I’ve been nursing this idea for a story for a long time: a journalist with a strong family history of melanoma decides to undertake gene therapy to darken his skin and protect against ultraviolet DNA damage. To help pay for the process, he signs a contract with his publisher to tour the southern states of the US and record his experiences as a black man. I still think it’s a great idea for a story. The problem is, I recently discovered that not only has the story already been written, it was non-fiction.
In 1959, novelist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin using methoxsalen (a drug used to treat vitiligo) and 15-hour sessions in a tanning bed. Once he had achieved the necessary level of pigmentation, he travelled by Greyhound bus and hitch-hiking through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, recording his experiences and eventually publishing his account as Black Like Me. The book was filmed in 1964, with one of my favourite actors (James Whitmore from Them!, although he’s probably better known nowadays for The Shawshank Redemption). The movie flopped badly.
In a way, I’m glad Black Like Me already exists. Since I’ve never visited the southern US states, it would be easy to make awful mistakes and even where I had written pitch-perfectly, it would have been easy for critics to complain that I had made awful mistakes. Instead, I’ll do my little bit to make people aware of Griffin’s book.