Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: December 1, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Griffin decides to alternate between presenting as white and presenting as black, keeping his stain and makeup tools in a bag with him at all times. When he finds a secluded place, he steps out of sight and transforms himself. “I was the same man, whether white or black,” he writes. “Yet when I was white, I received the brotherly-love smiles and the privileges from whites and the hate stares or obsequiousness from the Negroes. And when I was a Negro, the whites judged me fit for the junk heap, while the Negroes treated me with great warmth.”
By saying that he is “the same man” whether he presents as white or black, Griffin once again highlights the fact that appearance doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a person’s true identity, though it does profoundly impact the way one moves through the world. Indeed, Griffin is treated differently depending upon what he looks like, finding camaraderie with whomever looks like him and resentment from whomever does not. In this way, then, he also spotlights the intense division between the black and white communities.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Related Quotes
After spending time in Montgomery, Griffin travels—disguised as a black man—to the Tuskegee Institute, a nearby black university. Near the school, he encounters a drunk white man who calls him over. This drunk man is a PhD student who has come to Alabama from New York to “observe” the state’s racial dynamics. The student asks Griffin if he’ll have a drink with him, and when Griffin declines, he says, “Wait a minute, damnit. You people are my brothers. It’s people like me that are your only hope. How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?” He goes on to say that he doesn’t “consider” himself “any better” than Griffin. “Though I knew he had been drinking,” Griffin writes, “I wondered that an educated man and an observer could be so obtuse—could create such an embarrassing situation for a Negro.”
The drunken young man Griffin encounters in this scene has romanticized the idea of himself as someone who stands for equality. Although it’s obviously a good thing to advocate for justice and the destruction of bigotry, this man’s way of expressing these ideas is performative and self-interested, as he never stops to consider that his boisterous words about equality are putting Griffin in an “embarrassing situation.” And though he claims to invest himself in the idea of equal rights—calling black people his “brothers”—it’s clear he mainly wants to satisfy his own ego, as made evident when he says, “It’s people like me that are your only hope.” In this manner, he reveals his desire to be seen as a beneficent savior of sorts—a self-aggrandizing idea that stands in stark contrast to his supposed commitment to equality.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Griffin again declines the drunk man’s invitation to have a drink, and the man starts to make a scene. At this point, a black man appears with a truck full of turkeys and asks if either Griffin or the drunkard would like to buy one. “I don’t have any family here,” Griffin says, but the drunkard butts in, insisting that he’ll buy all of the turkeys “just to help” the man selling them. He then says he’ll give the turkeys away, but the seller is unsure, not knowing whether or not to take the ten dollar bill that the drunkard has held out for him. “What’s the matter,” the drunkard says, “did you steal them or something?” Griffin notes that now the “unpardonable” has “been said.” “The white man, despite his protestations of brotherhood, had made the first dirty suggestion that came to his mind,” he writes.
When the drunk man makes “the first dirty suggestion” that comes “to his mind,” it becomes apparent that a person can see him- or herself as empathetic without actually embodying any of the traits normally associated with someone who believes in equality. Indeed, the drunkard has developed an implicit bias against black people, one he doesn’t even recognize, since he’s too busy telling himself that he’s committed to equality and racial justice. All the while, though, he harbors disparaging ideas about African Americans—ideas that inevitably make their way into his actions and thus cause him to behave like a racist despite what he thinks about his own enlightenment.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
The drunkard picks up on a sudden “resentment” that the turkey seller and Griffin now project toward him. As a result, he becomes angry. “Hell, no wonder nobody has any use for you. You don’t give a man a chance to be nice to you. And damnit, I’m going to put that in my report. There’s something ‘funny’ about all of you,” he says, stomping away. 
Rather than interrogating his own implicit biases against black people, the drunk man lashes out at Griffin and the turkey vendor. Indeed, he avoids reckoning with his racist beliefs and then makes gross generalizations about African Americans—unfair generalizations that only contribute to his deeply entrenched bigotry. In turn, readers see how easy it is for unexamined prejudices to perpetuate themselves.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
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Black Like Me PDF
Taking a bus to Atlanta, Griffin witnesses a moment of extreme tension as two white women board and can’t find a place to sit in the bus’s white section. No white men rise to let one of them sit, so the driver calls out to the black passengers, asking a young black man and a black woman to sit together so that the white women can sit down without having to be next to either of them. However, both passengers “ignore” the driver, and the whites start turning around to glare. “Didn’t you hear the driver? Move out, man,” says a redhaired man. “They’re welcome to sit here,” the young black man says, gesturing to the seat next to him. “They don’t want to sit with you people, don’t you know that?” the driver says, but still, nobody moves. 
Throughout Black Like Me, Griffin witnesses several everyday acts of heroism. This time, it comes when the young black man says that the white women are “welcome to sit’ next to him despite the fact that the driver has asked him to move. Given the charged atmosphere of the bus, this is an extremely courageous thing to say, since it’s obviously dangerous for a black man to stand up for himself in the South. Nonetheless, Griffin communicates a certain amount of respect for this man, thereby underlining how admirable and important it is to stay strong in the face of fear—otherwise, he intimates, nothing will ever change.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
The redhaired man asks the driver if he wants him to “slap” the two black passengers “out of their seats,” but the driver says, “No—for God’s sake—please—no rough stuff.” “It’s all right,” says one of the women, urging the driver and the redhaired man to stop this charade. When the white passengers all get off in Atlanta, one turns to the young black man and says, “I just wanted to tell you that before he slapped you, he’d have had to slap me down first.” None of the black passengers are impressed, but they nod to acknowledge his sentiment. “Well, I just wanted you to know—I was on your side, boy.” With this, he “wink[s],” “never realizing” that he has “revealed himself” by using the word “boy.” In the bus station bathroom, Griffin quickly wipes off the stain and becomes his white self once more.
The young black man’s courage in this scene is worth noting, since it leads to a small victory over the racism of the bus’s white passengers. This bravery stands in stark contrast to the white man’s retrospective assertion that he would have stood up for the black man if the redhaired passenger had tried to fight him. Considering the fact that this man said nothing in the actual moment, this is a spineless comment, one he clearly says only to make himself feel better about not having the mettle to do what’s right in the first place. Indeed, this passenger is a racist himself, though he doesn’t recognize this because he sees himself as an enlightened man who believes in equality. However, these kinds of beliefs mean nothing if a person doesn’t act on them in real time.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon