Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 19, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On Griffin’s first day in Biloxi, he starts hitchhiking along the road, eventually getting into a car owned by a white man with red hair. Right away, Griffin can tell he is kind, and begins to hope that he has perhaps “underestimated the people of Mississippi.” However, the driver soon goes out of his way to make it clear that he’s from Massachusetts, clearly wanting Griffin to know that he’s “not a Mississippian.” When the two men fall into a conversation about race, the driver says that he respects his new neighbors but doesn’t understand why they’re so unable to talk about equality. “They can’t discuss it,” he says. “It’s a shame but all they do is get mad whenever you bring it up […]. They’re blocked on that one subject. […] if I mention race with any sympathy for the Negro, they just tell me I’m an ‘outsider’ […].”
The point that the redhaired driver makes is worth noting, as he identifies the white community’s unwillingness to speak openly about race. This lack of communication is the reason so many whites are capable of ignoring their own bigotry. Simply by refusing to talk about race relations, they enable themselves to continue oppressing African Americans without having to admit their own prejudices. 
Themes
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Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
After his ride with the redhaired driver, Griffin walks for a long time, trying to eventually make his way to Mobile, Alabama. That night, he begins getting more and more rides. Indeed, he learns that white men who would normally pass him during the day are more likely to pick him up at night. “It quickly became obvious why they picked me up,” he writes. “All but two picked me up the way they would pick up a pornographic photograph or book—except that this was verbal pornography.” Believing that they don’t need to show any kind of “respectability,” these men ask Griffin shockingly lewd questions about his sex life. “They appeared to think that the Negro has done all of those ‘special’ things they themselves have never dared to do. They carried the conversation into the depths of depravity,” Griffin notes.
In this section, Griffin encounters the same lack of respect he has already identified in the white community. This time, though, his interactions with white men become pointedly sexual, as they succumb to a voyeuristic impulse to fetishize black sex. And although these men presumably think they’re not doing anything wrong because they’re not saying anything blatantly hateful, it’s clear that their interest in such matters stems from their belief that black people are fundamentally different than white people. As such, their questions are quite obviously racist.
Themes
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Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Ride after ride, the drivers ask Griffin about his sex life. Sometimes these conversations become dangerous, as is the case when one driver asks if he has ever been attracted to a white woman. Griffin says he hasn’t—remembering the dangers of showing interest in white women—but the driver says, “Do you think I’m crazy? Why, I had one of them admit to me just last night that he craves white women.” He then says that there are “plenty white women” who would like to sleep with a black man, but Griffin merely replies, “A Negro’d be asking for the rope to get himself mixed up with white women.” Once it becomes clear that Griffin won’t talk about being attracted to white women, the driver pulls over and lets him out.
In this moment, the driver puts Griffin in an incredibly precarious situation. On the one hand, if Griffin placates him by agreeing that he has been attracted to white women before, he runs the risk of transgressing against one of the most dangerous unspoken rules in Mississippi about interracial relationships. On the other hand, if he continues to deny that he’s attracted to white women, then he has to actively disagree with—and seemingly disappoint—the driver, therefore putting himself at odds with a white man. As such, the entire conversation is colored by Griffin’s reticence and fear.
Themes
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At one point, a young man picks Griffin up and begins speaking with an “educated flair.” Still, though, all of his questions have to do with sex. “Though he pretended to be above such ideas as racial superiority and spoke with genuine warmth, the entire context of his talk reeked of preconceived ideas to the contrary,” Griffin writes. For instance, the driver says, “I understand Negroes are much more broad-minded about [sex],” insisting that black people don’t have the same kind of “inhibitions” as white people. “I don’t think there’s any difference,” Griffin replies. “Our ministers preach sin and hell just as much as yours. We’ve got the same puritanical background as you. We worry just as much as white people about our children losing their virginity or being perverted.”
Once again, Griffin presents readers with a white man who is unaware of his own bigotry. Or, at the very least, this young man is unwilling to fully examine the implications of his beliefs about black people. Indeed, the driver presents himself as an educated man who believes in racial equality, but he makes the same assumption that all racists make—namely, that there is a fundamental difference between white people and black people. Despite this belief, though, he refuses to admit that he’s racist, instead allowing his implicit biases against black people to inform his worldview without ever interrogating his opinions.
Themes
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Clearly excited by the fact that Griffin speaks “intelligently,” the young man pushes on, even asking “the size of Negro genitalia and the details of Negro sex life,” though he tries to disguise these lewd interests by using hifalutin language and making fleeting references to sociological studies. “The boy ended up wanting me to expose myself to him,” Griffin writes. “I turned mute, indrawn, giving no answer.” After driving in silence, the driver says, “I wasn’t going to do anything to you,” and Griffin assures him that he knows that. “It’s just that I don’t get a chance to talk to educated Negroes—people that can answer questions,” the young man says.
The young driver embarrasses himself by revealing his true interest: the sex lives of black people, whom he has clearly fetishized because he thinks they’re fundamentally different than white people. In response, Griffin gives him nothing but silence, inviting him to reflect on just how ridiculous and awkward his question really is. Embarrassed, the driver tries to claim that he’s simply enthralled to have the chance to converse with an “educated” black man, though this is obviously not the case, since intelligence has nothing to do with the “size of Negro genitalia.”
Themes
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Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
“You make it more complicated than it is,” Griffin tells the driver. “If you want to know about the sexual morals of the Negro—his practices and ideals—it’s no mystery. These are human matters, and the Negro is the same human as the white man. Just ask yourself how it is for a white man and you’ll know all the answers.” In response, the driver cites “social studies” that make a different argument, but Griffin cuts him off, saying, “They don’t deal with any basic difference in human nature between black and white.”
Again, Griffin underlines the fact that there is no “difference in human nature between black and white.” Indeed, skin color is an appearance and nothing more, at least when it comes to the fundamental “nature” of human beings.
Themes
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Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The next driver that picks Griffin up is a young man who looks tough and unforgiving but actually turns out to be a kind man who believes in equality. When he pulls over to buy both Griffin and himself hamburgers, Griffin wonders how, exactly, this southerner has managed to adopt such an egalitarian spirit, but he can’t quite figure it out—the man is simply kind.
Griffin learns his own lesson about appearance in this moment, as he judges this new driver based on what he looks like and then sees that his assessment is completely inaccurate. Though he assumes the young man will be just as racist as all the other drivers, he soon discovers he is full of kindness and good will.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Griffin arrives in Mobile, Alabama and meets a black man near the bus station. This man, it turns out, is a local preacher, and he invites Griffin to stay with him, though he only has one bed. As such, the two men go back to the preacher’s house and climb into bed together. “Do you want to talk or sleep?” the preacher asks, and since Griffin is beginning to feel overwhelmed not only by the rough night he has had, but by the intense “poverty” of the preacher’s home, he says he’d like to talk. This, he notes, “banishe[s] the somberness.”
Again, Griffin frames communication and camaraderie as one of the only true respites from the hateful, exhausting world of the segregated South. Emotionally fatigued from a long day of implicit bias and entrenched racism, he relishes the opportunity to simply coexist as equals with this kind preacher.
Themes
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