“Black Like Me” is the story of John Howard Griffin’s seven week journey of living as a black man in the deep south during the late 1950’s. Racism, segregation and oppression were still prevalent in the south during these times. Griffin is a white man from Texas who decides that the only way to understand the situation of racism in the south is to experience it, first hand, as a black man.
John Howard Griffin went to a dermatologist and received a medication to assist him in darkening the pigmentation of his skin. He also used sun lamps and then finished the process by using a stain on his skin. When he was done with this process, he successfully made himself appear as a black man. Even as he looked in the mirror, he hardly recognized himself; he was no longer saw himself as the same man, his past had been almost erased and he felt he was now like a new man with a new identity (pg 10-11).
He begins his time as a Negro man in New Orleans. There he makes one friend with whom he can confide the truth of his identity, a shoe shiner who works a stand on the side of the road in the city. With some advice from this man, and a few helpful others, he is able to find places to temporarily live and also places to eat, drink, and use the restroom. During this time in the south, segregation allowed many businesses to deny access to their services or facilities simply because the person was black.
John Howard Griffin experienced, first hand, the prejudices and assumptions places on black citizens of the south. He was forced to go long periods of time without anything to eat or drink simply because there was no place close enough that would allow him to enter. He had to walk blocks, sometimes miles, to find restrooms he was allowed to use. There were even places that would willingly accept his money and sell him food or other products, but would still deny him access to the restroom.
He traveled to other cities as well, such as Hattiesburg, Biloxi, and Mobile in Mississippi, Montgomery, Tuskegee, and Auburn in Alabama, Atlanta in Georgia, and others. He did the majority of his traveling either by bus or hitchhiking. Even while simply trying to get from city to city, Griffin encountered troubles he wouldn’t have had to deal with is he had retained his physical appearance and identity as a white man. He had store clerks deny his travelers checks, he had a clerk at the bus station tell him they could not make change for his ten dollar bill, only to eventually take the bill anyway, he went a full day without eating while hitchhiking and had to practically beg for entrance to a highway-side store just to buy some snacks and juice. While hitchhiking, although he meets a couple of decent people, most of the people who pick him up are white men who assume that, because he is black, he is surely some kind of sexual deviant and has a vast knowledge of the types of sex.
After facing the problem of racism face first and getting opinions from men, both black and white, all over the south, he transforms himself back to the whit John Griffin. Initially he spends the days switching between the black and white appearances. Afterwards he switches his appearance back to white for the last time and returns home. He decides, against advice, to publish his findings and make it known that racism is, in fact, a problem and that it needs to be looked at and somehow solved. By publishing his work Griffin did make himself a target of threats and prejudices, but the majority of the feedback was positive. People agreed with his viewpoints and wanted to know how to solve the problem, how to assist in ending racism and oppression in the United States.
John Howard Griffin wound up working all over the country, helping to bridge the gap between the black and white societies. He would do his best to spread the viewpoint that the most important way to solve the problems between blacks and whites was to get the two groups communicating. White leaders of that time didn’t understand that the best people to ask about the problems of black society would be the black leaders and citizens of those societies (pg 176-180). Griffin worked until his death to bridge that gap in communication to the best of his abilities.
Some of the most interesting and striking moments of Griffin’s story come from his conversations with white men when they believe he is a black man. In these different passages these men prove not only that they are ignorant to the rights of all human beings, but also that they aren’t even aware of their ignorance. These men believe that the things they say and think are the only truth there is to be had and that blacks are second-class citizens and couldn’t possibly know what is best for the whole of the country or how to be productive assets to society. It is the ignorance of these men, even when they claim to be unbiased or to believe in the equal rights of all men, that prove how unaware of the true issue many people were.
One man, who seems to be a knowledgeable and decent man, actually asks John Howard Griffin to expose himself to the man because he has never seen the genitals of a black man before and is curious as to how different they are compared to those of a white man. In discussion prior to this event the man proves that he believes he is open-minded to the lives of the black man, but it quickly becomes clear to Griffin that the man is not really much better than any of the other ignorant men who have picked him up. As Griffin says, “He was so obtuse he did not realize the implied insult in his astonishment that a black man could do anything but say “yes sir” and mumble four-letter words” (pg 89). The man is amazed that a black man could speak as intelligently Griffin and was not in any way embarrassed to express his amazement. Although he thinks he is an unbiased and tolerant man, he truly has many prejudices that he fails to notice.
Another man who picks Griffin up while he is hitchhiking from Mobile, Mississippi into Alabama has the courtesy to give Griffin a ride, and “looked decent,” but had no reservations when he said “with lightness, a paternal amusement, “She ever had it from a white man?”” (pg 102). This man tells John Howard Griffin that he won’t give any black woman a job unless she has sex with him first, he says “If they don’t put out, they don’t get the job” (pg 103). He feels that there is nothing wrong with regarding women in such a way, simply because the women he is talking about are black. And although the typical white man of the time wouldn’t talk in such a manner, he believes that a black man doesn’t deserve to be shown any higher decency. As far as this man is concerned, black men don’t have any inhibitions regarding sex and don’t deserve to be spoken to as intelligent, respectable men. Also, he believes that black people should stay “in their place,” as people of the time often said. So, according to this belief, it would be unwise of a black man to disagree with the white man, or else the white man might feel that the black man needs to be “taught a lesson” (pg 104).
Another passage that strikes me as unbelievable today, but is representative of situation between whites and blacks in the 1950’s and 1960’s is when a white man, who is supposedly in Tuskegee observing and doing research on black men and black culture, approaches Griffin outside the Tuskegee Institute. The man initially seems like a decent man, kind enough, although obviously drunk. He asks Griffin to have a drink with him and when Griffin declines, thinking the Klan may harm them both, the man says “Wait a minute, dammit. You people are my brothers. It’s people like me that are your only hope. How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?” (pg 128). When Griffin declines the offer the man continues to push for them to go drinking together and makes a scene to which Griffin remarks “Though I knew he had been drinking, I wondered that an educated man and an observer could be so obtuse-could create such an embarrassing situation for a Negro” (pg 128). The man creates a situation that is uncomfortable to Griffin. As another black man approaches the scene of this conversation in his car and offers to sell Griffin turkeys, the man causes an even bigger scene about buying the turkeys. The vendor realizes this man has nowhere to put the turkeys and questions the sale, leading the white man to ask if the turkeys are stolen or if the seller thinks he is a cop. “The white man, despite his protestations of brotherhood, had made the first dirty suggestion that came to his mind — He had become just like the whites he decried” (pg 130).
The most interesting lesson I learned from this book, and something that is apparent in the striking passages I chose to discuss, is the fact that so many people were truly unaware of their ignorance. There are examples of this evident in both white people and black people of the time. Many white men believed they were open-minded, tolerant, and helpful in regards to the situation of racism and prejudice in the south, but really believed the blacks weren’t as intelligent or capable of white men, or that the blacks were happy with the lives they were living, or that they were in their “rightful place” in the order of things. These men did not realize that their opinions were oppressive and biased. Similarly there were black men who did not want to communicate with white men, they allowed themselves to believe that all white citizens were the same. There were even some black men that were called “Uncle Toms” who believed that black people worked against themselves. One man says this to John Howard Griffin in New Orleans at a caf©, “Until we as a race can learn to rise together, we’ll never get anywhere. That’s our trouble. We work against one another instead of together” (pg 32). It’s interesting to learn that not only the white people of the time sometimes had racist positions and also that many black people were convinced their race was working against itself.
“Black Like Me” helped me to understand the relationship between the two “races” of whites and blacks. Understanding the history of the relationship and where it came from, allows one to better understand how it became the way it is. By grasping the transitions in this relationship, it makes understanding the final outcome quite easier. Black people in those times felt highly oppressed and even worthless and defeated at times. Understanding why they felt that way then can lead one to understand how many people could still feel the pains of that prejudice today. Segregation and racism in the history of the south will likely always play a role in current
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. “Black Like Me” caught my interest and taught me several things about racism in the 1950’s and 1960’s that I would not have learned or realized before. John Howard Griffin sheds a new light on the problems of the times. This is the most in-depth novel I have ever read about segregation and racism and I have recommended it to several people and will continue to do so. I believe everybody has something to gain from this book, whether it be knowledge, a new perspective, or a better understanding of relationships between races and different ethnic groups. I highly respect John Howard Griffin for the courage he showed by taking this personal journey and more people should know about his bravery and use it as a way to motivate themselves to be more open-minded in their daily lives.