Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: August 17, 1960 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Griffin’s family has already left for Mexico, but he has stayed to wait for the racists’ attack. As he wraps up his last few days at home, he hires a young boy (who is black) to help him clean out his parents’ house. As they work together, his helper says, “Why do the whites hate us—we don’t hate them?” This prompts a “long conversation,” in which the youngster brings up “the obvious fact that whites teach their children to call them ‘niggers.’” “Your children don’t hate us, do they?” he asks. “God, no,” Griffin replies. “Children have to be taught that kind of filth. We’d never permit ours to learn it.” This conversation depresses Griffin because he sees how certain the boy is that all white people hate him.
Griffin’s conversation with this child illustrates just how deeply racism can work its way into the consciousness of a young person. Because the boy has seen nothing but discrimination and hatred, he assumes that all white people dislike him—a tragic assumption that unfortunately makes some sense, given the way that white people treat black people. This is perhaps one of the most harmful elements of racism, as young people are forced to contend with toxic hatred so early in life.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Griffin suggests that one of the most “distressing repercussion[s]” of the “lack of communication” between whites and blacks is that some African Americans have started to make sweeping and negative generalizations about white people. This, Griffin says, is “justified to some extent,” but he thinks it’s a “grave” situation all the same. “It only widens the gap that men of good will are trying desperately to bridge with understanding and compassion. […] The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a white man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made,” he writes. Lamenting that some black people have started “preaching Negro superiority,” Griffin suggests that racial dynamics in America are very volatile. “If some spark does set the keg afire,” writes, “[…] then we will all pay for not having cried for justice long ago.”
Griffin ends Black Like Me on a somewhat contentious note, since he suggests that black people who make generalizations about white people make “the same tragic error the white racist has made.” This is quite clearly untrue, since racism is something borne out of a troubled history of black slavery and systemic oppression. As such, it cannot be compared to the unfavorable opinions that some African Americans might develop about whites, since this is only a reaction to years and years of hatred and disenfranchisement. Plus, the rights of white people remain uncompromised, no matter what people say about them (whereas African Americans are not only spoken about negatively, but also denied their rights). Having said that, it’s important to note that, although Griffin’s analysis of race relations in America certainly lacks nuance, the overall message he wishes to send is that equality will remain out of reach if whites and blacks don’t manage to “bridge” the “gap” of “understanding” that exists between them. As such, he underlines the importance of unity and communication between whites and blacks—a notion that was at the time rather radical, though it might not seem particularly revolutionary today. Still, it is for this reason that Black Like Me remains an important text, since it urged white people to interrogate their unexamined prejudices in a way that few books had before.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon