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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

November 2–8, 1959

October 28–November 1, 1959

November 10–15, 1959

Summary

After an extensive search, Griffin finds a dermatologist who is willing to help him change his skin color. The doctor consults several colleagues, and they settle on a method of ultraviolet radiation combined with oral medication designed to darken his skin pigmentation. The dermatologist says that this method could take as long as three months. Griffin says that this is too slow, and insists on accelerating the treatment. After he begins the treatment, Griffin has a conversation with the friend at whose home he is staying. The friend is an enlightened white man opposed to racism, but Griffin still decides not to tell him about his plan. He simply warns him that his secret journalistic assignment could require him to vanish, without saying goodbye, at any time. Alone, Griffin wanders through the teeming, impoverished black section of New Orleans, trying to determine how best to enter this intimidating world once the process of his transformation is complete. He feels that he will need a contact, a Negro who is willing to help him assimilate into black culture—but he is not sure how he will find one.

The medical procedure Griffin is undergoing is neither tested nor safe and he experiences painful side effects to the ultraviolet light and to the medication. After four days, he has bouts of intense nausea and acute anxiety. His discomfort heightens when the dermatologist reveals his own latent racism in his conversations with Griffin. The doctor insists that lighter-skinned Negroes are more moral and more trustworthy than darker-skinned ones. He also claims that, as a race, blacks are inherently violent. He describes watching a knife fight among a group of New Orleans Negroes to back up his claim. Griffin is appalled that an educated, liberal man could indulge in such hateful fallacies.

After scouting out the black section of New Orleans, Griffin is at last able to make a contact: Sterling Williams, an old man who shines the shoes of white people. Williams is engaging and articulate, and Griffin likes him immediately. He tells Williams that he is a journalist who has traveled to New Orleans to write about the conditions of the Negroes, but for now, he keeps his larger plan a secret.

On November 7, Griffin's treatment has come to an end and the doctor is troubled by the side effects that Griffin has experienced. The doctor makes him promise to contact him if anything else should go wrong. Griffin shaves his head and applies a stain to his skin to make it even darker. He gazes at himself in the mirror and immediately begins to panic: he does not recognize himself at all, but feels as though his identity has been swallowed up by another person. Even his wife and children, he thinks, would simply see him as an anonymous black man.

Full of anxiety and trepidation, Griffin goes out into New Orleans for the first time as a black man. He rides a trolley and is forced to sit at the back. He goes into a drugstore, and realizes that, though he is the same man he always was, he is now forbidden from ordering a drink at the soda fountain. Griffin checks into the cramped and dingy Sunset Hotel, located in the black part of New Orleans. Everywhere, whites seem to look at him with suspicion and hostility. Griffin's only comfort is that blacks, both in the hotel and on the trolley, seem to treat him with solidarity and kindness, accepting him as one of their own. Griffin has his first sense of how human love and affection can resist the conditions of oppression and hatred.

The next day, Griffin rides a crowded bus to the Negro YMCA, where he hopes he will be able to find a room. On the bus, he starts to offer the seat next to him to a white woman. The other black passengers look amazed that any black man could be so stupid, as white passengers would rather stand than sit next to blacks. Griffin goes to find Sterling Williams, who does not recognize him. When Griffin carefully tells Williams his secret, the old man is delighted and offers to help him in any way he can. Griffin says that he wants to shine shoes, and Williams agrees to let him work at the stand with Williams and his partner Joe. Noticing that Griffin has light hair on his hands, Williams takes him to a Negro toilet to shave his hands, helping to preserve the secret of his identity. The men share a meal of raccoon and rice, and though Williams is at first shocked by the crudeness of the food, he quickly realizes that simply having enough to eat is a mark of dignity to Williams and Joe.

Griffin spends the day working at the shoeshine booth, where he is plunged into the reality of life as a black man. He learns that whites are so indifferent to his presence that they readily ask him where they can pick up black girls, treating him as if he lacks the capacity for moral judgment. He learns that, because of segregation, drinking fountains and toilets are very hard to find. One black man tells him that the smell of the ghetto is so pungent that he often takes trips into the white part of town simply to smell the clean air and look at the houses. In the YMCA coffee shop, a man explains to him that whites even manage to foster racism within the black community by favoring light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned ones. This creates such division that many blacks even come to hate their own race. All day long, Griffin seems to hear the word "nigger" everywhere he goes, and he finds its implications almost unbearable.

That night, as he walks through the city looking for a place to eat dinner, Griffin is stalked by a predatory white man. The man torments him, calling him names and threatening him. Griffin tries to get away, but the man follows him. Griffin's tension mounts until at last he turns to confront the stalker. Griffin has been trained in the martial art form called judo, and the white man runs away. But Griffin is left to wonder whether the man would have bothered him if he were still white.

Commentary

The first section of Black Like Me took Griffin from Texas to New Orleans, opening with his original idea to change races and taking him to the moment when he was ready to put his plan into action. This section focuses on the implementation of his plan, as he arrives in New Orleans, finds a doctor to help him, and begins making his first tentative efforts to explore and understand the black community. A great deal happens in this section and by the end of the November 8 entry, Griffin has made a contact in the black community (Sterling Williams), changed his appearance into that of a black man, and moved from the white world into the black world.

Griffin tends to divide his diary entries between describing narrative events and reflecting on them, between telling his story and offering a commentary on what it means and how he feels about it. Because this section is so crowded with narrative events and descriptions of places and scenes, there is relatively little thematic reflection: Griffin spends more time narrating events than contemplating their meaning. What is most important in this section, then, is the narrative description and what it tells us about the racial situation in America in 1959. The mere fact that Griffin has to spend so long looking for a "contact" to help him "enter" black society tells us just how separate the two races were kept during the era of segregation.

Changing races, for Griffin, is not merely a matter of adjusting his appearance; it involves moving to an entirely different world: a different part of town, a different set of rules and expectations, a different set of opportunities and assumptions. In Griffin's first days as a black man, Sterling Williams becomes his guide to a world that is not only different but also almost wholly unfamiliar. As his loving portrayal of Williams suggests, Griffin is extremely lucky to find such a compassionate, intelligent, unassuming man to help him acclimate to his new surroundings. Along with P.D. East, who appears later in the book, the soft-spoken, articulate Williams is one of the best-drawn characters in Black Like Me—where most secondary characters (even Griffin's wife) are basically nondescript and mostly described only in terms of their reactions to Griffin and his plan. Williams takes on real personality and life.

The contrast between Griffin's experience as a white man and his experience as a black man is symbolized by the two most sensory and evocative parts of this section, Griffin's two meals—one in a luxurious restaurant in the white French Quarter, one with Williams and Joe of raccoon meat and rice eaten out of a tin. Materially, black society is so far below white society that the difference is staggering. This point is hammered home again and again in descriptions of the stench, ugliness, and dilapidation of the ghetto, which is so foul that one black man whom Williams meets says that he often goes to the white part of town simply to get away from the smell.

The material difference between black and white is coupled with oppression, prejudice, and even the constant threat of violence, symbolized by the white bully who follows Griffin around on his second night as a black man. In general, Griffin finds the transition between races to be shocking: he knew it would be difficult, but the extent of the difference is acutely painful to him. He hears the word "nigger" all around him, and receives hateful stares from whites everywhere he goes, and feels both insults very personally. One of his realizations, in fact, is that no matter how accustomed one becomes to racial oppression, one always takes it personally.

The difficulty of the transition is neatly represented in Griffin's first moment as a black man, when he looks in the mirror and fails to recognize himself. The sadness and fear that he feels in this moment is evocative not only of the difficulties Griffin will face because of his adopted race, but also of the personality crisis his plan has forced him to endure. Griffin suffers because of the oppression and prejudice blacks experience across America, but he also suffers the pain of having changed his identity and left his familiar world behind, something that white America forces blacks to do on a constant basis.

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