Black Like Me


Black Like Me Essay, Research Paper

John Howard Griffin was a journalist and a specialist on race

issues. After publication, he became a leading advocate in the Civil

Rights Movement and did much to promote awareness of the racial situations

and pass legislature. He was middle aged and living in Mansfield, Texas

at the time of publication in 1960. His desire to know if Southern whites

were racist against the Negro population of the Deep South, or if they

really judged people based on the individual’s personality as they said

they prompted him to cross the color line and write Black Like Me. Since

communication between the white and African American races did not exist,

neither race really knew what it was like for the other. Due to this,

Griffin felt the only way to know the truth was to become a black man and

travel through the South. His trip was financed by the internationally

distributed Negro magazine Sepia in exchange for the right to print

excerpts from the finished product. After three weeks in the Deep South

as a black man John Howard Griffin produced a 188-page journal covering

his transition into the black race, his travels and experiences in the

South, the shift back into white society, and the reaction of those he

knew prior his experonce the book was published and released.

John Howard Griffin began this novel as a white man on October 28,

1959 and became a black man (with the help of a noted dermatologist) on

November 7. He entered black society in New Orleans through his contact

Sterling, a shoe shine boy that he had met in the days prior to the

medication taking full effect. Griffin stayed with Sterling at the shine

stand for a few days to become assimilated into the society and to learn

more about the attitude and mindset of the common black man. After one

week of trying to find work other than menial labor, he left to travel

throughout the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.

November 14, the day he decided to leave, was the day after the

Mississippi jury refused to indict or consider the evidence in the Mack

Parker kidnap-lynch murder case. He decided to go into the heart of

Mississippi, the Southern state most feared by blacks of that time, just

to see if it really did have the “wonderful relationship” with their

Negroes that they said they did. What he found in Hattiesburg was tension

in the state so apparent and thick that it scared him to death. One of

the reasons for this could be attributed to the Parker case decision

because the trial took place not far from Hattiesburg. He knew it was a

threat to his life if he remained because he was not a true Negro and did

not know the proper way to conduct himself in the present situation.

Griffin requested that one of his friends help him leave the state as soon

as possible. P.D. East, Griffin’s friend, was more than willing to help

his friend out of the dangerous situation that he had gotten himself into

and back to New Orleans.

From New Orleans, traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi and began hitch

hiking toward Mobile, Alabama. Griffin found that men would not pick him

up in the day nearly as often as they would at night. One of the reasons

being that the darkness of night is a protection of sorts and the white

men would let their defenses down. Also, they would not have to be afraid

of someone they knew seeing them with a Negro in their car. But the main

reason was of the stereotypes many of these men had of Negroes, that they

were more sexually active, knew more about sex, had larger genitalia, and

fewer morals and therefore would discuss these things with them. Many of

the whites that offered Griffin rides would become angry and let him out

when he would not discuss his sex life with them. One man was amazed to

find a Negro who spoke intelligently and tried to explain the fallacies

behind the stereotypes and what the problem with Negro society was.

Many Negroes he encountered on his journey through the Deep South

were very kind and opened their hearts and homes to him. One example of

this is when Griffin asked an elderly Negro where he might find lodging,

the man offered to share his own bed with him. Another instance was when

Griffin was stranded somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery and a black

man offered him lodging at his home. The man’s home was a two-room shack

that housed six members of his family, but he accepted John into his home

and refused any money for the trouble saying that “he’d brought more than

he’d taken.”

In Montgomery, Alabama, Griffin decided it was time for him to

reenter white society, but he also wanted to gain a knowledge of the area

as a black man. So, he devised the technique of covering an area as a

black and then returning the following day as a white. What he found was,

as a black he would receive the “hate stare” from whites and be treated

with every courtesy by the black community. As a white, it would be the

exact opposite, he would get the “hate stare” from blacks and be treated

wonderfully by the same people who despised him the previous day.

After a few days of zigzagging across the color line, Griffin

decided that he had enough material from his journal to create a book and

enough experience as a black man so he reverted permanently into white

society. Crossing over into the white world was unsettling to Griffin, if

only because of the way he was treated by the same people who despised him

previously due to his pigmentation. The sudden ability to walk into any

establishment and not be refused service was also a shock after having to

search for common conveniences days before.

After returning to his hometown of Mansfield, Texas Griffin was

not widely accepted back into the community he once knew. Many of the

residents of the city were racists, therefore they considered him one of

the ‘niggers.’ The racists even went as far as to hang Griffin in effigy

from the town’s stop light one morning. This prompted him and his family

to leave the area until the situation considerably calmed down.

Griffin was interviewed by various television and radio hosts as

well as magazine and newspapermen after the book was made public. His

main objective was to educate the public of the situation in the South and

people couldn’t help but hear about it. Wether or not they accepted the

information was not up to Griffin, but he did his best to make the

knowledge available.

This book relates to American history because it takes the reader

into the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movements took hold and shows

what it was like to be black. In the Preface, the author states “I could

have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member

of any ‘inferior’ group. Only the details would have differed. The story

would be the same.” The details he mentioned were he being black and in

the South, and the story is of hatred and racism directed toward him and

others like him on account of those details. The account he related

showed America and the world that race relations in the South was not the

pretty picture it was painted as. Instead, he showed the daily struggle

of the blacks to survive.

Griffin’s bias is that white Southern Americans of that period

were racist toward the African American population. The only thing

altered from before he entered New Orleans to after was his appearance.

He dyed his skin a very dark brown and shaved his head, his clothing,

speech patterns, and references had not changed and every question was

answered truthfully. If people did judge others by their qualities and

qualifications, his time in the Deep South should have been fairly

uneventful. Instead, there were daily quests to find rest-room

facilities, restaurants, stores, and various other ‘conveniences’ that he

took advantage of before he crossed the color line. During his stay in

New Orleans, blacks were forced to use specific facilities designated for

them and they were usually few and far between. Other than the Greyhound

station or other public buildings that blacks were allowed to enter, there

were no facilities that were at par with the ones the whites had access

to. His now black skin also prevented him from entering any store and

purchasing something to drink, instead he would have to find a Negro Cafe.

These Cafes were not nearly as numerous as the many places the lowliest

white could acquire a drink. The color of his


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