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The major character in the book is the author himself. He is a sincere and sensitive white journalist from Texas. A specialist in race issues, he is persistently haunted by the idea of what it is like to be a Negro in a land where the Negro is shoved down. He begins a scientific research, carefully compiling data for analysis on the racial question, yet he admits that this process does not really probe the changes wrought to the heart and body and mind of the Negro as a result of the crude and cruel white racism practiced on him. He decides to reveal racism in all its rawness, how men not only destroy other men but in the process destroy themselves as well.
Griffin is not just sensitive and sincere. He is also very brave and courageous. This is seen from the fact that he decides to change the color of his skin to black so that he can experience, first hand, what it is like to be a Negro. This is mysterious and frightening, full of terrible dread for him, mentally. Physically also, this is very dangerous and he suffers acute nausea during the process of temporarily transforming into a Negro. Yet, he heroically decides go ahead, and become a real Negro.
Being a Negro is something unimaginable as well as excruciating, especially for a white like him. He is subjected to the shriveling "hate stare," from whites, even when he asks for the basics of life such as water, food, rest, a toilet, shelter, etc. Often, he is cruelly denied of these things completely. This, for him, is a brutal eye-opener, as he has till now only experienced life as a privileged white. Now, even writing a simple letter to his wife is most painful and traumatic, for subconsciously, as a Negro, he cannot show love or affection for a white woman, even his wife.
He also suffers deep despair and hopelessness when he cannot get a job and earn a living in spite of his education. The only work available is backbreaking menial labor where the whites desperately need the Negroes only as beasts of burden.
In spite of facing such hardships, the author is very mature and understanding. This is especially revealed when he meets all kinds of depraved and degenerate whites who only want to discuss sex and sexual matters with him, even against his will. One even asks him to expose himself in the nude because he has never seen a Negro, naked. Even then he does not lose his cool or hit back, but forgives and forgets their aberrations. On the other hand, he even tries to awaken their conscience and convince them about the nobility of the Negro.
During this period a s a Negro, he is also very touched by simple and common Negroes, who show him great kindness and courtesy, amidst all the racist cruelty and atrocities. Some of these blacks, share with him their meager food and lodging, even when Griffin is a total stranger and they are in poverty and squalor themselves. He is even more impressed with the character of the rich and famous Negroes who havenít lost their common touch or forgotten their less fortunate brethren.
His noble spirit would have got crushed and broken if it were not for the few sensitive and sensible whites he meets during his experiment. These whites with a conscience, who are "color blind," help to restore his faith in humanity and democracy, in spite of the bitter violence, hate and antagonism of other whites to him. Then he is also amazed by famous white media men like East, Garroway and Wallace who are deeply committed to the Negro cause and are also ready to pay the price for it.
But his loss of innocence and ignorance occurs when in his own hometown, some white racists hang his effigy on the main street. This racist act comes as a great shock. But he is even more stung when they burn a cross at the Negro school near his home, to terrorize the Negroes. He is upset that innocent Negro children have to pay the price for his actions. But what he finds most painfully scalding is when the local people act blind, deaf and dumb to all the brute violence of the racists.
Finally he leaves the country and migrates to Mexico, only for his familyís sake. But he does not flee as a pessimist but leaves hoping against hope that the masses of Negroes will not turn towards black racism in retaliation to avenge what they have suffered for centuries under white racism. He optimistically hopes that there will not be a still greater holocaust, which, if it happens, will destroy both innocent blacks and whites.