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'Soul Sister': A Look Back At The Fraught Attempt At Empathy


The protests that began after George Floyd's death have led to a broad reckoning about racism in this country. Many white people are asking themselves what it means to be anti-racist. Historically, efforts by whites to empathize with the black experience have been fraught. Today we take a look back at one of those efforts.


In 1969, Grace Halsell, a white journalist, published her book "Soul Sister." It was about her attempt to live as a black woman in the United States. The book sold over a million copies. She was inspired by John Howard Griffin's book "Black Like Me." Now Radio Diaries brings us the story of "Soul Sister." And just a warning - this story contains mention of sexual assault.


WESLEY SOUTH: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? My name is Wesley South, and this is the "Hotline." Tonight we have a guest. Grace Halsell is a white woman turned herself black and went to live and work in Mississippi. First question - I'd like to know just what made you go through this experience.

GRACE HALSELL: Well, first, I don't think any white person can really ever imagine what it is to be black in this country. I certainly didn't know. And...

ALISHA GAINES: A white woman changes her whole body brown for six months. My name is Alisha Gaines. I'm the author of "Black For A Day: White Fantasies Of Race And Empathy."

ROBIN KELLEY: My name is Robin Kelley, and I am writing the biography of Grace Halsell. I've gotten a lot of flack, actually, for writing this book. It's like, why would a black man write a book about this white woman who tries to pretend to be black?


SOUTH: How did you change your color from white to black?

HALSELL: Well, I did it with a medication pill that one can take.

GAINES: She's prescribed vitiligo corrective treatment that basically allowed her skin to absorb more sunlight.


HALSELL: I could see a very drastic change just day by day. And on the ninth day, I actually saw a black woman. And she was me.

GAINES: She put on a shabby dress and tied a kerchief over her hair, and off she went on her adventure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Soul Sister" by Grace Halsell.

(Reading) I will no longer carry my identity card that has always provided me with special status - white American, member of the club. I will be going to a black country, beseeching, let me come in. Accept me as one of you, a black among blacks.


CARVER RANDLE: This is the address - 291 Roosevelt Street, where Grace Halsell lived when she was here in Indianola.

My name is Carver A. Randle. I knew ahead of time why she was here. I was president of the NAACP in Sunflower County, Miss. Best I recall, she was about 5'7". Her skin was real rough and deep brown. You know, I thought was strange - in '68, posing as a black woman. It was dangerous. She could have been killed very easily. And if somebody engaged in something that they know is dangerous, to me, that's either a fool or a brave person. In my opinion, she was a little of both.


HALSELL: One, two, three - this is Tuesday, November the 19.

KELLEY: When Grace was doing the research for "Soul Sister," she used a cassette recorder, and she would record her thoughts.


HALSELL: I was struck very forcefully riding on the bus yesterday. White people never seem to see the Negro that's it's like being tuned out completely.

KELLEY: And she would record interviews with the people she meets.


HALSELL: Tell me a little bit about what you were saying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They treat you - well, you're black, and you're just going to have to be back here. This is your place here.

HALSELL: Everyone, tell her name.

JOYCE MOULTON: Joyce Moulton (ph) 16.

My name is Joyce Moulton.


MOULTON: Captain tried to make me say, yes, sir; no, sir, to him.

Grace interviewed me in 1968. Guess what? I thought she was black. I didn't know Grace was white until I read the book. Wow. Hello, Grace (laughter).

KELLEY: In addition to interviewing and hanging out with people, she participates in a number of demonstrations. She comes up with this idea of trying to integrate a white church.

RANDLE: And she wanted to take some young black people with her. They went in the church, and they stopped a whole service.

KELLEY: Grace also gets a job as a domestic worker, basically cleaning white women's homes.

RANDLE: She'd make all the white folks' beds, wash all the dishes, the dirty clothes.

KELLEY: She ends up working for a family called the Wheelers, and it's a key moment.

MOULTON: She was working, and the white lady had went somewhere. And the husband was at home. He called her upstairs, and when she got up there, he tried to rape her.

GAINES: So she kind of wiggles an arm free and is able to pull the family portrait down onto Mr. Wheeler's head, and that gives her enough time to escape. Ultimately, she went back to whiteness after this incident. The project is over. She goes back home to Washington, D.C., and begins writing "Soul Sister."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: WGRT - the now sound of super soul in Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Welcome to "Rap Session" with your host, Daddy-O Daylie.

DADDY-O DAYLIE: Our guest today is Miss Grace Halsell. And Grace...

KELLEY: When the book came out, it was a runaway bestseller. White liberals and a surprising number of black people praised the book. But it was also very controversial.


DAYLIE: You're on the air. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Well, Miss Halsell, when you went to Mississippi and changed the color of your skin, was this for personal gain or - why did you do this?

HALSELL: I did it to learn what it's like. I know black people don't have anything to learn from this book because you know what being black is.


HALSELL: But I'm hoping that white people can relate to me and identify with me and live through my experiences and...

GAINES: Remember; "Soul Sister" comes out in 1969. We are now firmly in a black power moment. Black women are writing about themselves, and so Halsell's timing was just off.


SOUTH: This is the "Hotline." Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Miss Halsell, I have some serious misgivings about your book. I cannot really believe that any white person would not know how Negroes are treated when it's the white people who are doing the treating - doing the mistreating. May I have your comment on that, please?

HALSELL: Believe me; my intentions are good. Believe me; I didn't do it to make...

DOROTHY GILLIAM: My name is Dorothy Gilliam, and I was the first African American female reporter at The Washington Post. In 1969 I was asked to review "Soul Sister." I wrote these words. (Reading) I am instantly repulsed by the audacity of Miss Halsell, after a few months of a half-masquerade, to call herself soul sister.

Her motivations were probably quite positive - trying to stir up empathy. But I think she was just so imbued with her whiteness that she didn't understand anything.

GAINES: As a black person reading "Soul Sister," it's deeply uncomfortable because she traffics in so many stereotypes. She also assumes that black womanhood is nothing but a story about suffering.


SOUTH: Let's continue, Grace. May I call you Grace?

HALSELL: Yes, please.

SOUTH: The mentality of the man who attempted to rape you - tell me a little about that.

HALSELL: Well, the thing that was so really horrifying to me as a black woman was the way white men looked at me.

KELLEY: Now, the problem is as I dig through the archival record, through her own papers, it became clear to me that the story of a white man nearly raping her probably never happened. She was a copious note-taker. She took notes on everything. And there's no notes. There's nothing about this encounter. It doesn't pop up until she's writing the book. I think that this was a story invented after she had done her research and collected her data. You know, she'd heard stories about this. So in the book, how can she convey it unless it happens to her? That's my theory.

GAINES: I don't think we'll ever really know if that did or didn't happen. I will say this. I have always thought that the attempted rape scene was very convenient. But at the end of the day, women are often accused of making up these types of stories even when we don't.


SOUTH: And I say we have to discontinue this. We're about a minute over despite some of our listeners. They have a right to express their opinion.

HALSELL: Well, sure - very good points.

SOUTH: I say good luck to you on "Soul Sister."

HALSELL: Thank you.

SOUTH: Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow night we will be discussing...

KELLEY: After "Soul Sister," Grace continued to return to the book as a model.

GAINES: She publishes "Bessie Yellowhair." In that book, she has turned herself into a Navajo woman.

KELLEY: She then writes "The Illegals" as a Mexican undocumented worker.

GAINES: She found her calling, I guess.

KELLEY: She published 11 books. They're all about what it means to live in other people's shoes and other people's lives, and that's part of what she thought about as empathy. I think what she did, for all the faults, was a courageous thing.

GAINES: Courageous? I would call her adventurous. Grace Halsell deeply believed that if we all understood each other, then racism would be over. But that's not how this works. The problem with empathy is that it's seductive enough that people think it's enough.

KELLEY: I think I may be the only scholar on the planet who's somewhat sympathetic to Grace Halsell. Grace made a choice to run toward the minefield of race rather than run away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Nothing in my experience has prepared me for going to the South as a black woman, to bear for one minute in time what every black American bears all his life - discrimination, segregation, injustice.

RANDLE: I need to go back and read that book again. I like Grace, but I don't think Grace had a notion of what it was like to live as a black person - no way (laughter), no way. I've been black all my life, but, you know, there's a lot I don't know about me.

CHANG: The late civil rights activist Carver Randle talking about journalist Grace Halsell. She died in 2000 at the age of 77.

KELLY: This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries with help from Joe Richman and Nellie Gillis. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Kate Kramer