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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

November 10–15, 1959

November 2–8, 1959

November 16–24, 1959

Summary

Griffin goes out to look for a job, but though he is articulate and well- dressed, no white employer is willing even to consider hiring him—no one seems to believe that he would really be competent. As he begins to sense white oppression more and more acutely, Griffin begins to resent his own blackness for causing him such pain, and even to resent other blacks because they share it. But he is unfailingly struck by the lengths to which Negroes will go to help one another. When he asks a black student for directions to a movie theater, the young man offers to take him there personally, even though it is more than two miles away. The student also offers to return for him at the end of the movie. Later, Griffin takes a walk through the white part of town, where he sees a well-known gourmet restaurant. Hungry, he nearly enters without thinking. Suddenly remembering that he is black, he realizes that he could never enter the restaurant except as a busboy.

Griffin sits down on a park bench for a moment of rest. A white man tells him that he should move. Thinking that the man is intervening to keep him from getting into trouble, he thanks him. Later, he realizes that the bench was not off-limits to blacks, and that the man simply wanted him to leave. Riding a bus through town, Griffin attempts to exit at his stop. The white bus conductor slams the door shut before he can disembark, and refuses to let him off for eight long blocks. Griffin is forced to walk back to his original stop.

After Griffin passes a week of futile job-hunting, Sterling Williams shows him a news story about a case in Poplarville, Mississippi, in which a black man named Mack Parker was lynched by group of whites. The FBI assembled a massive amount of incriminating evidence against the white men involved in the lynching, but the all-white jury refused to find them guilty. Mississippi has the reputation of being far worse for blacks even than New Orleans. Griffin decides that he must travel there at once. When he tries to cash his traveler's cheques, however, he is refused. At last he finds a kind white woman in a Catholic bookstore who helps him. When he tries to buy his bus ticket, the white woman behind the counter gives him a look he calls the Hate Stare, and refuses to give him his change. At last, she hurls his change and his ticket onto the floor. After waiting in the room reserved for colored people, Griffin goes to board the bus. Whites are allowed to board first, then blacks. But one white army officer goes to the back of the line and waits for the blacks to board before taking his seat.

On the bus, Griffin is irked by the behavior of a young, well-dressed black man named Christophe, who treats the whites fawningly but looks upon the other Negroes with contempt. On the way to Mississippi, the bus stops in a small town for a break. The whites are allowed to get off the bus, stretch their legs, and use the restroom. The blacks are forced to remain on the bus. One black man angrily urinates on the floor of the bus in protest. The journey resumes and as the bus drives through Poplarville, a black man named Bill Williams shows Griffin where the Parker lynching took place. Griffin gets off the bus in Hattiesburg and almost immediately, a group of young white men careens by. The men yell obscenities at him and pelt him with fruit. Disheartened, Griffin attempts to write a letter to his wife, but he is unable to do it. Remembering a central tenet of being a black man—that one must never look at a white woman if one can help it—Griffin is unable to bring himself to contact his own wife.

Dispiritedly, Griffin calls an acquaintance named P.D. East, a white newspaper editor who has devoted himself to the cause of racial justice, even to the extent that his life is in constant danger from white hate groups. East takes Griffin home with him. Griffin is already so accustomed to being black that he is embarrassed to ride in the front seat of East's car. East gives him the manuscript of his autobiography, The Magnolia Jungle, which details his long, uncompromising fight against racial prejudice. Griffin reads the book in its entirety that night.

Griffin meets East's wife Billie and their daughter. The East women lead a lonely life, almost completely ostracized by the white community around them. East tells Griffin that he has made a long study of white racism, and gives him a stack of books, clippings, and pamphlets. Reading through these materials, Griffin decides that the worst of all white racists are not necessarily the violent, ignorant men such as the ones who shouted at him from their car the previous night. Rather, the real evil stems from the supposed thinkers, the politicians, lawyers, and writers who produce propaganda justifying racial hatred and legislation enforcing it. It is men like this who poison all the others, directly causing the social conditioning that leads to the climate of racial conflict in the United States.

Commentary

We have seen how the racial divide in America affects basic behaviors like eating, working, shopping, and using restrooms among blacks. Now Griffin details more experiences in which the black experience is drastically different from the white experience. We see the enormous difficulties blacks face in finding a job (white employers consider them inherently incompetent), cashing a check (white clerks refuse to honor their checks), traveling (they are expected to board buses after whites and give up their seats for whites if necessary), and so on.

As we have seen, many white men who come to sit at Sterling Williams's shoeshine stand ask surreptitiously about finding black women for sex. Though black women are seen as fair game by many white men, white women are considered racially sacrosanct, and a black man can forfeit his life merely for looking at a white woman in the wrong way. Griffin says that this rule is the unspoken commandment of being a black man, and it is illustrated in the case of Mack Parker, who was accused of raping a white woman and murdered by a white lynch mob before he could stand trial. Though the FBI uncovered the identities of the lynch mob, the Mississippi court refused to punish them. The implication is that in the Deep South, racism, when it involves sexuality, is above the law. This is why Griffin bravely chooses to travel to Mississippi, despite the pain he has suffered as a black man in New Orleans: he is desperate to uncover the truth about racism in America, and Mississippi and Alabama have the reputation of being even worse than Louisiana.

Throughout this section, Griffin gradually internalizes the lessons of prejudice and racism, feeling worse and worse about himself as he is treated worse and worse by the world around him. He is refused a job, pelted with fruit, denied basic services, and humiliated by white bus drivers. Though he has only been living as a black man for a few days, Griffin has already been changed by his experience, as we see when he tries to write a letter to his wife, and finds himself unable to do it. As a black man, he feels that he is not allowed to write love letters to a white woman, even if the woman is his wife and the mother of his children. Later, when riding in a white man's car, Griffin finds it nearly impossible to sit in the front seat.

Deeply depressed by his experiences, Griffin is forced to call his white friend P.D. East for a moment of respite from his life as a black man. East, an irascible, humorous, deeply dedicated crusader for racial justice, is one of the book's best-drawn characters. As Griffin restores his strength in the Williams household, he reads Griffin's autobiography, The Magnolia Jungle, an account of East's heroic opposition to racism despite profound personal consequences for himself and for his family. East is another example of the theme of goodness flourishing amid evil: despite the prevailing social climate of his time and place, he stands up for what he believes in.

East also provides Griffin with an important personal realization, that racism is not only a social attitude, it is a social attitude that has been enforced and justified by legal action. Corrupt, racist writers and politicians have encoded racist ideas into the very social fabric of the South, enforcing segregation and the systematic oppression of blacks through Jim Crow laws. According to East, the men who create and justify such laws are the worst racists of all: without them, the run-of-the-mill Southerner would have no ground on which to base his own hatred of blacks, and racism might cease to exist.

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