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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

December 9, 1959–January 2, 1960

December 1–7, 1959

February 26–March 18, 1960

Summary

Griffin again transforms himself into a black man for his return to New Orleans. Rutledge travels with him through the city, taking pictures at all the places he spent time at during his earlier stay there. As they take the pictures, they receive stares of curiosity and suspicion from whites, who seem to be wondering why would a white photographer want to photograph blacks? They also receive distrust from blacks, whose natural inclination is to avoid notice. Griffin takes Rutledge to the shoeshine stand to meet Sterling and Joe. Sterling is overjoyed to see Griffin. Rutledge is shaken by the experience: witnessing the lives of blacks from such an intimate vantage point forces him to confront his own social privilege. He sees that Griffin's life has completely changed simply because he assumed a black identity; he is no longer able to go to the same places, speak to the same people, or use the same facilities as before.

After several days as a black man in New Orleans, Griffin lightens his skin and resumes life as a white man. In the past, leaving behind his black alter ego has made him feel relief and elation, but today, it makes him feel a strange sense of nostalgia and sadness. Part of him does not want to leave black society, which has become so familiar to him in the past weeks. Having made the suffering of black Americans his own, he feels that to return to life as a white man is to take an easy escape.

After making the photo record, after having spent nearly two months as a black man, Griffin gives up his black identity for good and returns home, a white man again. He is resolved to tell his story to the world, though he fears that speaking out will only attract reprisals from white racists and hate groups. Griffin's wife and children greet him at the airport, and he is thrilled to see them. But part of him is terrified that what he has done will cause them to be hurt.

Griffin speaks to George Levitan, the publisher of Sepia, about his project. Levitan again warns Griffin of the dangers he will expose himself to if he allows his story to be published. He tells Griffin that he would understand if he chose to cancel his contract with the magazine and keep his experiences to himself. But Griffin insists that he wants his story to be published. It is vitally important to him to tell the truth, and to offer hope to the black community that there are whites who understand their plight, whites who are willing to fight for them. He and Levitan at last agree to publish the article in two months, enough time for Griffin to gain perspective on his experience and to write his story.

Commentary

This short section brings closure to Griffin's time as a black man, and inaugurates the final phase of the book. In the first phase of the book, we saw Griffin think up his plan to become a black man and put it into action; in the second phase, which takes up most of the story, we saw him live out his experiment and learn about life as a black American. Now, in the third phase of the book, we learn about what happens to Griffin after his experiment, as he resumes his normal life with his family, writes his story, and deals with the social consequences of his search for the truth.

There are three significant narrative developments in this section. The first is the brief focus on Don Rutledge's feelings as he photographs black New Orleans and confronts his own social privilege. This is a strong example of how love and understanding can transform one's mindset, causing one to reject the social assumptions that have been ingrained in one's mind from childhood. Rutledge is a white man who lives in the South, and yet because of his experiences in New Orleans, he is able to face the social conditioning of his racist society, and to begin to understand what life is like for blacks under segregation.

The second important development is Griffin's final transformation back into a white man, when he feels sadness and nostalgia rather than elation and relief. Though his experience as a black man has been emotionally crippling for him in many ways as he learned the full extent of the trauma that prejudice can inflict, he has come to admire and rely on the enormous generosity and solidarity of black society. His place in black society has taught him not only about the evil of racism, but also about the goodness of love and respect. Before becoming a black man, he had no inkling of this inner strength of black society, and now that he has experienced it, a substantial part of him is sorry to give it up.

The final important narrative event, and another example of the fact that Black Like Me is written to draw readers into its story, is Griffin's conversation with George Levitan at the Sepia office. In the early sections of the book, Griffin narrated his conversations with Levitan in such a way as to emphasize the dangers he would face if he put his experiment into motion, and thereby to build suspense. Now, he uses him for the same purpose, as Levitan warns Griffin emphatically that he will face damaging social consequences if he publishes his article in the racist world of central Texas. Griffin's refusal to take heed of these warnings despite his inner fear allows him to portray his courage without boasting about it; Levitan's stern warning creates a renewed sense of anticipation and suspense within the reader, as we wait to see what will happen when Griffin's story appears in print.

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