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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

November 16–24, 1959

November 10–15, 1959

November 25–29

Summary

P.D. East takes Griffin to Dillard University, a Negro college. They meet Sam Gandy, the dean of the college, and tell him about Griffin's experiment. Their conversation turns to the upcoming elections in Mississippi, and East entertains them with a biting satire of the behavior of a racist who tries to prevent a black man from registering to vote. Griffin visits a nearby church, where he discovers a pamphlet, written by a white Southern priest, decrying the evils of racism and urging his parishioners to believe that all human beings are worthy of love. Griffin is cheered by this sign that, despite the overwhelming preponderance of racist values and traditions in the South, there are still good people who work to persuade others of the justice of their cause. Griffin goes to the bus station, where he plans to catch a bus that will take him deeper into Mississippi and Alabama. In the Negro restroom, he discovers a notice on the door, posted by a white man listing the prices he would be willing to pay for various sexual services from young black girls. Griffin is appalled, thinking miserably of all the girls who have been driven to prostitution by their poverty.

Griffin spends several days hitchhiking and riding buses through Mississippi and Alabama. In one town on the Gulf coast, he discovers that blacks are not allowed to use the public beaches, even though a gasoline tax that they are forced to pay is used to maintain them. He receives a ride from a kind white man from Massachusetts, who tells him about the reprisals he has faced from Southern whites for being kind to Negroes. In one town, Griffin tries to use a ramshackle outhouse near an ice cream stand, but the white owner of the stand bullies him away, forcing him to travel more than ten blocks to find a toilet. Griffin finds that, to his surprise, many Southern white men are willing to pick him up when he hitchhikes. But to his dismay, he discovers that many of them do so only so they can press him for lurid information about his sex life—they believe that black men are extremely sexualized creatures, and though they publicly condemn this perceived lack of morality, they secretly find it fascinating. One of them even asks to see his penis. Griffin tries to explain to him that white men are not the only people who possess moral capability, and that, if they were forced to live in ignorance and oppression in the ghettoes, they would sink to the same level as the Negroes in a very short time.

Griffin is at last picked up by a very friendly white construction worker, an Alabaman who seems not to have a racist thought in his head. The man is traveling home to his wife and their young child, and he tells Griffin quite openly about his feelings for his family. That night, Griffin is again impressed by the extraordinary capability of kindness some people possess: as he looks around for a place to sleep, he meets an old black man, a preacher, who takes him home and offers to let him stay with him as long as he likes.

Griffin spends three days looking for a job in Alabama, and experiences many of the same insults and hardships he encountered in New Orleans. He notes again the stupidity of segregation, which stipulates that a black man may buy items from a drug store, but may not sit at the soda fountain. In the South, even the most illustrious are forced to use Negro toilets and Negro cafes. At one plant Griffin visits, in Mobile, Alabama, he is told by the white foreman that not only will he never hire a black man, he hopes to run them all away from the factory. Only the black dockworkers can stay, because they are like pack animals or beasts of burden. Griffin recalls a time when, as a white man, he visited Mobile, and found it to be charming and civilized. Now, as a black man, he can hardly even recognize it.

Griffin gives up job-hunting in Mobile and continues to hitchhike through Alabama. He is picked up by another white man who insists on talking about the sexuality of Negroes, this time by boasting about how many black girls he has slept with. Griffin gets out of the car and walks down the highway. After several hours of walking, he stops at a roadside gas station to buy food and water. The old couple that runs the store first turns him away, but then, noting his exhaustion, allows him to buy a meal. As he eats, he notices that they are watching him suspiciously, and he leaves. He hitches a ride from a young black man who works in a sawmill. This man tells him that wealthy white men retain control over blacks by always keeping them in debt—no black man is allowed to pay off a debt in full. The young mill worker generously takes Griffin home and gives him a meal, though he and his wife have six children and very little money. Observing the man's children, Griffin remembers suddenly that it is his daughter's birthday. He thinks about the differences between his children's lives and the lives of these children, who do not even have clean beds or clothes.

The next day, Griffin reaches Montgomery, Alabama. He catches a glimpse of his face in a restroom mirror, and notices that along with his darkened skin color, he has acquired the defeated, hopeless expression he has often noticed on the faces of blacks. He calls his wife, and, after talking to her and to his children, feels reassured by his loving family.

Commentary

When Griffin sees the notice on the restroom door, we encounter a particularly disturbing manifestation of white racism that is a continuing motif throughout Black Like Me: the white attitude toward black sexuality. According to Griffin, white racists consider blacks to be incapable of moral refinement; black men in particular are seen as mindlessly sexual creatures to whom notions of fidelity and propriety are incomprehensible. As a result, many sexually frustrated white men look at the black race as a great possibility for experimentation, either by sleeping with black women or asking black men about their sexual encounters. White men do not worry about offending blacks with these sorts of propositions, because it does not occur to them that blacks have enough moral consciousness to be offended. Ironically, this attitude merely reflects the sexual immorality and insensitivity of white men and most blacks regard it as ludicrous and pathetic. But Griffin realizes that this white attitude, when combined with black poverty, has real social consequences, forcing black women to become whores and black men to become pimps.

This theme is continued, to Griffin's disgust, during his time as a hitchhiker in Alabama; many white men press him for information about his sex life, and one young man tries to convince him to show him his penis. Though Griffin tries to remain calm and articulate in such moments, they nevertheless weigh down on him, and he eventually begins to dread hitchhiking. But he has a pleasant experience with the young white construction worker, who seems to have no racist feelings at all. As we have seen, an important theme of the novel is that goodness and love are able to survive even amid the evils of racial hatred. Like P.D. East, the young white construction worker is an example of a good person living in a bad place, but maintaining his essential goodness despite his surroundings.

Perhaps the most important theme of Black Like Me, is that whites and blacks treat each another differently, and as a result have little understanding of each other's real mindsets. Griffin was expecting to find that whites treat him differently as a black man than they did as a white man, but he seems a little surprised at how differently blacks treat him as well. As a white man, he was used to blacks being cold, suspicious, and fearful to him; as a black man, they treat him with warmth, camaraderie, and astonishing generosity. We have already seen the example of the young student who was willing to guide Griffin to a movie theater that was several miles out of his way. Now we see two strangers, the mill worker and the preacher, who are willing to take him into their homes and feed him, as though he were a family member. Like the kindness of the white construction worker, the generosity and love with which blacks treat one another is an example of goodness surviving and flourishing even in a world defined by racism.

As Griffin notices in the restroom mirror in Montgomery, he has truly been changed by his experience as a black man: his face now bears the downcast, defeated look he sees on the faces of many blacks. But he also seems to be gaining some perspective on his own identity. Where he was unable to write to his wife only a few days earlier, he is now able to call her on the telephone and talk to her and to his children. Despite his sense of the huge difference separating their white world from his black world, he is reassured and strengthened by their love and support. His family's love helps Griffin remain himself, despite the powerful changes occurring in his life.

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