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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

April 11–August 17, 1960

March 23–April 7, 1960

Analytical Overview

Summary

After a few days with the Turners, Griffin and his family move back into their own home. He continues to receive letters of support and praise from all over the world. But the people of Mansfield continue to treat him with hostility. Some of them express their hostility openly, such as the white hate group that hung him in effigy, but most simply express their hostility by refusing to speak out against such acts of hatred and violence. This disheartens Griffin, who thinks that the people who tolerate hatred are partially to blame for its terrible consequences.

By mid-June, Griffin has received more than 6,000 letters, all but nine of which have been positive and supportive. To Griffin's surprise, he receives many letters of support from Southern whites, who confide in him that they do not hate blacks at all, but simply tolerate racism because they are afraid of the real racists. But even though more than two months have passed since the interview's publication, Griffin continues to receive glares of hatred everywhere he goes in Mansfield.

By mid-August, Griffin has decided that he can no longer subject himself and his family to the hostility of the white racists in Mansfield. He decides to move his family and his parents to Mexico, at least for the time being. He packs up his house and wanders through his empty office, feeling exhausted and empty. A few days later, a young black boy comes over to help him pack up his parents' house. The young man is uninhibited in his speech around Griffin, feeling, along with many local blacks, that he is one of them. He tells him that he cannot bear it when white children call him "nigger," and asks Griffin if his own children are racists. Griffin says no and tells the boy that no one is born a racist. Rather, he says, they are taught racial hatred as they grow up. He says that he would never let his children develop in that way.

As he talks to the young man, Griffin again realizes that blacks do not understand whites any better than whites understand blacks. He thinks about the recent rise in black racism, Negro groups that claim the black race is superior to the white race. After all his experiences, Griffin thinks that this idea is just as ugly and just as dedicated to hatred as white racism. Griffin hopes that as they rise up to seek equality, black Americans will prove capable of nobler feelings than the thirst for revenge; he thinks that only through tolerance and understanding will America prevent a terrible outpouring of violence.

Commentary

The unfortunate hostility received by Griffin gives him the opportunity to reflect on the behavior of people who are not racists themselves, but who are bullied by their societies into going along with or tolerating racist practices. Griffin believes that this cowardly behavior is the secret behind the pervasiveness of American racism. Even in the South, he does not believe that the majority of whites feel hatred toward blacks, simply that they do not speak out against those who act on their hatred, creating a general climate of racist oppression and violence. The people who silently condemn him in Mansfield are much the same, and in the end, Griffin is forced to move his family to Mexico.

Griffin uses the final scene of Black Like Me, his conversation with the black boy at his parents' house, to offer explicit commentary on the main themes of the book, and to issue a general plea for racial tolerance and understanding. Noting the rise of black supremacists like Malcolm X, who maintained that the black race is superior to the white race, Griffin states emphatically that black supremacy is just as bad as white supremacy, that the evil of racism is simply the declaration that an arbitrary feature of one's appearance is the defining factor in one's identity, and that people who happen to look one way are inherently better than people who happen to look another way. Noting this trend, as well as the current of repressed anger he senses in black society, Griffin pleads for people to learn to act with tolerance and love; otherwise, he fears, an out and out racial war is bound to break out, one which will destroy America.

Of course, as the history of racial conflict in America since the time of Griffin's writing has made more than clear, simply choosing a public embrace of tolerance and understanding does not solve racial inequities or the problems of racial prejudice. The black nationalist movements against which Griffin rails stemmed from the horrific treatment of black Americans at the hands of a dominant white system under which racial inequity continues to perpetuate to this day. Nevertheless, Griffin's writing remains an important reminder of the crushing effects of racism, and his closing plea is a passionate attempt to inspire people to create a better world.

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