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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

December 1–7, 1959

November 25–29

December 9, 1959–January 2, 1960

Summary

Able to shift back and forth easily by manipulating his medication, Griffin begins a new phase of his experiment, posing as a black man during his daytime travels, then revisiting the same places at night in the guise of a white man. As a black man, he discovers that everywhere he goes whites treat him with contempt, while blacks treat him with warmth and sympathy. As a white man, he is greeted with fear and repressed loathing by blacks, while whites treat him with friendly good-humor. In his guise as a black man, he visits the Tuskegee Institute, a center of black education. Here, he meets a Northern white intellectual who tries to take him out for a drink. A black turkey seller passes by, and the intellectual tries to buy all the man's turkeys, clearly trying to impress the blacks with his generosity and sympathy. Embarrassed, the turkey seller refuses to sell to the intellectual, who wanders off murmuring that blacks are bizarre.

Griffin decides to travel to Atlanta. On his bus, the driver asks a young black man and a middle-aged black woman to move to the same seat so that one of their seats can be given to a pair of white women. Practicing Martin Luther King's philosophy of passive resistance, they silently refuse to move. This angers a white man riding on the bus, and he rises angrily, prepared to punish them violently. But the driver and one of the white women convince him to let the matter slide. In Atlanta, Griffin goes into a colored restroom, where he changes his appearance back to that of a white man. When he emerges, he asks a white man to direct him to a place to stay. Noting that his clothes are shabby, the white man directs him to a cheap boarding house. Griffin thinks that his clothes may be shabby for a white man, but when he was wearing them as a black man, he was considered well dressed.

Again wearied by his constant experience of racism, Griffin decides to spend two days in a monastery to restore his strength. Here, he has an inspiring conversation with a white monk, who opposes racism and any attempt to twist the ideals of Christianity into positions that would support racism. He also talks to another guest at the monastery, a young white man who teaches at a Southern college. This man is also profoundly opposed to racism, to the extent that he has broken off contact with his family because they do not share his enlightened views.

After leaving the monastery, Griffin checks into a luxurious white hotel in Atlanta. But because his skin now appears dusky, he is treated with increased suspicion by whites in the hotel. He is allowed to check in, but is asked to pay in advance for a telephone call. He realizes that the whites in the hotel suspect that he has Negro blood.

Griffin is pleasantly surprised by Atlanta, which has an optimistic, determined black community, and, most extraordinarily, a number of newspapers that are favorable to Negro causes. He spends several days working with a friendly white photographer named Don Rutledge on a story about prominent black leaders in Atlanta. He finds these men—intellectuals, bankers, lawyers, and so forth—to be extremely impressive. As a group, they are well spoken, energetic, and committed to the cause of obtaining racial justice. Atlanta gives Griffin a new sense of hope, a hope reinforced by his realization that European whites do not share the racism of their American counterparts. One black woman, a pianist, tells Griffin about a trip she took to Paris, where she was allowed to attend concerts and eat at any restaurant she liked—she says that she was treated, not as a Negro, but as a human being. His spirits lifted by the example of Atlanta, Griffin decides to return to New Orleans with Rutledge, to make a photographic record of his time there.

Commentary

This section, like much of the rest of Black Like Me, essentially focuses on elaborating the main themes that have been developed so far. The theme of whites' total failure to understand blacks is illustrated in the scene with the Northern intellectual, who is clearly more interested in proving his benevolence than in really listening to or getting to know the black people he meets—he humiliates the turkey seller by trying to buy all his turkey, a clear act of charity, and then comments that blacks are bizarre when the turkey seller refuses to sell. The difference between whites' and blacks' responses to Griffin depending on which race he appears to belong to is again described in the December one section; the theme of goodness flourishing in an environment of evil is again explored in Griffin's trip to the monastery.

The practice of Martin Luther King's passive resistance, which Griffin previously admired in Montgomery, is exemplified on the bus ride, when the two blacks silently refuse to give up their seats to white women. As was the case in Montgomery, this act of civil disobedience averts violent consequences—in this case, a white man gets up to slap the two blacks, but the bus driver and a white woman, unable to tolerate a violent reprisal to a peaceful action, deter him.

Griffin's discovery of the church pamphlet insisting that racism is contrary to the spirit of Christian love illustrates another aspect of the hypocrisy of white racists. In the Deep South, nearly everyone practices Christianity, and the worst racists tend to be dedicated religious believers to whom religion is part of a larger cultural tradition that they wish to keep "pure" and free from the influence of another race. But this desire for racial purity runs directly counter to Christianity's all-inclusive moral message of tolerance and love. The priest who points out this fact essentially performs the same function as P.D. East, who demonstrates the hypocrisy of racist laws functioning in a democratic system based on the principle of "equal justice under law."

One important aspect of the setting throughout this book is its comparison of the black experience in several different cities: Griffin sets out to learn what life was like for blacks, and he discovers that the answer depends in part on where he travels. In New Orleans, the black experience is one of quiet desperation; in Mobile and many of the smaller towns in Alabama and Mississippi, it is one of outright hopelessness laced with an undercurrent of rebellious anger at the extreme oppression blacks must endure. In Montgomery, the hopelessness is replaced by determination, as the city's blacks put Martin Luther King's philosophy into action. In Atlanta, which Griffin finds enormously encouraging, the climate is fairly tolerant for a Southern city, the black community has strong and dedicated leaders, and the press is actually supportive of the black cause.

In Atlanta, Griffin's experience with the photographer Don Rutledge is so encouraging to him that he decides to return to New Orleans and make a photo record of his experience there for the Sepia article he plans to write. This signals that Griffin's time as a black man will soon come to an end: he will chronicle his experience for his article, and then return to his life as a white man.

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