John Howard Griffin experiences many emotional moments while disguised as a black man, but nothing he encounters compares to the fear he begins to feel on a daily basis. A white man who normally feels safe at all times, after altering his skin color he suddenly finds himself terrified and in a state of constant self-defense, as white people antagonize him in any way possible. Although he’s never physically harmed during the project, he faces countless microaggressions with violent undertones, proving that even the smallest, most meaningless interactions are often shot through with hateful menace predicated on racial animosity. Unsurprisingly, this ever-present fear affects everything about a person’s life, coloring not only their interactions with racists, but the entire way they move through the world, altering their friendships, family life, and personal security. What’s more, Griffin ends up feeling this way even after he stops presenting himself as a black man, a fact that proves racists are eager to intimidate other whites who empathize with black people. After a group of angry whites publicly sets a date to castrate Griffin because of his civil rights advocacy, he moves his family to Mexico, though he himself stays until the day of the promised attack. When the day comes, though, nobody arrives to hurt him. Nevertheless, his decision to stay suggests that he believes the only way to respond to violent threats is to embody courage and resilience, for he understands that fear will otherwise undermine any attempt to stand up for what’s right.
Griffin travels to Mississippi shortly after the state’s jury fails to indict an obviously guilty group of violent white men who lynched a black man, so it’s unsurprising that he enters into an atmosphere laced with fear, hopelessness, and dread. While he’s walking down the street in the African American section of Hattiesburg, a group of white men drive by, scream at him, and hurl a piece of fruit at his head before speeding away. “I felt the insane terror of it,” Griffin writes, acknowledging the raw panic of simply existing as a dark-skinned man in Mississippi. After only half an evening, Griffin decides that this horror is too much to stand, so he calls P.D. East—a white friend of his who lives in the area—and asks him to pick him up. Considering that Griffin is otherwise rather brave when it comes to putting himself in dangerous situations, this decision to flee is quite significant, as it suggests that the town’s entire atmosphere is so saturated with violence and dread that it’s impossible to ignore.
The fear Griffin experiences as someone who looks like a black man in a racist community is not something that easily goes away. In fact, it “hangs” around him even after he escapes Hattiesburg’s hostile environment. This is evident when he rides in P.D. East’s car and senses tension in the air. “We drove through the darkened streets to his home, talking in a strangely stilted manner,” he writes. “I wondered why, and then realized that I had grown so accustomed to being a Negro, to being shown contempt, that I could not rid myself of the cautions.” Although Griffin has at this point only been disguised as a black man for a couple of weeks, he can’t fully shake off the various defense mechanisms he’s developed in order to protect himself from the threat of racially motivated antagonism.
In fact, even P.D. East—a white man—seems to experience a similar kind of fear, since he himself has been threatened by racists for being a civil rights activist. “What did we fear?” Griffin writes. “I could not say exactly. […] We merely fell into the fear that hangs over the state, a nameless and awful thing.” Comparing this fear to the “focusless terror” of Nazi Germany, Griffin goes on to say, “For the Negro, at least, this fear is ever-present in the South.” This awareness of the effect of fear on the human psyche is one of the most valuable things Griffin gleans from his social experiment, as it helps him understand the inescapable emotional toll that racism takes on black people. Indeed, although he himself can run away from Hattiesburg and eventually resume his life of relative safety, African Americans have no choice but to face the “ever-present” fear of racism and violence.
Although Griffin’s fear is no doubt different than the kind of terror African Americans experience—since he can easily resume his life of privilege—he actually does end up getting a temporary firsthand experience of what it feels like to be targeted by hateful, dangerous racists. Not long after news of his project breaks, someone lynches a dummy version of him in his hometown. Worse, a man drives up to him and tells him that a group of people are planning on coming to castrate him on July 15. “My parents, unable to bear the hostility, had sold their home and all their furniture and left for Mexico where they hoped to find a new life,” Griffin writes. “We, too, were going, since we had decided that it was too great an injustice to our children to remain.” However, Griffin decides to stay behind until the day the racists said they would castrate him. “I felt I must remain a while longer, until the bullies had a chance to carry out their threats against me,” he says. “I could not allow them to say they had ‘chased’ me out.” This is an intelligent decision, for Griffin knows that fleeing would send a harmful message to other nonracist whites, ultimately discouraging them from speaking out against injustice. This, in turn, would enable racists to continue their campaign of fear. In this way, Griffin demonstrates how important it is for nonracist white people to adopt the resilience that African Americans have no choice but to embody themselves in everyday life. After all, as he outlines in an epilogue written after the publication of Black Like Me, it is “possible” to “function even when you are frightened.” Indeed, if it’s possible to “function” in the face of fear, it must also be possible to stand up for justice and equality.
Fear and Violence ThemeTracker
Fear and Violence Quotes in Black Like Me
How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.
“You don’t know what you’d be getting into, John,” she said. She felt that when my book was published, I would be the butt of resentment from all the hate groups, that they would stop at nothing to discredit me, and that many decent whites would be afraid to show me courtesies when others might be watching. And, too, there are the deeper currents among even well-intentioned Southerners, currents that make the idea of a white man’s assuming nonwhite identity a somewhat repulsive step down. And other currents that say, “Don’t stir up anything. Let’s try to keep things peaceful.”
Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So 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.” 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.
I concluded that, as in everything else, the atmosphere of a place is entirely different for Negro and white. The Negro sees and reacts differently not because he is Negro, but because he is suppressed. Fear dims even the sunlight.
Our townspeople wanted to “keep things peaceful” at all costs. They said I had “stirred things up.” This is laudable and tragic. I, too, say let us be peaceful; but the only way to do this is first to assure justice. By keeping “peaceful” in this instance, we end up consenting to the destruction of all peace—for so long as we condone injustice by a small but powerful group, we condone the destruction of all social stability, all real peace, all trust in man’s good intentions toward his fellow man.
We had a long conversation during which he brought out the obvious fact that whites teach their children to call them “niggers.” He said this happened to him all the time and that he would not even go into white neighborhoods because it sickened him to be called that. He said revealing things:
“Your children don’t hate us, do they?”
“God, no,” I said. “Children have to be taught that kind of filth. We’d never permit ours to learn it.”