In the 21st century, such a journey requires Hollywood makeup wizardry, the well-honed conventions of reality TV and documentary filmmaking, and two families — one black, one white — acting as undercover race detectives in Southern California.
As superficially different as FX's "Black.White" and Griffin's landmark book "Black Like Me" appear to be, they are brothers under the skin.
"Black.White." leads viewers to a conclusion both obvious and powerful: race counts, for better and worse. Expressions of racism and racial identity change, but that bedrock truth remains.
"I didn't realize, more than anything, how hard it was going to be for whites and blacks to see the world through each other's eyes," said executive producer R.J. Cutler. "I didn't realize how genuinely different an experience it is to be a white American and a black American."
Cutler insisted the six-episode show, which begins March 8 on FX, doesn't "aspire in any way to say definitive things about race." But the participants and their actions do.
In a Los Angeles-area house, "Black.White." brings together Bruno Marcotulli, 47, his wife, Carmen Wurgel, 48, and her daughter Rose Bloomfield, 18, a white family from Santa Monica, and Brian Sparks, 41, wife Renee, 38, and their son, Nick, 17, a black family from Atlanta.
Through artful makeup they swap races, if not perspectives.
"You see what you want to see," Marcotulli says at one point to Brian Sparks, dismissing Sparks' experiences.
"And you don't see what you don't want to see," a frustrated Sparks replies.
(To see the members of both families before and after their transformation, click on the image labeled "Trading Races" at left.)
Cutler, whose documentary films and TV series include the acclaimed "The War Room" and "American High," was joined by Ice Cube, the rapper, actor and producer, on the project proposed by FX Networks President John Landgraf.
"Don't believe the hype, everything in the world ain't black and white. Everybody ain't a stereotype. Just because I look wrong I'm about to do right," Cube sings in the title song. The song also includes his sharp rejection of an oft-cited phrase: "Did you get your race card? Yo, what the hell is a race card?"
His hope for the project was to "expose the subtleties of racism, the layers of racism," the musician said in an interview. "Everybody thinks of a Klan man standing with a shotgun, yelling, 'Keep it white.'
"Everybody is worried about the guy with the black power, leather jacket on, Afro ... worried about those kind of people and not really knowing that racism is not just the obvious."