“He who is less than just is less than man.”
Black Like Me is the profound true-life novel describing the life-changing journey of a white Texan man named John Howard Griffin. Griffin uses pills to darken his skin, and travels the southern United States during a time of segregation and extreme racism on his quest to know exactly what it would be like to live as a black man. Armed with his pen and diary, John Griffin engages in battle with racial injustice to record his experiences that eventually become the basis of his book, Black Like Me.
John Howard Griffin is a writer and racial activist living in Texas in 1959. After reading a disturbing article describing the rise in suicide in African Americans, Griffin, a white man, realizes that he could not possibly understand the oppression, segregation, and utter hatred that blacks live with everyday. Griffin approaches his friend George Levitan, the editor of Sepia, a magazine that focuses on Negro news and issues. Griffin explains his radical idea to darken his skin and travel throughout the southern United States in order to explore first hand the racial boundaries between blacks and whites. George agrees to fund the project in exchange for the rights to print Griffin??™s journal entries in his magazine. With the help of a dermatologist, Griffin uses medication to alter the pigmentation of his skin, and sets out on his journey.
Griffin arrives in New Orleans to begin his skin treatment. Here the reader gets insight into the white dermatologist??™s thinking. Griffin notices he is like many white liberals, who on the one hand believe in the brotherhood of man, but deep down still hold racial prejudices and stereotypes against black people. This becomes clear when he says: “the lighter the skin the more trustworthy the Negro.” It is also in New Orleans where Griffin meets his first Negro friend, a shoeshine by the name of Sterling Williams. He is intelligent, polite and friendly so the author trusts him with his true identity, a writer touring the South to study the living and working conditions as well as the civil rights of black people. However, Griffin does not yet reveal that he intends to change the colour of his skin. Griffin returns to his hotel and through the passing days, sees his skin slowly darken. Griffin is shocked to see his reflection in the mirror. Big, bald and black, he resembles nothing of the man he knew just days before. His true self seems to be hidden in the “flesh of another.” He now realizes the extent of this major step – his transformation into a Negro.
His first day as a black man, Griffin travels the ghetto where the blacks are forced to live. Because he is looking for a place to stay, a friendly Negro directs him to the segregated YMCA in town and so the author boards a bus to get there. After allowing a white man to board first and taking a seat at the rear of the bus, he gets his first taste of racism at the hand of a middle-aged white woman. Griffin began to stand to let the older woman sit, but after noticing the stares and frowns of disapproval from the other blacks on the bus, he sits back down. Their eyes meet for an instant before the woman spat, ???What??™re you looking at me like that for???. She turns to the front, ???They??™re getting sassier every day,??? she says loudly. Griffin gets off the bus feeling embarrassed and ashamed. He wanders the French Quarter until he comes to the same shoeshine that he visited days earlier, only now as a black man. Sterling Williams recognizes Griffin not by his face but by his shoes, and the two fall into conversation about Griffin??™s project, with Williams eventually allowing Griffin to shine shoes with him.
During his stay in New Orleans the author is shown the difficulties and hardships that Negros are forced to live with. Griffins experience pointed out things I had never thought about before. I had thought that for every drinking fountain or bathroom for white people, there was one for black people nearby; the reality is there simply wasn??™t. Griffin describes one situation in which he is not allowed to use a dilapidated outhouse for whites and has to walk fourteen blocks to the nearest bathroom. When he goes to buy a bus ticket he receives the “hate stare” from the white woman issuing tickets, who also refuses to provide change for his ten-dollar bill. Finally, under pressure, she hurls his change and ticket on the floor. He describes the “hate stare” as a look so exaggeratedly hateful that it you feel lost, sick at heart. It is unthinkable that a human could feel such unmasked hatred towards another human based solely on the colour of his skin.
From New Orleans, Griffin travels throughout the southern United States. While hitchhiking in Mississippi, he discovers another prejudice that white men hold, the belief that black people are sexual beasts. Almost every time he is picked up, Griffin is asked a sexual question. He travels through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia receiving similar treatment. It is only in Montgomery Alabama that he notices a change, under the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. the black people do not react to the racism and therefore the whites no longer have the excuse to show their cruelty towards them.
The next part of the autobiography describes the author going back and forth between a black and a white. The saying, ???once you go black, you never go back??? certainly doesn??™t apply to Griffin. The diary entries of these three weeks are short and sharp, like his quick skin color changes. He describes the dramatic contrasts when he is white and receives brotherly-love smiles and privileges from the whites, but blank stares or submissive compliance from the Negroes. And when he is black, the whites think of him as inhuman while the Negroes treat him with great warmth. He concludes that there is racism at both ends of the stick.
After Black Like Me was published, and Griffin had returned to his wife and kids, he experiences the unbelievable. His effigy is hung from the traffic light on Main Street in his hometown. A cross is burned on the lawn of the black church near his house. He also receives death threats and is known as a traitor to the white race by members of the community. He and his family are eventually forced to move to Mexico to escape the constant harassment. This reminded me of the reactions of the townsfolk in to Kill a Mockingbird. Both Atticus and Griffin are prosecuted for ???going against the race???.
Griffin chose to tell his story using diary-style journal entries. Each one is like a chapter, complete with dates. I wondered why he wouldn??™t use chapters like a normal novel, but I think the diary style adds to the realism of the book ??“ the events actually happened. I liked that the author recorded his observations from the day, and then reflected on not only his thoughts but also the reactions from the people he met and spoke with that day. This is the first diary that I have read and I have to say I enjoyed it.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout, ???You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.??? John Howard Griffin took this idea literally the day he decided to ???go black??? and the resulting novel was well worth his hardships. This is defiantly one of those books that changes the way one looks at the world and the people that, like it or not, we are forced to co-exist with. Black Like Me opened my eyes to the terrible inequalities and blatant hatred that Negroes once endured then, and still endure today.
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Howard, John. Black like me. New York: Signet, 1961.