Black Like Me


John Howard Griffin

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Sterling Williams Character Analysis

An African American shoeshine living in New Orleans. When Griffin arrives in the city (and before he darkens his skin), he visits Sterling’s shoeshine stand on a regular basis, and the two men form something of a friendship. Later, after Griffin begins posing as a black man, he visits Sterling’s stand once more, but Sterling doesn’t recognize him. After a moment, Griffin asks if he recognizes his shoes, and Sterling says that he’s been shining similar shoes for a white man. At this point, Griffin reveals that he is that white man, and then he explains his entire project to Sterling. This is notable, since Sterling is one of the only people Griffin confides in throughout Black Like Me. Indeed, part of the reason he decides to tell Sterling about his project is because he wants someone to help him gain “entry” into the black community. Fortunately for him, Sterling is more than willing to help him, finding the idea so intriguing and entertaining that he even gives Griffin pointers about how best to present himself in everyday conversation so that people won’t suspect anything about his true racial identity.

Sterling Williams Quotes in Black Like Me

The Black Like Me quotes below are all either spoken by Sterling Williams or refer to Sterling Williams. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Signet edition of Black Like Me published in 1960.
November 8, 1959 Quotes

An odd thing happened. Within a short time he lapsed into familiarity, forgetting I was once white. He began to use the “we” form and to discuss “our situa­tion.” The illusion of my “Negro-ness” took over so completely that I fell into the same pattern of talking and thinking. It was my first intimate glimpse. We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him; how to hold our own and raise our­ selves in his esteem without for one moment letting him think he had any God-given rights that we did not also have.

Related Characters: John Howard Griffin (speaker), Sterling Williams
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
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Sterling Williams Character Timeline in Black Like Me

The timeline below shows where the character Sterling Williams appears in Black Like Me. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
November 6, 1959
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon old black man who lost his leg in World War I. His name is Sterling Williams, and he is extremely kind. Griffin tells Sterling that he’s writing about “civil rights,”... (full context)
November 8, 1959
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
When Griffin gets off the bus, he visits Sterling Williams’s shoeshine stand. Sitting in the seat, he realizes Sterling doesn’t recognize him even though... (full context)
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Griffin works for the day with Sterling, noticing that white customers have “no reticence” or “shame” when talking to black shoeshines. “Some... (full context)
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
...stands and prepares to walk to the Y, which is across town. Before he leaves, Sterling urges him to drink water from his bucket, pointing out that he probably won’t be... (full context)
November 14-15, 1959
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
...superficial pleasantries. “Existence becomes a grinding effort,” he notes. On the morning of the 14th, Sterling tells him that the Mississippi state jury decided not to indict a group of white... (full context)