Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 24, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hitchhiking between Mobile and Montgomery, Griffin gets a ride from a white man in a truck who has a shotgun leaning against his leg in the cabin. Laughing, the driver says, “That’s for hunting deer.” Their initial conversation starts out normally, as the driver asks about Griffin’s family. Eventually, though, he asks if Griffin has a “pretty wife,” and when he says that he does, the driver asks, “She ever had it from a white man?” When Griffin doesn’t respond, the driver goes on, saying that he hires many black women at his business and that he has sex with all of them as part of the interview process. “You think that’s pretty terrible, don’t you?” he asks. “I guess I do,” Griffin says. The driver then insists that everybody does this, saying, “We figure we’re doing you people a favor to get some white blood in your kids.”
Yet again, Griffin finds himself in a precarious situation. If he celebrates the driver’s assertion that many white men have sex with black women, he might put himself in danger, since racists normally vilify the idea of interracial relationships. However, if he admits that he thinks the driver is “pretty terrible,” the driver might turn on him. Despite this danger, though, Griffin acts in accordance with his conscience, saying that he doesn’t approve of the driver’s actions. In doing so, he demonstrates the importance of standing up for what one believes in, even when doing so is risky. 
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Griffin is astounded by the driver’s “hypocrisy,” thinking about the many times he’s heard white people speaking terribly about the “horror” of “mongrelization” and the importance of “racial purity.” Moving on, the driver asks Griffin why he’s in town, asking if he’s here to “stir up trouble.” Griffin denies this, but the driver tells him what white people do to black people who “stir up trouble”: “We either ship them off to the pen or kill them.” Suddenly, Griffin sees how eager this man is to make an example out of a black man, and this “terrifie[s]” him. “You can kill a nigger and toss him into that swamp and no one’ll ever know what happened to him,” the driver says, and Griffin only dares to say, “Yes, sir,” before falling silent. Shortly thereafter, the man pulls to the side of the road and asks Griffin to get out.
Sure enough, Griffin’s decision to openly challenge the driver’s racist ways puts him in danger. This is made evident by the fact that the driver immediately begins to indirectly threaten Griffin, saying that a white man like him can kill a black man and “toss him into” a swamp without any repercussions. In turn, readers see the frightening consequences that African Americans often face when they push back against bigotry. 
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
As Griffin gets out of the truck, the driver says, “I’ll tell you how it is here. We’ll do business with you people. We’ll sure as hell screw your women. Other than that, you’re just completely off the record as far as we’re concerned.” With these words ringing in his mind, Griffin wanders a desolate stretch of road, starving and parched. Eventually, he comes upon a “service station” with a grocery store inside. Seeing the white owners, he hesitates, but then he remembers what the racist driver said: “We’ll do business with you people.” As such, he enters and buys food, careful not to do anything other than purchase the goods. Back on the road, he’s relieved to be picked up by a black man, who takes him home for the night despite the fact that he only has two rooms to share between his wife, two daughters, and himself.
Once more, Griffin benefits from the kindness of a black stranger. By showing readers that a sense of camaraderie is what ensures his safety after leaving the racist driver’s car, he emphasizes the importance of banding together in the face of discrimination and hate.  
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
That night, after having a jovial time with the black driver and his family, Griffin wakes up and realizes that he has been screaming. This is because he was having a nightmare, one he’s been having rather frequently. In the dream, white people surround him and give him “the hate stare” as they close in on him, his back “against a wall.” The next morning, Griffin has breakfast and coffee and prepares to leave, reaching for his money. However, the driver’s wife stops him, saying, “If you gave us a penny, we’d owe you change.” Still, Griffin leaves money before returning to the highway, where two white boys drive him to a bus station.
Griffin’s recurring nightmare is a sign that he has been thoroughly troubled by his experience as a dark-skinned man in the South. Indeed, it’s clear that the stress of existing under the influence of racism has permeated every aspect of his emotional life, imbuing him with a constant fear of white violence. What’s more, the kindness of the driver’s wife once again emphasizes the importance of unity and community, ultimately suggesting that people can help one another cope by exhibiting small acts of empathy.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Black Like Me PDF
In the bus station, Griffin buys a ticket for Montgomery and then goes to the bathroom, where he looks at himself in the mirror. Having been in this disguise for more than three weeks, he is “no longer shocked” to see himself. Suddenly, he feels “a great hunger for something merely pleasurable, for something people call ‘fun.’” As he continues to look into the mirror, he sees that his skin has lightened because he hasn’t been lying under the sun lamp, so he darkens the corners of his lips and reminds himself that he must be careful not to take off his clothes in front of anyone, since the majority of his body has lightened.
The fact that Griffin’s skin is fading back to white is a reminder that he isn’t actually a black man. Although he has inhabited the persona of an African American, there’s no changing that he is—in reality—a white man who can transition back to a life of privilege whenever he wants. This is important to keep in mind, especially since he himself seems to overlook this point by investing himself wholeheartedly in the appropriation of a black identity.
Themes
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