctors which can finally help him to find the fitting medicine to change the color of his skin from white to black. The therapy for changing his skin color has started, he takes special pills and as to sit under a sun lamp. The doctors tests were all positive and there will be no problems for JHG to change from white to black and back to white. The doctor likes the project.
Unfortunately the treatment does not work as rapidly as expected. After everything is said between JHG and the doctor, the doctor sends him with the words Now you go into obliviton away. Now JHG is on his own in New Orleans and stays in different hotels where he continues his treatment. During he finished it, he only steps out at night. Then he can finally start his observations which succeed immediately: Everybody thinks that he is a Negro, he makes his first experiences with the segregation, like bathrooms only for white men. He meets many other Negroes and talks to them about the discrimination. JHG goes from his hotel to the ghetto, were he tries how it is to get along with the people living there.
On his way he finds out that he must NEVER take a look at white women. In the ghetto he meets Sterling, who becomes his friend. His work is to shine shoes of white men. JHG works together with him and gets to know how the white people are behaving when their shoes are being shone by a boy: For them, the Negro is nothing but a thing. For lunch the eat together with Joe, another Negro. He cooks a mixture of coon, turnips and rise, they eat on the sidewalk out of cut-down milk cartons. JHG gets to know the classes in the ghetto: the lowest eat the rests of the ones who work to get at least a little bit of food.
The night he stays - how so often - in the YMCA which serves Negroes. There he meets many Negroes to talk with. In the evening he is being chased by a white bully, but he is lucky and the boy leaves him alone after a while. JHG is looking for jobs, as a nicely dressed Negro he wants to discover what he can get. But everywhere he goes it is the same pattern: Nobody wants him. He lives and eats together with Sterling and Joe, he is very-well treated by even Negroes which he does not know.
Every Negro he meets is extremely helpful to him. At the YMCA he meets Mr. Gayle, an elderly Negro. They talk about the segregation and the taxes against the Negroes, and how the leaders of the whites try to keep the Negroes where they are. He can not eat in the restaurants that he has been eating in the week before, and while sitting in a park he is sent away by a white man. In the evening he is going by bus, the driver does not let him get off until some white passengers want to get off.
After being a Negro for one week, JHG becomes used to not being able to use available restroom facilities and being called nigger, coon or jigaboo. He knows that all this is not against his person or character but his pigmentation. But each reminder strikes at the wound and deepens it, he does not only know it from himself but also sees it at other Negroes. Bad news reaches him from Sterling: In Mississippi, a white man who has killed a Negro has been found innocent by the jury. In this time, Mississippi is considered to be the state with the most discrimination. JHG decides to go there and to discover how it really is, even if everybody asks him not to go because it is dangerous.
It is Saturday and because he has no money for the bus, JHG wants to cash some of his traveler checks at a shop because the banks are closed. After trying it in many stores - nobody wants to help him - he is finally successful in a catholic bookstore. When he wants to buy the bus ticket, he gets to know the "hate-stare". The woman does not want to take his $10 bill, she says she would have no change. After discussing with her he gets his ticket to Hattiesburg. On the way, the bus driver does not want to let the Negroes get off the bus for going to the bathroom, and JHG meets Christophe, who tells him how not to behave in Mississippi as a Negro.
When he arrives he takes a cab to a Negro ghetto where he stays in a hotel. In the evening he meets with P.D., an old friend, who takes him to his home to stay there for a few days. P.D. is into the whole race problem and discusses with him and lets him read his manuscripts all night. Tired from reading JHG gets up. The whole day he reads manuscripts and discusses, and again he reads the whole night about racist and the segregation.
The next day, P.D. brings him to New Orleans, to meet Mr. Gandy, a man he works with. Together with him, JHG discusses his observations. In the evening he buys his ticket to go back to Mississippi, but his bus to Biloxi goes late, so he walks through the for Christmas decorated New Orleans before he leaves. He arrives late in Biloxi and has to sleep outside, half-freezing.
After having lunch in the next morning, he starts to hitch-hike to Mobile. Almost the whole day he has to walk, he gets only one ride. But after it gets dark, he begins to get rides. Soon he knows why the white men pick him up: They use him as a verbal pornographic book. They all want to know how the blacks h ....
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