Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 8, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Griffin leaves the hotel and walks through the “ghetto,” which he sees in a different light now that he looks like a black man. Ducking into a small café, he orders breakfast as a nearby black man starts talking to him, asking if he’s new in town. When Griffin asks if there’s a better place in the city for him to find a new room, the man says, “Ain’t this awful?” He then tells Griffin to try the Y, which is “the best place” because it’s “clean” and always full of nice people. As their conversation continues, the two men become increasingly friendly, and Griffin buys the man a cup of coffee.
Once again, Griffin emphasizes the unity and camaraderie that he experiences with black people, ultimately suggesting that this kind of easygoing conversation with strangers helps people cope with the hatred and bigotry that otherwise constantly encroaches upon their lives.
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After leaving the café, Griffin boards a bus and sits in a seat “halfway to the rear.” Gradually, the bus becomes more and more crowded with white people, who stand in the aisle rather than sitting in empty seats next to black people. Eventually, a small white woman boards, and Griffin begins to get up to give her his seat out of a sense of “gallantry.” However, he then sees the black passengers “frown[ing] disapproval” because he’s “going against the race,” so he sits down again. “If the whites would not sit with us, let them stand,” Griffin writes. “When they became tired enough or uncomfortable enough, they would eventually take seats beside us and soon see that it was not so poisonous after all. But to give them your seat was to let them win.” 
In this scene, Griffin realizes that it’s important for him to align with the black people surrounding him, now that he looks like an African American himself. As such, he senses that he shouldn’t do anything to give white people an advantage, which would be like going “against the race” by perpetuating segregationist policies. What’s more, it’s worth noting the somewhat uncomfortable fact that Griffin uses—and will continue throughout the book to use—the pronoun “us” when referring to African Americans. Indeed, Griffin acts like he is actually a black man, when in reality he has only darkened his skin. In doing so, he fails to recognize his own privilege, which allows him to retreat to the safe life of a white person whenever he wants. At the same time, though, his entire experiment is based on the idea that he must “become” a black man in order to understand what it’s like to live as an African American in the South. As a result, he completely immerses himself in the experience, and though it is certainly uncomfortable by today’s standards to see a white man appropriating an African American identity, it’s worth remembering that his primary goal is to encourage racists to reconsider their prejudices. 
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Because he originally started to stand up, the white woman looks at Griffin. At first, he thinks he senses “sympathy in her glance,” believing for a moment that their “exchange” might “blur the barriers of race […] long enough for [him] to smile and vaguely indicate the empty seat beside [him].” However, as soon as he does this, her face changes and she says, “What’re you looking at me like that for?” As he looks down, he hears her turn to other white people and say, “They’re getting sassier every day.” Trying to appear undisturbed by the interaction, Griffin feels ashamed, since he knows that the other black people on the bus have every right to “resent” him for “attracting such unfavorable attention.”
When Griffin feels ashamed for “attracting such unfavorable attention,” readers come to understand that his experiment could potentially harm black people instead of helping them. Indeed, since Griffin isn’t used to living the life of a black man in the South, he’s likely to make all sorts of social mistakes that risk exacerbating the relationship between white people and black people. In this moment, then, he feels remorseful for eliciting such a hateful remark from this white woman, though the bigger problem is obviously that she is a racist.
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As Griffin sits silently in his seat, the woman talks to another white woman. Suddenly, Griffin hears them use the word “nigger” with “electric clarity.” “I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing about themselves to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged,” he notes. 
After hearing the woman on the bus use hateful, vitriolic language, Griffin realizes that racists ultimately “reveal” the ugliest parts of themselves when they use racial epithets. In this way, he suggests that racism actually harms those who practice it, making them look emotionally small, petty, and bitter. 
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Get the entire Black Like Me LitChart as a printable PDF.
Black Like Me PDF
When Griffin gets off the bus, he visits Sterling Williams’s shoeshine stand. Sitting in the seat, he realizes Sterling doesn’t recognize him even though he has very distinctive shoes. As Sterling sets to shining the leather, Griffin says, “Is there something familiar about these shoes?” In response, Sterling says he has seen the same shoes on a white man, and Griffin reveals that he is that white man. After a moment of initial shock, Sterling breaks into laughter. When Griffin explains his project, Sterling appears “delight[ed]” by the idea and starts “coaching” Griffin about how to act like a black man. Because of his enthusiasm, Griffin asks if he can help at the shoeshine stand, and Sterling says this should be fine, as long as his business “partner,” Joe, approves.
Again, Griffin senses how vital it will be to make connections in the black community. After all, if he simply goes around disguised as a black man but doesn’t actually interact with anyone, he will never discover what African Americans truly think about the country’s racial dynamics. For this reason, he reveals the details of his project to Sterling, clearly hoping that he will help him transition into black culture.
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Griffin works for the day with Sterling, noticing that white customers have “no reticence” or “shame” when talking to black shoeshines. “Some wanted to know where they could find girls, wanted us to get Negro girls for them,” he writes, adding that such people are remarkably kind and give off a sense of equality. When Griffin points out that these white customers are unashamed to ask such questions, Sterling says, “Yeah, when they want to sin, they’re very democratic.” Before long, Joe returns to the stand after trying to find peanuts, and he cooks for Sterling, Griffin, and himself, even sharing the leftovers with a homeless man whom he apparently feeds every day. 
Yet again, Griffin discovers that racism doesn’t always come in the form of outright hatred. Similar to how the dermatologist’s bigotry is deeply entrenched in his overall worldview—so that it’s rather undetectable at first—the white men who visit the shoeshine stand and ask Griffin to “find girls” for them unknowingly reveal their unexamined assumptions about African Americans. Although they are polite and “democratic,” they still treat black men differently than they treat white men, completely unashamed to ask them questions they’d never think to ask a white man. In turn, they demonstrate their implicit biases against black people.
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At the end of the day, Griffin stands and prepares to walk to the Y, which is across town. Before he leaves, Sterling urges him to drink water from his bucket, pointing out that he probably won’t be able to find a place that will serve him between the shoeshine stand and the Y. After drinking, then, Griffin sets off, eventually stopping in a Catholic church for a moment to rest before forging onward to the YMCA, which he discovers is “filled to capacity.” Fortunately, though, the man at the desk secures a room for him in a nearby house. As such, Griffin makes his way to this room, satisfied by its cleanliness and security. After settling in, he goes downstairs and visits the YMCA coffee shop, where he meets the Reverend A. L. Davis and a “civic leader” named Mr. Gayle.
When Sterling offers Griffin his water because he knows he won’t be able to find a place to drink between the shoeshine stand and the YMCA, Griffin once again benefits from the unity that exists between black people. Because society at large denies African Americans the right to simply stop into a white shop for a drink, people like Sterling make an effort to help their fellow black people, ultimately forging a sense of camaraderie as a way of counteracting injustice and discrimination.
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In the coffee shop, Griffin tells A. L. Davis and Mr. Gayle that he’s a writer visiting the South “to make a study of conditions.” Hearing this, they share their opinion that New Orleans is a much better place for black people than other places in the South, possibly because it has a “strong Catholic population.” When Mr. Gayle asks Griffin what he thinks is the “biggest problem” facing African Americans, Griffin says, “Lack of unity,” to which the elderly café owner says, “That’s it. Until we as a race can learn to rise together, we’ll never get anywhere. That’s our trouble. We work against one another instead of together.”
Although Griffin has already noted a sense of camaraderie amongst black people in New Orleans, he still believes that there is a “lack of unity” that makes it harder for African Americans to stand up to racism. Given that he himself has benefitted from unified acts of kindness—like when Sterling gave him water—it seems he must believe that this “lack of unity” exists on a larger scale. Indeed, while people like Sterling show camaraderie with others in an everyday manner, Griffin and the café owner agree that the entire “race” has to “learn to rise together.”
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Going on, the café owner says, “Now you take dark Negroes like you, Mr. Griffin, and me. We’re old Uncle Toms to our people, no matter how much education and morals we’ve got. No, you have to be almost a mulatto, have your hair conked and all slicked out and look like a Valentino. Then the Negro will look up to you. You’ve got class. Isn’t that a pitiful hero-type?” At this point, A. L. Davis chimes in, saying, “And the white man knows that.” “Yes,” the owner says. “He utilizes this knowledge to flatter some of us, tell us we’re above our people, not like most Negroes. We’re so stupid we fall for it and work against our own. Why, if we’d work just half as hard to boost our race as we do to please whites whose attentions flatter us, we’d really get somewhere.” 
Once again, the notion of colorism comes to the forefront of Black Like Me, as the café owner laments the fact that many African Americans discriminate against dark-skinned black people, thereby making it harder for the entire race to unite and “rise together” against injustice. This kind of division is something that has worked its way from the white community into the black community, since racists purposefully promote the notion of colorism as a way of sowing discord amongst African Americans, thereby making it even more difficult for black people to come to together to resist the broader forms of racism at play throughout the country.
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After leaving the café and taking a nap, Griffin goes back into the night in search of dinner. As he walks, though, he becomes aware of two “large white boys” nearby, one of whom begins to follow him. “Hey, Baldy,” the “heavyset” boy taunts, but Griffin refuses to turn. But no matter how fast he walks, the boy stays with him, calling him a number of names and saying, “I’m after you. There ain’t no place you go I won’t get you. If it takes all night, I’ll get you—so count on it.” Finally, Griffin approaches an elderly couple and turns to see that the boy has stopped about half a block away. “I’m in trouble,” he says to the old couple, but they simply ignore him. When he tells them he’s being chased, they look at him like he’s crazy, for the boy has disappeared.
This is the first time that Griffin finds himself in immediate danger as a result of the color of his skin. Worst of all, he discovers that many people are completely unsympathetic to the perils African Americans face, as made evident by the elderly couple’s apathy when he tells them he’s being chased. Needless to say, he wouldn’t need to deal with this threat of violence if he still looked like a white man.
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As soon as the elderly couple leaves, the boy reappears. “Hey, Shithead,” he says. “Ain’t no nice people on this street for you to hide behind, Baldy.” Terrified, Griffin thinks about what a police officer would think upon finding his dead body and looking at his license, which identifies him as a white man. Finally, when the white boy tells him to halt, Griffin decides that he has no choice but to act like he’s willing to fight. “You come on, boy,” he says. “You follow me, boy. I’m heading into that alley down there. That’s right, boy. Now you’re doing just like I want you to.” As Griffin is about to step into the alley, the boy says, “I don’t dig you, daddy,” and Griffin replies, “You follow me, boy, ’cause I’m just aching to feed you a fistful of brass knucks right in that big mouth of yours.”
Although Griffin is terrified by this white boy, he knows that the only way to protect himself is by pretending to be tough. As such, he speaks hostilely to the boy, threatening to use brass knuckles on him and thus presenting himself as a violent man. In this way, readers see how racism can actually goad a person into acting aggressively when he or she would otherwise avoid violence at all costs. Unfortunately, white society uses this kind of violent behavior as an excuse to continue oppressing African Americans, failing to see that this aggression is nothing but the result of discrimination.
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When Griffin ducks into the alley, he stands against the wall and prays that the boy won’t follow him. After several moments, he pokes his head around the corner and sees that the bully has disappeared. He then hustles to the Catholic church and tries to calm himself down as the boy’s voice echoes in his mind. He also thinks of the dermatologist’s remark, “Now you go into oblivion.” “Seated on the church steps tonight, I wondered if he could have known how truly he spoke, how total the feeling of oblivion was,” Griffin writes. 
In the aftermath of his frightening encounter with the menacing white boy, Griffin feels utterly alone, as if he has plunged into “oblivion.” And this is all because he has simply changed the color of his skin, a fact that shows just how much a person’s experience in the South depends upon the ways in which people perceive his or her racial identity.
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