Skip over navigation

Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin

Study Questions

Analytical Overview

How to Cite This SparkNote

Describe the attitude many white men seem to have about the sexuality of blacks throughout the story. What is hypocritical about this attitude? Why is it ironic? How does it dehumanize blacks?

To Griffin's disgust and surprise, many Southern white men believe that blacks are not capable of moral refinement, fidelity, or propriety, and that as a result they are mindlessly sexual creatures. This leads many white men, who might be extremely moral in white society, to question black men shamelessly about their sexual experiences, and even to press them for information about where they can find a black girl to sleep with. Their implication is that blacks are so amoral that they will not even understand that these questions are unusual or rude. The irony of this attitude is that it simply reveals the perverse sexual obsessions of the white men who exhibit it, and has nothing to do with the actual sexual experiences or feelings of black people. Nevertheless, as Griffin realizes, it is an extremely dangerous attitude when coupled with black poverty, because it creates a market in which black girls become prostitutes for money, and black men become white men's pimps.

"Black Like Me ostensibly chronicles John Howard Griffin's experiences as a black man. But he never truly experiences life as a black man; there are always too many significant differences between him and the real blacks among whom he lives. As a result, Black Like Me is an arrogant, if well- meaning, book." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

If you agree, your answer should focus on the fact that Griffin always has the option to become a white man again whenever racism gets to be too much for him, an option no black person has; Griffin deals with his experiences with the knowledge that they would be temporary, while blacks are forced to endure a lifetime of unremitting prejudice; he is not limited in his financial means; and he only experiences life as a black man for six weeks. If you disagree, you should argue that Griffin comes as close to the black experience as it is possible for a white man to come—close enough for other blacks to consider him one of them, even after he stops his medication and goes back to being a white man. As a result of this, and of the enormous personal sacrifices Griffin made to write Black Like Me, it is not entirely fair to call it an arrogant book, even if Griffin's experience of black society is not necessarily objective.

What techniques does Griffin use to draw the reader into his story? How does he use secondary characters to build drama and suspense?

By choosing to tell his story in the form of a diary, Griffin creates an extremely personal framework for his experiences. Moreover, by writing that diary in a fairly novelistic form, Griffin gives himself a great deal of leverage, which he can use to involve the reader in his story. One technique he uses is physical description. He often describes meals, buildings, and human scenes in extremely evocative terms, creating the sense that the reader is there with him. Another technique he uses is to employ other characters to heighten the sense of drama without explicitly commenting on what is happening. For instance, Griffin emphasizes that his wife thinks his idea is dangerous but brave, conveying to the reader the idea that he is undertaking a heroic task. Twice Griffin uses George Levitan to describe the great danger Griffin is placing himself in to pose as a black man. This creates an ominous sense of suspense, as the reader waits for Levitan's unpleasant predictions to come true.

One of the main themes of Black Like Me is that good can survive even in an environment of evil. What are some examples Griffin uses to illustrate this theme, and how do they function? Can you name at least three?

Another important theme of Black Like Me is that blacks and whites behave differently in one another's company than they do when they are amongst themselves. How does this affect Griffin's experience? What does it say about the level of understanding between the two races?

One of the functions of the story is to act as a catalog of oppression, one that lists and describes the various difficulties and injustices black Americans were routinely forced to endure during the time of Griffin's experience. What are some of these injustices and difficulties? How many of them are still in effect today?

What is the role of mirrors in Black Like Me? What do Griffin's changing responses to seeing his face in the mirror say about his perception of his own identity after he becomes a black man?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us