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Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

February 26–March 18, 1960

December 9, 1959–January 2, 1960

March 23–April 7, 1960

Summary

Griffin tries to decide what approach to take in narrating his experiences as a black man. He decides that to write dryly or to use too many generalities would dilute the power of his story, and might even make it harder for his white readers to understand what life is like for black Americans. He decides to tell his story frankly and honestly, focusing on his personal experiences; he thinks that to write his story in the form of a diary will give him the most direct approach. Shortly before the publication of his article in Sepia, he is asked to appear on a Hollywood talk show hosted by Paul Coates, and he accepts the offer. He is tentative about doing the show, unsure of whether he should talk about his more brutal and painful experiences, and also nervous about the reaction to the show in his white community. But he travels to Hollywood and submits to the interview.

After the show airs, he is very anxious, and sits waiting for the telephone to ring. He receives calls from two friends, who are proud of him and enthusiastic about his story; they keep him on the phone for more than an hour, which makes it impossible for any hostile or angry callers to get through. His parents, also proud of him, are next to call. After he hangs up the phone, he sits in silence, wondering what the next reaction will be to his story.

In the next days and weeks, Griffin does several more interviews, including one in New York with Time Magazine. As his story begins to circulate, hostile public reaction begins to build in the South. Griffin's mother receives a threatening phone call from a white woman, who says that her son's safety will be in danger if he stays in Mansfield. Griffin's mother is terrified, and his wife goes to keep her company. Griffin calls the police and asks them to increase protection at both his house and his mother's house.

Another interview Griffin consents to give is with David Garroway's talk show. Griffin is extremely impressed with Garroway, who urges him to tell the whole truth without worrying about the show, the audience, the sponsors, or the public reaction. He complies, answering Griffin's questions with unflinching honesty. The experience with Garroway solidifies his faith in the human capability for goodness, even when surrounded by an overpowering evil such as racial hatred and violence.

Commentary

The beginning of this section briefly describes Griffin's thought process as he tries to decide how to tell his story. As we have seen (having read most of the book already), he decides to make his story as personal as possible, and decides to relate his narrative in the form of a diary in order to draw his reader into his experience as fully as he can. Griffin chooses this personal form because he believes that a more objective narrative—one bolstered by figures and statistics, for instance—would have a depersonalizing effect. A statistic usually lacks emotional value, and Griffin's project is best served if he can make his white audience feel outrage about racism and sympathy for the black community. After all, as he has said, the experience of racism, no matter how many times one has faced it in the past, is always personal.

The rest of this section focuses on Griffin's experience on the talk-show circuit discussing his experience as a black man and his Sepia article. These talk-show experiences, which have very little bearing on the main plot of the story, are included mainly to illustrate the scope of public reaction to Griffin's project. Talk show hosts such as David Garroway are extremely receptive to Griffin's story, proving that the climate in America is primed to make a step forward toward racial equality. But in Texas, as we will see, Garroway's liberal attitude is not widely shared, and the Griffin family will be forced to experience the persecution of racists almost as intensely as if they were black themselves. The first inkling of this widespread hostility is the threatening phone call Griffin's mother receives, a warning that the people of Griffin's community will not embrace his story as readily as people elsewhere in the world.

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