Black Like Me begins when John Howard Griffin decides that he wants to dye his skin black so that he can see and feel what a black man experiences. He leaves his family for New Orleans, where he obtains the medicine and dyes to begin the process of changing his skin color. During his time in New Orleans, Griffin observes that there are few opportunities for blacks; it is hard to find a place to eat. Later, Griffin takes a bus to Mississippi, where people say that it is the worst state for a black man to be in. On the bus, the other blacks give him some advice about the etiquette that blacks must follow inside Mississippi borders. For example, "'You don't want to even look at a white woman. In fact, you look down at the ground or the other way'" (61). When he arrives, he stays with a friend named P.D. East, who is a white journalist that is sympathetic to the black cause. Griffin then hitchhikes along the highway to Mobile, Alabama. The white men who offer to give Griffin rides make him uncomfortable as they portray "the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences" (87).
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Then, Griffin ends up busing to Montgomery, where he decides to "try to pass back into white society". He immediately notices a difference as he is treated courteously by a waitress at a restaurant. He then goes to Atlanta, where he gains hope that change is possible. His journey comes to a close as Griffin resumes his white identity for the last time. The remainder of the novel describes the aftermath of Griffin's trip. He is interviewed by several well-known talk show hosts. However, this revealing of his journey angers many people in his hometown and they hang Griffin in effigy in the main street. Yet, Griffin receives six thousand letters, most of them from whites in the Deep South, which were supportive. This confirms his theory that most people in the South hide what they really think about blacks from their neighbors.
Griffin's purpose for writing Black Like Me was quite simple. He was dumbfounded by the racial situation present in the Deep South-no one was addressing the great divide between blacks and white; people just stood back and watched the situation continue to worsen. This prompted Griffin to take the first initiative and travel through the South as a man with black skin. He chronicled his experiences into this novel to show what the black man really feels like beneath his exterior of politeness and courtesy that he puts up in front of members of the white race. He wanted to expose the degradation that blacks feel when they walk in a public place; he wanted to see for himself how deprived the black people really were and not believe what the white man says. Griffin aimed to show others what was really going on behind the white people's ignorance. He voiced his opinions to others of both his own race and the black race in order to make others aware of the demeaning situation that blacks are in everyday. He endured the hate stares and racial slurs from whites in order to bridge the gap between white and black.
Griffin was a white journalist who lived in Texas and was sympathetic to the blacks and their cause as he wrote for the black magazine Sepia. Through his journey as a man with black skin, Griffin witnessed things from the black man's perspective. Since he was white, he also saw things through the white man's eyes. Therefore, Griffin was not biased to one particular race; he can be considered to be a mediator of sorts. His perspectives of both whites and blacks did not favor either side. Griffin also called himself a "racial specialist" and thus, had some background before embarking on the dangerous journey. His opinions and observations were drawn from his interactions with whites and blacks in the deep South and partly from his prior knowledge about racial issues. Griffin's journalist background also allowed him to accurately delineate the black situation in the South without being overly sympathetic.
There are several notable quotations in Black Like Me. One is, "When all the talk, all the propaganda has but cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival" (114). This illustrates the white person's motivation behind his/her suppression of blacks; skin color is the only factor that comes into play. Griffin is pointing out that blacks feel hopeless when they see themselves being labeled as inferior over a simple judgment. Another important quotation in the novel is, "Nothing can describe the withering horror of [the hate stare]. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light" (54). Most, if not all, blacks know what the "hate stare" is and they realize that this is another part of their suppression. The "hate stare" makes blacks feel vulnerable and it almost makes them feel pitiful towards whites, who are "humans in such an inhuman light".
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In addition, Griffin speculates 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" (101). Griffin believes that the reason blacks are different from whites is because the whites are suppressing blacks so that they cannot have access to basic necessities like food or a bathroom. This leads the black race to do whatever it is that they need to survive, whether it is through a legitimate or illegal way. Finally, Griffin states, "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 white judged me fit for the junk heap, while Negroes treated me with great warmth" (124). This shows that white people were racist during the late 1950s through the 1960s, as Griffin suspected from the beginning. If your skin was black, then you were automatically degraded and considered a low member in society by whites. But if your skin was white, then you were considered equal. These important quotations show how terrible and misconstrued the racism issue was in the Deep South during that time period.
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