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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

November 25–29

November 16–24, 1959

December 1–7, 1959

Commentary

In Montgomery, Griffin notices a number of differences in the black community. First and foremost among them is a sense of determination, strength, and common purpose. In Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., is preaching a philosophy of passive resistance as a way to fight racism, and the black community is putting his words into practice. They refuse to acknowledge racism, refuse to follow its rules, and refuse to be provoked by whites who attempt to confront or punish them. Because of their total passivity, the white racists are baffled because before using violence against blacks, most whites unconsciously feel that they must first provoke the black person to anger. When Negroes refused to be provoked, the whites are at a loss for what to do.

After more than three weeks as a black man, Griffin feels deflated and saddened at the thought of experiencing any more prejudice, hostility, or hatred. He decides to stop taking his medication for a while in order to lighten his skin color and see how white society will appear to him after leaving his experiences as a Negro behind. After spending a day out of the sunlight and off his medication, Griffin re-emerges as a white man. He checks out of his hotel, and heads for the white part of town.

The experience is almost overwhelming. Where he has become accustomed to having his actions limited, his presence regarded with suspicion, and his words derided by whites, he now finds that everywhere he goes, whites are friendly and pleasant to him, while blacks treat him with submission and fear. He passes a black teenager on an empty street, and the young man, fearing that Griffin will bully him, threatens Griffin with a switchblade. Griffin checks into a luxurious hotel, and is almost shocked that he is allowed to enter the lobby unchecked. The white employees treat him with courtesy and respect, and a black porter bows and offers to carry his bag. Inwardly, Griffin's emotions are painfully conflicted. He feels elated at the freedom, mobility, and leverage he has suddenly regained, but deeply saddened at the realization that he is, once again, utterly removed from the experience of the suffering blacks.

Griffin wanders through Montgomery, seeing the city as a white man. He notices that he no longer receives the Hate Stare from whites, but that blacks react to his gaze with the same distrust that he once experienced from whites. He wanders through the black part of town alone, sensing fear and suspicion all around him. He realizes that blacks and whites truly have no conception of what life is like for the other race: blacks too often tell whites what they want to hear, and whites too readily believe it.

Commentary

The first part of this section, the November 25 diary entry, is a wonderful firsthand account of the black community in Montgomery during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. King's idea of passive resistance—quietly and nonviolently refusing to obey unjust laws and orders as the way to combat social injustice—was derived from the work of Thoreau and the life of Gandhi. In the 1950s and '60s, it became a powerful catalyst for the Civil Rights movement, ultimately galvanizing much of the nation behind King's ideas.

Now, in the late '50s, King's influence is felt powerfully in his hometown of Montgomery, and Griffin chronicles the palpable differences in the black community there: whereas blacks in other cities are hopeless and defeated, blacks in Montgomery seem determined and optimistic. Ironically, their commitment to nonviolence has essentially taken away the option of violence among many whites, as well—if blacks refuse to fight back, or even to be angered, many white men feel that they cannot put blacks back "in their place" by slapping or beating them, as they have often done in the past.

Ironically, it is in this atmosphere of hope that Griffin's ability to tolerate the difficulties of being black finally runs out. Like calling P.D. East earlier in the novel, Griffin's change back to being a white man is highly complicated: on the one hand, it allows him to restore his strength and commitment to his experiment; on the other, he realizes that he is taking advantage of an opportunity not available to real blacks, and feels as though he is betraying them by taking the easy way out.

For the reader, however, Griffin's return to his white identity in this section provides a significant opportunity to contrast the white and black experience again, with all of Griffin's black experiences available for context. Not surprisingly, the white world seems almost unbelievably luxurious and open; Griffin is able to go anywhere, talk to anyone, enter buildings with ease, buy anything from any store, and find restrooms whenever he needs one—all luxuries not afforded to Southern blacks under segregation. Perhaps most importantly, however, Griffin notices the extreme changes in the way both whites and black treat him after he resumes life as a white man.

As Black Like Me progresses, Griffin is continually impressed with the behavioral gulf that keeps whites and blacks from understanding one another—both races act so differently in one another's company that neither race ever sees the other's real character. This section provides Griffin with perhaps his most powerful realization of this fact, making his decision to become a white man again very important to his developing understanding of both the black condition and the general racial conflict in America.

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