Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Black Like Me can help.

Black Like Me: November 14-15, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After a week of this project, Griffin realizes how emotionally exhausting it is to contend with racism on an everyday basis, even when people mask their bigotry with 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 men who kidnapped a young black man—Mack Parker—from his jail cell and lynched him. News of the failed indictment has now reached everyone, and the African American community is devastated. “We might as well learn not to expect nothing from Southern Justice. They’re going to stack the cards against us every time,” Sterling laments. With this, Griffin makes up his mind that he must travel to Mississippi because it’s the worst place for black people in America. This, he believes, will be the only way to understand the situation.
Mack Parker was accused in 1959 of raping a white woman. He was then sent to jail, but before his hearing took place, a mob of angry white men dragged him from his cell and lynched him. Despite the ample evidence in this case, though, the Mississippi jury decided not to indict the white men. Unsurprisingly, this has a profound effect on Griffin and the people in the black community, as it is a real-life example of the systemic racism plaguing the country. Indeed, it’s clear that the judicial system itself is undeniably discriminatory, a fact that emphasizes just how disenfranchised African Americans are in the South.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
In the bus station that night, Griffin tries to purchase a ticket to Hattiesburg. “What do you want?” the white woman at the Greyhound window asks, giving him a “hate stare.” Taken aback by the viciousness of the glare, he asks if he has done something wrong, but the woman only says she can’t make change for his ten dollar bill. “Surely, in the entire Greyhound system there must be some means of changing a ten-dollar bill,” Griffin says. In turn, she snatches the money from him, turns around, and then returns with a fistful of loose change, which she flings at him so that it scatters about his feet. “Her performance was so venomous, I felt sorry for her,” Griffin writes. “I wondered how she would feel if she learned that the Negro before whom she had behaved in such an unladylike manner was habitually a white man.”
In this moment, Griffin finds himself overcome by the hate this woman projects at him. Though he’s only trying to buy a ticket, she treats him as if he has wronged her, and when he tries to connect with her, she lashes out and throws change at him. As such, readers see the enormous gulf between racists and the people they oppress. Interestingly enough, though, Griffin allows himself to empathize with this woman, since he sees that her own “venomous” way of moving through the world is toxic and self-harming. 
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
When Griffin is finally on the bus, he sits in the back and listens to black people talking about Mississippi, calling it “the most lied-about state in the union.” At one point, the bus stops and new passengers board. Among them is an “elegantly dressed” black man who nods kindly to the white people in the front and then “sneer[s]” at the black people in the back, saying, “This place stinks. Damned punk niggers. Look at all of them—bunch of dirty punks.” As the bus lurches onward, Griffin listens to this man get into a disagreement with someone sitting behind him. The elegantly dressed man’s name is Cristophe, and he shouts at the other black man, threatening to fight him until the man’s brother tells him to calm down, ultimately urging both of them to refrain from speaking to one another. As a result, Cristophe moves to sit next to Griffin. 
Cristophe serves as an example of the unfortunate effect that colorism has had on the African American community. Indeed, Cristophe has clearly internalized the racism that white society champions, ultimately believing that it matters whether or not a person’s skin is light or dark. As a result, he turns his scorn on his fellow African Americans, referring to them as “punks” just because they aren’t light-skinned. In this way, readers see how the notion of colorism divides the black community.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Although Griffin tries to avoid interacting with Cristophe, he eventually has no choice but to acknowledge his new seat partner, since Cristophe starts singing. “You don’t like the blues, do you, daddy?” Cristophe says. He then utters a haunting phrase in Latin, and Griffin “stare[s] at him dumbfounded.” Cristophe, Griffin learns, used to be an altar boy. “I came to sit by you because you’re the only one here that looks like he’s got enough sense to carry on an intelligent conversation,” he says, going on to indicate that this is because Griffin has lighter skin than the other black passengers. As for Cristophe, he claims that his father was Indian and his mother was French, though he immediately contradicts himself by saying that his mother was Portuguese. He then tries to guess Griffin’s lineage, determining that his mother must have been “part Florida Navaho.”
Again, readers see the extent to which Cristophe has invested himself in the idea of colorism. Proudly talking about his lineage, he disparages dark-skinned African Americans, insinuating that only light-skinned black people are capable of “intelligent conversation.” Once more, then, readers see the harmful and divisive ways in which racism has worked its way from the white community into the black community.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Get the entire Black Like Me LitChart as a printable PDF.
Black Like Me PDF
“I hate us, Father,” Cristophe says. “I’m not a Father,” Griffin replies, but Cristophe insists that he knows a priest when he sees one. “Look at these punks, Father,” he says. “Dumb, ignorant bastards. They don’t know the score. I’m getting out of this country.” He then confesses that he has just finished four years in the penitentiary and that he’s on his way to see his wife. At this point, he unexpectedly breaks into tears, and when Griffin tries to comfort him, Cristophe asks if he’ll pray for him the next time he goes to Mass. Griffin reiterates that he isn’t a priest, but he nevertheless agrees to pray for Cristophe. “Ah, that’s the only peace,” Cristophe says. “That’s the peace my soul longs for. I wish I could come back home to it, but I can’t—I haven’t been inside a church in seventeen years.”
A religious man himself, Griffin often sees the church as a safe haven from the tense racial dynamics at play throughout the country. Because of this, what Cristophe says in this moment most likely resonates with him, since Cristophe apparently craves the “peace” that comes along with a spiritual life. Unfortunately, though, he feels as if he “can’t” rejoin the church’s community, leaving him even more isolated and alone.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Griffin tells Cristophe that he can “always go back” to the church, but Cristophe merely says, “Nah. I’ve got to shoot up a couple of guys.” Registering Griffin’s surprise, Cristophe tells him that he should get off the bus with him so they can “shoot up this town together.” Needless to say, Griffin declines this invitation, and Cristophe gets off in Slidell, Louisiana. 
Without any resources or community, Cristophe resigns himself to a life of crime, ultimately making the “wild gesture” the café owner referenced in his conversation with Griffin about why young African Americans often respond to disenfranchisement by acting out. Isolated and angry, Cristophe chooses to behave violently, and though he certainly doesn’t have a good excuse to murder someone, there’s no denying the fact that his disenfranchisement has contributed to this habit of violence and aggression.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
While the bus stops in Slidell, a new driver comes on, as does a black man named Bill Williams, who sits next to Griffin and makes pleasant conversation, eventually offering him advice about how best to navigate through the hateful world of Mississippi. This conversation attracts the attention of the other black passengers, who chime in with their own advice, telling Griffin not to look at white women, to be careful when he walks past an alley so that he doesn’t get robbed, and to resist the urge to stop if a white person calls out to him. When Griffin thanks Bill for helping him, Bill says, “Well, If I was to come to your part of the country, I’d want somebody to tell me.”
In contrast to Cristophe’s confrontational and aggressive persona, Bill Williams is a beacon of kindness. In fact, his affability encourages everyone in the back of the bus to demonstrate their own friendliness, ultimately creating a sense of unity. Coming together in order to teach Griffin how to avoid trouble in Mississippi, this group of people pools their knowledge to help each other survive, demonstrating the ways in which people sometimes band together to form a sense of community in trying times.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
The bus stops and the driver tells the passengers they have ten minutes to use the restrooms. After letting the white people off, though, he blocks the door. However, Bill—who is in front of Griffin—quickly slides beneath the driver’s arm and strides away. “Hey, boy, where you going?” the driver shouts, but Bill doesn’t turn around. After a moment, the driver turns to Griffin and says, “Where do you think you’re going?” In response, Griffin says, “I’d like to go to the rest room,” but the driver doesn’t let him, so he retreats to the back, where he and the black passengers lament this injustice. Fed up, one of the passengers decides to kneel between the seats and pee on the floor, and though everyone else wants to do this, too, they decide not to because it’ll reflect badly on their entire race.
One of the difficulties that comes along with facing discrimination is that one is forced to constantly consider how his or her actions will impact the way white people view black people. Unfortunately, racists are all too eager to weaponize anything that might cast African Americans in a negative light. As a result, the black passengers on this bus have to weigh the consequences of committing an act of defiance, wondering if they will ultimately be doing themselves a disservice by asserting their own rights. 
Themes
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
When Bill returns to the bus, the driver says, “Didn’t you hear me call you?” “I sure didn’t,” Bill responds. When the driver says he can’t believe this, Bill says, “Oh, were you calling me? I heard you yelling ‘Boy,’ but that’s not my name, so I didn’t know you meant me.” When he takes his seat once more, everyone in the back sees him as a “hero” because of this “act of defiance.” Before long, the bus slides through Poplarville, where the jury failed to indict the men who killed Mack Parker, and a palpable tension settles over the black passengers. Pointing to the courthouse, Bill says, “That’s where they as much as told the whites, ‘You go ahead and lynch those niggers, we’ll see you don’t get in any trouble.’”
Bill’s decision to ignore the driver and then cleverly sidestep his rebuke makes him a “hero” because all of the black passengers know how difficult—and dangerous—it is to stand up for oneself when dealing with a racist. Indeed, this is a risky thing to do, as made abundantly clear by the fact that racist whites have no problem committing extremely violent acts against African Americans—acts that, like in the case of Mack Parker, often have no repercussions whatsoever. 
Themes
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Upon the bus’s arrival in Hattiesburg, Bill helps Griffin find a place to stay and hails him a cab. After parting ways with his new friend, Griffin rides in the back of a white man’s cab, looking out at the African American section of town and finding himself intimidated by what he sees. “Looks awful wild down here,” he says, to which the driver responds, “If you don’t know the quarter, you’d better get inside somewhere as soon as you can.” Walking along the street to find the person who will help him find lodging (referred by someone Bill put Griffin in touch with), Griffin becomes the target of a car full of white men, who scream at him and throw a tangerine at his head before driving away. 
Once again, fear and violence come to the forefront of Black Like Me. This time, Griffin is unsettled by the “wild” part of Hattiesburg that he plans to sleep in. Worse, he learns that a dark-skinned man can’t even walk down the street without fearing for his life—a point made all too clear by the car of white boys who single him out simply for going about his day. 
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Griffin in completely unsettled not only by the car of racists, but by Hattiesburg’s entire atmosphere. “I felt the insane terror of it,” he writes. Periodically, cars drive through the streets and everyone disappears for their own safety, coming outside again only when the unknown vehicle has passed. Eventually, Griffin makes his way to a “wooden shanty structure,” where his room is at the top of the building. Once inside, he’s shocked by how “decrepit” his lodgings are, feeling quite uncomfortable despite the fact that his “contact[s]” have assured him that this is the safest place for him to stay. Alone, he looks down upon the street and feels like he must be in hell. “Hell could be no more lonely or hopeless, no more agonizingly estranged from the world of order and harmony,” he writes.
What’s most striking about this scene is that Griffin feels an acute sense of loneliness as a result of his intense fear. Unable to banish his dread, he feels as if he has been plunged into “hell,” thereby insinuating that the perpetual safety he experienced as a white man is an absurd luxury compared to this sate of constant worry, a feeling that makes a person feel isolated and cut off from the “order and harmony” of the world. 
Themes
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Trying to stop feeling sorry for himself, Griffin takes on the voice of his supposed black identity, saying, “Nigger, what you standing up there crying for?” But this does nothing to make him feel better—in fact, he feels as if this outburst has come from an entirely different person as he looks in the mirror. “It’s not right. It’s just not right,” he hears himself say. Trying to distract himself, he finds a roll of film negatives on the ground but is disappointed to discover that the frames are blank. Depressed, he sits down to write his wife, but he’s unable to conjure any words. “The observing self saw the Negro, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the ghetto, write ‘Darling’ to a white woman,” Griffin notes. “The chains of my blackness would not allow me to go on.” As such, he abandons the task.
Once again, Griffin faces the mirror and is unsettled by what he finds, though this time his discomfort comes not necessarily only from his own reflection, but from his sense that he is cut off from the world he knows. As such, he tries to fully embody his new identity as a black man, but this does nothing to make him feel better. Indeed, he can’t quite leave behind his double-consciousness, since he can’t fully inhabit the identity of a black man, but also can no longer completely exist as a white man, given his current circumstances. As a result, he is straddled between two identities, which is ultimately why he’s unable to write to his wife, feeling estranged from their relationship because of the various implications that come along with a black man calling a white woman “Darling” (in Mississippi, at least).
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Going back outside, Griffin seeks out barbeque food. When a woman working at the restaurant hands him his food, though, she looks up and he interprets her look as one that says, “God…isn’t it awful?” As music blares all around him, he thinks angrily about how white people like to claim that black people are “happy” with the way things are. “The noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder to cover the whisper in every man’s soul. ‘You are black. You are condemned.’ This is what the white man mistook for ‘jubilant living’ and called ‘whooping it up,’” Griffin writes. “This is how the white man can say, ‘They live like dogs,’ never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness.”
Again, Griffin spotlights the cyclical nature of oppression. First, white society deprives black people of their rights, thoroughly disenfranchising them and leaving them with no hope for upward mobility or advancement of any kind. As a result, many people feel they “must” “shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness.” Then, perhaps most unfairly, white society claims that this kind of behavior is an indication that African Americans are happy with the way things are, since this way of life looks, from the outside, “jubilant.” As such, white society allows its racist beliefs to perpetuate, never stopping to consider the fact that things would be different if they stopped oppressing African Americans.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Feeling as if “disaster” could strike at any moment Griffin gives up and calls the only person he knows nearby, a journalist named P.D. East. Billie, his wife, answers the phone and tells Griffin that P.D. will pick him up and that he can stay at their house on the condition that he doesn’t do anything related to his project while staying with them, since P.D. has already been “persecuted for seeking justice in race relations” and, as a result, his entire family has been ostracized from white society.
Griffin’s decision to retreat from the African American section of Hattiesburg underlines his privilege as a white man. Unlike the people surrounding him, he has the option and means to simply remove himself from uncomfortable situations. What’s more, his sudden retreat emphasizes just how difficult it is to live under racial oppression. After all, Griffin has only experienced this life for roughly two weeks, and even this short period of time is apparently too much for him to take.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
When P.D. picks up Griffin, the two men ride side by side in the darkness, a strange awkwardness in the air. Griffin, for his part, wonders why their conversation is “stilted,” but then he realizes what’s happening. “I had grown so accustomed to being a Negro, to being shown contempt, that I could not rid myself of the cautions,” he writes. “I was embarrassed to ride in the front seat of the car with a white man, especially on our way to his home. It was breaking the ‘Southern rule’ somehow.” When he arrives at P.D.’s house, Billie greets him kindly but makes “gallows humor” jokes about the entire situation, which help ease the tension. “What did we fear?” Griffin wonders. “It was unlikely that the Klan would come riding down on us. We merely fell into the fear that hangs over the state, a nameless and awful thing.”
Although Griffin has only been disguised as a black man for two weeks, he has already developed a number of defense mechanisms to keep himself safe from white aggression. As a result, he finds it difficult to let his defenses down when riding in P.D.’s car. Of course, he knows that he’s a white man, but he has now experienced the many complications that African Americans face when associating with white people. In this way, readers see how thoroughly fear can refigure the way a person moves through the world.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Griffin notes that this “nameless” fear that “hangs over” Mississippi reminds him of what it was like to live in Europe during the Nazi era—there was, he says, a shameful kind of fear that arose whenever he used to speak to a Jewish person during this time. “For the Negro, at least, this fear is ever-present in the South, and the same is doubtlessly true of many decent whites who watch and wait, and feel the deep shame of it,” Griffin writes.
Griffin studied in France as a young man when Hitler was conquering Europe. Because he’s well-acquainted with the kind of simmering dread that accompanies acts of violence and discrimination, he can identify the “ever-present” fear that African Americans feel in the South, as well as the “shame” nonracist whites feel when they stand idly by because they’re too afraid to speak out against racism. It is perhaps because he’s so familiar with this dynamic that he has decided to write this book in the first place, as the entire project is an example of what it might look like for a white writer to take a stand against racial injustice.
Themes
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
After settling into P.D.’s house and spending time with his family, Griffin unwinds. Before long, P.D. gives him a manuscript of his memoir, The Magnolia Jungle and asks him to read it, so Griffin retreats to his room and reads, enthralled by the writing. “I read through the night the story of a native-born Southerner, a man who had tried to follow the crowd, who ran an innocuous little newspaper, The Petal Paper, glad-handed, joined the local civic clubs and kept himself in line with ‘popular opinion,’ which meant ‘popular prejudice,’” Griffin notes. Describing the premise of P.D.’s book, Griffin goes on to explain that P.D. slowly began to see that his attempts to placate racists were immoral, so he started writing editorials that challenged bigoted ideas. As a result, he and his family were threatened, and he lost “most of his local subscribers and ads.” 
P.D. East’s story serves as an example of the many ways in which nonracist whites are often bullied into upholding white society’s racist values. By essentially destroying P.D.’s professional life, the local racists effectively issue a warning to other white people who might want to speak out against racism. By outlining this story, Griffin once again shows readers why so few white people are outspoken when it comes to social justice. And yet, at the same time, P.D. East remains true to his conscience, something Griffin clearly admires. 
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Going into more detail about P.D. East’s downfall in white society, Griffin explains that P.D. was outspokenly against a bill “to levy penalizing fines against any church holding nonsegregated services.” This, P.D. upheld, was “simply the old story of legalized injustice.” “This tendency to make laws that are convenient or advantageous rather than right has mushroomed in Southern legislatures,” Griffin notes. Interestingly enough, though, Griffin notices that P.D. East hasn’t let these hardships break his spirits. Although his entire life has changed as a result of his decision to speak out against racism, he still manages to be funny in his book manuscript. This, Griffin intimates, is one of the reasons he can’t put down The Magnolia Jungle. Indeed, when he finally tries to sleep, he sees that the sun has already risen. Shortly thereafter, P.D. wakes him up, and the two men spend the rest of the day discussing the manuscript.
Again, Griffin goes out of his way to make sure readers know that P.D. East hasn’t been entirely destroyed by his sudden downfall in white society. He does this because he wants his readers to understand that, although there are certainly—and unfortunately—repercussions in the South for speaking out against racism, it’s still possible for a person to act according to his or her conscience.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon