‘Black Like Me’ is written from the point of view of a white man, John Howard, during the 1950s, who keeps a journal starting from the year 1959 when he decides to temporarily change his skin color to black in order to have some firsthand experience of the racism African-Americans have to face on a daily basis in the South. At the start of the novel, John is middle-aged and living in a small town in Houston called Mansfield. Although he is empathic to the situation of the black community there, he is unable to help them as one white person. Furthermore, he feels that until he himself is subjected to the racism his peers inflict on these people, he cannot truly sympathize with African-Americans. Thus, he decides to change his skin color through medical treatment for some time being. The treatment is paid for by one of his friends, George Levitan, the editor of a newspaper, Sepia, which has an emphasis on African-American issues in the South. He makes a deal with John; he will bear the continual costs for the treatment and John will pay him back by writing about his observations about the changes in his life due to his transformation into a black man. However, he warns John of the possible repercussions of his actions as he may even unknowingly put his family’s lives in danger.
John moves to New Orleans in order to have his skin colored black to make his transition into an African-American. He decides to not change his name and identity since the transition is only temporary in nature. Before the dying process can start though, he walks around the city as a white man, eating at a restaurant and engaging in other social activities in order to be able to make a comparison later on as a seemingly black man. After each treatment, John’s skin turns one shade darker and he gradually starts to resemble a black man. However, there are side effects such as nausea and dizziness, which is not helped by the racist perception of the doctor who is unable to understand the reason behind John’s actions. Meanwhile, John makes his first black friend, Sterling Williams, a gentle and good-natured shoe-shiner who helps him make connections with the black community in New Orleans.
After the transformation, John is finally able to walk around in the shoes of a black man. He is called names such as ‘nigger’ and experiences hostility everywhere he goes. Sterling helps him get a job as a fellow shoe-shiner since he cannot find a decent job anywhere else despite his qualification from back when he was a respectable white man in Mansfield. He is forced to get accustomed to new rules such as going to a different restroom since blacks cannot use the same restroom as the whites. As a black man, he gets entry into the lives of the black people where he observes the same form of racism. Those with lighter black skin color are biased against the darker tinted people, a fact that perturbs John.
One night, he has an encounter with a white bully in the streets who insults him and harshly teases him until John defends himself by scaring the man away. He remembers his visits to the places in town when he was a white man and when he goes back to them, he is treated differently, often not even given the permission to enter. The fact that he has a decent demeanor and wears gentlemanly clothes does not make a difference.
Having seen everything New Orleans has to offer a black man, John decides to shift to states that have the reputation of being more racist like Mississippi and Alabama. John makes the decision to move to Mississippi after hearing of an incident where an African-American was murdered by a bunch of white racist men but the killers escaped punishment due to the skin color of the victim. He takes a bus trip and during the journey, he witnesses another jolt of racism. The white passengers are permitted to get off the bus during a stop to go to the restroom and take walks but the blacks cannot get off the bus for the entirety of the trip.
When he arrives at his destination, John takes the assistance of a non-racist white friend of his, P.D. East who is a journalist in Mississippi. He stays at East’s home and the two friends discuss the blatant racism in the South, which has been further facilitated by the unfair laws that promote segregation. They both conclude that it is the Southern lawyers and lawmakers who are mainly responsible for the deteriorating state of the African-Americans.
East and John visit an all-black college in Mississippi where John talks to the dean. After conversing with the dean, he learns even more shocking details about the situation in the state such as the fact that black people here are not allowed to enjoy time at the public beaches. Like in New Orleans, John is not hired for work anywhere although some of the white people are sympathetic to his situation. As a black man, John is automatically granted a place within his “ethnic peers” and provided for with food and shelter although he is a stranger. John believes that due to the continual suffrage at the hands of the whites, the blacks have formed a silent big family within themselves. Although they cannot change things, they try to help each other out as brothers and sisters.
The several weeks of being an African-American start to take a toll on John and he starts to resemble other black people as he lives with them, sharing their difficulties. However, he finds a form of strength in his family who supports him and encourages him to go forward with his experience. He leaves Mississippi for Montgomery and while living there, John stops taking his treatment that results in his skin slowly turning white again. He is welcomed back among his original peers and once again notices the major differences between his lifestyle as a white man and as a previously black man. This time, however, he finds himself harboring guilt now that he knows about the extent of the living facilities the other side of the town is being denied. He again starts taking his medicine in order to turn his skin black like before. He keeps reverting back and forth between his original skin while visiting the same places twice in one form and the other. As a white man, he is treated with respect from the white people while the black people are fearful of him; as a black, he is considered trash by the white while the black people welcome him as one of their own.
After his time in Montgomery, John visits Atlanta to experience a different kind of energy among the communities. Racism is less blatant here since the people are more learned and well-knowledgeable in Atlanta and therefore, more sympathetic to the cause. Instead of adding to the problem, the white people in Atlanta are trying to change the laws in the state by defying segregation and the black people are more willing to defend themselves. After staying for some time in Atlanta, John decides to end his travels by taking himself off the medication completely and returns to the starting point of his journey, New Orleans. He takes a few photographs along the way to use as a supplement with his article and finally returns home to Mansfield.
John finishes the article and submits it to George for publishing it but is warned by him again about the treatment he may face from racists after his name appears on the newspaper. Although he receives positive feedback from around the world for his work, his recognition marks him and his family as a threat, as George had predicted. The police are of little help since they do not care about the situation at all.
When things get more extreme, John decides to flee the town with his family, moving to where he is originally from, for the time being. However, in order to guarantee his family’s safety, John shifts to Mexico until the fire has died down. Before his departure, he has a talk with a small black boy who shows his gratitude towards John and tells him that he is considered a member of the black community.
The book ends with the conclusion that, according to John’s observations, racism is not a biological trait but one that has been borne due to the values of the society. Communities must be bound by tolerance and understanding in order to end racism and that it is not only the whites who are biased but also that racism is prevalent among certain black people who hate the whites just as much as they do them. If these feelings are not controlled soon enough, the conditions may worsen too much to be ever ameliorated.