Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 7, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Griffin’s “treatment” doesn’t work quite as quickly as he originally hoped, but he decides that his skin is dark enough at this point, especially if he uses “stain” to “touch [it] up.” After deciding with the dermatologist that he ought to shave his head, he goes to leave the office one last time, though not before the dermatologist issues a number of “firm warnings,” expressing a certain amount of “regret” that he helped in this project. Just as Griffin is about to leave, the dermatologist shakes his hand and says, “Now you go into oblivion.” 
The dermatologist is a perfect example of somebody who is prejudiced without being blatantly racist. Indeed, it’s clear that the doctor is a somewhat compassionate man, as made evident by the fact that he seemingly understands how hard it will be to live as an African American. At the same time, though, he also makes a number of generalizations about black people, thereby advancing stereotypes while claiming to be empathetic. In this way, readers see that even supposedly nonracist white people are capable of perpetuating harmful narratives about black people.
Themes
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That afternoon, Griffin’s host looks up at him and says, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m worried.” In response, Griffin tells him not to worry and then says that he’ll be leaving that night. “What are you going to do—be a Puerto Rican or something?” his host asks. “Something like that,” Griffin replies. “There may be ramifications. I’d rather you didn’t know anything about it. I don’t want you involved.” That evening, the host says goodbye and goes out for the night, leaving Griffin to prepare for his first outing as a black man.
Griffin’s desire to hide his project from his host underlines the possible dangers of this experiment. Indeed, Griffin knows that people associated with this project could very well become “targets” themselves—a notion that only emphasizes how frightening it would be to undertake something like this in the segregated South, where racists are all too eager to make examples of people working toward equality.
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After eating dinner, Griffin calls his family, but nobody answers. With nothing left to do, he shaves his head and “grind[s] in the stain,” showering to “wash off all the excess.” Purposefully avoiding the mirror, he gets dressed and packs his things into a duffel bag. Finally, he goes back into the bathroom and looks in the mirror. “The transformation was total and shocking,” he writes. “I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.”
In this moment, Griffin undergoes an unexpected identity crisis, staring at himself in awe and feeling utterly disconnected with the person he sees looking back at him in the mirror. Although he wants to demonstrate to racists that appearance is arbitrary and superficial—and has no bearing on identity itself—he can’t help but feel profoundly transformed by this aesthetic change. Of course, this makes sense, considering the fact that he lives in a world that defines people based on their physical appearances. Because of this, it is shocking for him to see himself in this renewed way.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Griffin’s first instinct is to “fight against” the experience of seeing himself as a black man. “I had gone too far,” he notes. “I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won’t rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been. I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me.” Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he feels like he has become “two men.” He becomes lonely, “not because I was a Negro but because the man I had been, the self I knew, was hidden in the flesh of another.” Going on, he suggests that he has “tampered with the mystery of existence” and, as a result, “lost the sense of [his] own being.” 
When Griffin says that “the black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been,” he calls attention to the fact that white Americans only take note of a person’s skin color, flattening African Americans’ identities into one all-encompassing way of being. Now that he himself is disguised as a black man, then, he knows that he is—according to white society—nothing more than that. This, in turn, is why he feels as if he has “lost the sense of [his] own being.”  
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Get the entire Black Like Me LitChart as a printable PDF.
Black Like Me PDF
Feeling a lack of “companionship” with the person he has “become,” Griffin ventures out into the streets at midnight with “enormous self-consciousness.” Passing a white man, he wonders if he should “nod” or say “Good evening” or “simply ignore him.” Waiting for the streetcar, he feels himself begin to sweat in nervousness, realizing that this experience feels the same—both the new and the old Griffins sweat in the same way. “As I had suspected they would be, my discoveries were naïve ones, like those of a child,” he writes. When the streetcar finally arrives, he gets on and sits in the back despite the fact that public transportation isn’t technically segregated in New Orleans.
Not all of Griffin’s “discoveries” will be profound. However, that doesn’t mean that even his simple realizations won’t provide insight into the ways in which white people approach the idea of race. Of course, contemporary readers will possibly find it offensive that Griffin perhaps expected himself to sweat differently as a black man, but his sudden understanding that nothing fundamental about his body will change is an important one for him to come to, since the prevailing conversation about race in the United States at this time is predicated on the notion that there is a true difference between black and white humans. As such, Griffin chooses to include even his most banal “discoveries,” since they might encourage his white readers to examine their own illogical assumptions about the supposed difference between whites and blacks.  
Themes
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A black man on the streetcar tells Griffin about a good hotel for African Americans, so Griffin gets off and makes his way to the establishment. On his way, he goes to a drugstore to buy cigarettes. He has visited this store every day since arriving in New Orleans, but now the cashier declines to speak to him, instead rudely handing him cigarettes without a word. At the hotel, he waits in the lobby and talks to another black patron, who tells him of another hotel that is even better. As such, Griffin picks up his bag and turns to leave. “See you around, Slick,” the man says as he leaves. At the next hotel, Griffin is led to a windowless room that is clean but “desolate,” and he feels immediately depressed.
It's worth noting that Griffin has received money from Sepia magazine to use throughout the project. As such, it’s clear that the depressing options he has when it comes to finding a place to stay have nothing to do with his inability to pay for nicer lodgings. In this way, readers see that nice hotels simply aren’t available to a black person in the South, regardless of how much money he or she has.
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Griffin tries to fall asleep despite the loud noise of the streets. After a while, he walks to the bathroom—which is located down the hall—and finds a naked man sitting against the wall waiting for the shower. Although Griffin is uncomfortable at first, he makes small talk with the man, who is quite friendly. As they smoke cigarettes together, they discuss “local politics,” and the man tells Griffin that the mayor has “a good reputation for fairness” and that black citizens are hoping he will become governor. “I sensed the conversation made little difference, that for a few moments we were safe from the world and we were loath to break the communication and go back to our rooms,” Griffin writes. 
In this scene, Griffin emphasizes the kindness of this black stranger, who is willing to simply pass the time talking to him despite the fact that they don’t know each other. There is, it seems, an unspoken sense of unity in this moment, as the two men discuss “local politics” simply to talk about something to which they can both relate (though Griffin isn’t from New Orleans and isn’t, obviously, black). In this way, Griffin suggests that there is a certain kind of unity that develops between people when they are oppressed, as idle conversation and camaraderie become ways of escaping the hostility of everyday life.
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