In Black Like Me, Griffin suggests that the only way to overcome division is by finding ways to effectively communicate both across and within cultural boundaries. First and foremost, he considers the division between white and black Americans and laments the lack of understanding between the two groups, intimating that the country’s racial problems have to do with an unwillingness on the part of whites to establish a fair dialogue with black people. What’s more, Griffin outlines smaller instances of division, calling attention to the ways in which African Americans sometimes oppress one another in order to conform to white society. Lastly, Griffin discusses the hatred and ostracization white people often face when they speak out against racism and segregation, thereby revealing the ways in which they sow division within their own ranks. Unfortunately, none of these forms of division are openly acknowledged by white society, which instead makes bold claims about racial unity without bothering to investigate the accuracy of such assertions. As such, Griffin identifies America’s lack of communication as one of the country’s most pressing concerns. In doing so, he fights the kind of isolation and societal partitioning that arises when people come to an impasse and are unable to create unified communities.
There are—of course—many white people who are openly racist, but Griffin also encounters bigoted Southerners who promote racial division simply by avoiding genuine communication between the white and black communities. These people pretend to have good relationships with African Americans when, in reality, they remain bigoted and prejudiced. Griffin notices this in Alabama, where he sees that white people are “simply unaware of the situation with the Negroes.”
“I talked with some [white people]—casual conversations here and there,” he writes. “They said they knew the Negroes, they had had long talks with the Negroes. They did not know that the Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is.” Articulating that it is dangerous for black people in segregated states to express their opinions about race, Griffin puts his finger on how racists justify their oppressive and divisive ways: they pretend to be benevolent people willing to listen to others. Fashioning an image of themselves as kind and open, these people craft an alternate reality, one in which black people are happy with their oppressive living conditions. In turn, this lie makes it easier for segregationists to tell themselves it’s unnecessary to establish any kind of legitimate communication with the people they suppress. Meanwhile, African Americans know that speaking up about injustice in the South means opening oneself up to danger. As such, true communication becomes virtually impossible, since the white population actively avoids the truth while the black population is discouraged from speaking out. In turn, the two groups are unable to relate, making it even harder to bridge the gap racism has already created.
In addition to the division between blacks and whites, there also exist unfortunate rifts within the African American community itself. Griffin discusses this dilemma with an elderly black man in New Orleans, who agrees that a “lack of unity” is the “biggest problem” facing black Americans. “Until we as a race can learn to rise together, we’ll never get anywhere,” he says. “That’s our trouble. We work against one another instead of together.” Going on, he bemoans the influence of colorism on the African American population. “[Dark-skinned blacks] are old Uncle Toms to our people, no matter how much education and morals we’ve got,” he says (the term Uncle Tom refers to a black person who is, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “overeager to win the approval of whites”). “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.”
In this moment, the elderly man references the fact that racist notions about skin color have made their way into the black community from the white community. Indeed, racists have successfully advanced the idea that light skin is superior to dark skin, a notion many African Americans have unfortunately accepted and propagated. “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,” the old man says. In turn, readers see that the white population and its racist ideas have overwhelmingly detrimental effects on the black population, ultimately dividing African Americans from one another and making it even more difficult for them to oppose bigotry.
Interestingly enough, Griffin shows that the white community also experiences division, as racists scorn anyone who promotes equality and unity. In keeping with this, Griffin’s journalist friend P.D. East serves as a perfect example of someone who is ostracized from white society for opposing racism. Using his newspaper as a platform, East urges his fellow white Americans to leave behind their bigoted ways. As a result, he is forced to live a life of solitude on the fringe of society. This is because the white community is largely unwilling to communicate openly about racial issues.
To illustrate this point, Griffin writes about a young white man from Massachusetts who finds himself discouraged by the fact that none of his new neighbors in Mississippi will listen to his ideas about equality. “They can’t discuss it,” he tells Griffin. “It’s a shame but all they do is get mad whenever you bring [race] 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’ and don’t understand about Negroes.” Once again, then, readers see how racists actively discourage any kind of communication about the subject. Even amongst themselves, they avoid the topic because they surely know that an open discourse about racial equality will force them to examine their absurd notion that black people are happy with the way things are. This unwillingness to talk about difficult subjects, Griffin intimates, lies at the heart of America’s division. This, it seems, is why he has chosen to conduct this experiment and write a book about his experience, for he clearly believes that the only way to fully understand the country’s division is by transcending the very social boundaries that keep people apart.
Unity, Division, and Communication ThemeTracker
Unity, Division, and Communication Quotes in Black Like Me
This may not be all of it. It may not cover all the questions, but it is what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.
Some whites will say this is not really it. They will say this is the white man’s experience as a Negro in the South, not the Negro’s.
But this is picayunish, and we no longer have time for that. We no longer have time to atomize principles and beg the question. We fill too many gutters while we argue unimportant points and confuse issues.
The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands.
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.”
I believe in the brotherhood of man. […] I respect the race. But I can never forget when I was an intern and had to go down on South Rampart Street to patch them up. Three or four would be sitting in a bar or at a friend’s house. They were apparently friends one minute and then something would come up and one would get slashed up with a knife. We’re willing enough to go all the way for them, but we’ve got this problem— how can you render the duties of justice to men when you’re afraid they’ll be so unaware of justice they may destroy you?—especially since their attitude toward their own race is a destructive one.
He also told me things that Negroes had told him—that the lighter the skin the more trustworthy the Negro. I was astonished to see an intelligent man fall for this cliché, and equally astonished that Negroes would advance it, for in effect it placed the dark Negro in an inferior position and fed the racist idea of judging a man by his color.
I realized I was “going against the race” and the subtle tug-of-war became instantly clear. If the whites would not sit with us, let them stand. 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. I slumped back under the intensity of their stares.
I learned a strange thing—that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word “nigger” leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. 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.
An odd thing happened. Within a short time he lapsed into familiarity, forgetting I was once white. He began to use the “we” form and to discuss “our situation.” The illusion of my “Negro-ness” took over so completely that I fell into the same pattern of talking and thinking. It was my first intimate glimpse. We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him; how to hold our own and raise our selves in his esteem without for one moment letting him think he had any God-given rights that we did not also have.
“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. Now you take dark Negroes like you, Mr. Griffin, and me,” he went on. “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?”
“And the white man knows that,” Mr. Davis said.
“Yes,” the cafe-owner continued. “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.”
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.
I talked with some—casual conversations here and there. They said they knew the Negroes, they had had long talks with the Negroes. They did not know that the Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is. I heard the old things: the Negro is this or that or the other. You have to go slow. You can’t expect the South to sit back and let the damned communist North dictate to it, especially when no outsider can really “understand.” I listened and kept my tongue from giving answer. This was the time to listen, not to talk, but it was difficult. I looked into their eyes and saw sincerity and wanted to say: “Don’t you know you are prattling the racist poison?”
I was the same man, whether white or black. Yet when I was white, I received the brotherly-love smiles and the privileges from whites and the hate stares or obsequiousness from the Negroes. And when I was a Negro, the whites judged me fit for the junk heap, while the Negroes treated me with great warmth.
[…] the two economists, recognized that so long as the Negro had to depend on white banks to finance his projects for improvement and growth, he was at the mercy of the white man. They recognized that economic emancipation was the key to the racial solution. So long as the race had to depend on a basically hostile source of financing, it would not advance, since the source would simply refuse loans for any project that did not meet with its approval.
The news became known. I had spent weeks at work, studying, correlating statistics, going through reports, none of which actually help to reveal the truth of what it is like to be discriminated against. They cancel truth almost more than they reveal it. I decided to throw them away and simply publish what happened to me.
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.”
The most distressing repercussion of this lack of communication has been the rise in racism among Negroes, justified to some extent, but a grave symptom nevertheless. It only widens the gap that men of good will are trying desperately to bridge with understanding and compassion. It only strengthens the white racist’s cause. The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near-realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made.