Black Like Me is not your everyday scientific or journalistic article. It's full of emotion, imagery, sadness, and even fear. At the time, Griffin's blunt descriptions of the horrors that he sees and his confidential tone shocked his readers.
Think about it. You're used to reading abstract scientific studies on the state of black people. Then one day while reading you come across a line like this:
I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible. (7.15)
Wouldn't you be surprised? That's not an abstract person. That's a very real person, with very real feelings.
Not only is the text different because it's very personal, it's also different because it's non-combative. Aside from the scientific articles with their cold and rational reasoning, most of the personal texts available at the time were probably written from a combative point of view.
They condemned white people for slavery and racism. These weren't sweet little biographies. The authors of other personal texts were angry and they wanted justice.
Griffin's text is not a call to arms for black people, and it doesn't demand that racists be punished. More than anything else, it seems that Griffin just wants peace and equality. Not violence or retribution.
This part of Griffin's tone is more of a negative than positive attribute. It's more what he doesn't say than what he does. But here's one moment where you can really see Griffin's pacifism at work:
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. (38.10)
In other words, he doesn't want black people to do to white people what racists have done to them. He wants them to take the high road.
We don't know about you guys, but we were pretty sad by the end of this book. After such a barrage of hatred, it's easy to feel like nothing will ever improve between black and white people. Not only that, the descriptions of the prejudice that Griffin experiences, especially the late-night ones where his life is in danger, are terrifying and made our hearts beat a little faster with fear.
We get the feeling that this is not just some kind of fancy literary technique, but actually what Griffin was feeling at the time. For example, this is how he describes the "hate stare":
Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. 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. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man's face. I felt like saying: "What in God's name are you doing to yourself?" (10.57)
He feels sick, terrified, horrified, and overall disappointed his fellow man. In a way, this is even worse than being angry. You know, like when your parents tell you that they're "disappointed in you," and it's worse than if they were just angry?
In the same way, Griffin's depressed and terrified feeling is almost more of a guilt trip than if he had been angry with his fellow white man.
One of these genres is not like the others. We figured that you super smart Shmoopsters would have had autobiography tagged for this book from the start. Griffin writes about his own experiences, in the first person, based on facts. That's basically the definition of autobiography right there. But what about the other two—don't they come out of left field?
So what's an adventure novel? It's an exciting novel with a lot of death-defying feats and danger to the main character, isn't it? Like Indiana Jones. Of course, Griffin isn't nearly as cool as Indy, but his adventure certainly does keep us on our toes. We don't know what will happen to him, and seeing as black men were still lynched without penalty in these days, death and physical harm were possible ends to Griffin's little experiment.
Now, when you think about psychological thrillers, you think about movies like Inception or The Shining. In other words, these are movies that mess with your head… or at least the main character's head.
Griffin is most definitely having his head messed with. He feels like he loses his identity, and by the end of the book he's waking up screaming in the middle of the night because he's so traumatized by the hatred that he feels from the people around him. As much as this book is about racism, part of what made it popular is probably this look into the emotions and psyche of Griffin and how he changes throughout the experiment.
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening...
A tall, slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black Like Me.
It's BOGO time: buy a "What's Up With the Title", and get a "What's Up With the Epigraph" for free! Just kidding, they're both free.
Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Variations" is the inspiration for both the title and the epigraph of Black Like Me. We're going to guess that Griffin was really into Hughes, since he uses him twice instead of finding another literary source for his title and epigraph. The epigraph is the last four lines of Hughes' poem, and the title is the very last line. Normally, titles and epigraphs come from different places so we're going to guess that Griffin felt that Hughes' poem was very important to his story.
Hughes' narrator wants to quit his day job. He wants to dance until the "white day is done," and rest in the evening. Sounds like a pretty good dream to us.
The phrase "white day" tells us that the narrator sees their day job as controlled by white people. But nighttime is "dark" or "Black like me." While the daytime is spent serving white people, the narrator can do whatever he wants at nighttime. The nighttime is not only literally black and dark, but is also the time for black people to relax and feel comfortable in their own skin.
It's the last four lines of the poem that we really want to dwell on, because these are the lines used both in the epigraph and in the title. In contrast to the "white day" the dark night is "tender" and welcoming, perhaps because it is the same color as the narrator. This suggests something that Griffin examines in his book: that in the 1950s South it was impossible to achieve "tenderness" between races: there was too much hatred.
The last line, when used in the context of Griffin's title, is provocative. Griffin is Caucasian, even though he spent six weeks living as a black man… isn't he? Race is a fixed condition; it's literally "black" or "white"… isn't it? Uh oh, we're getting into some deep philosophical and sociological territory here.
Griffin's title suggests that maybe blackness (or whiteness) isn't predetermined, or easily classifiable, or the natural order of things. He basically takes the mentality of 1950s Southerners (Black people and white people are just so different) and turns it on its racist little head. He does this in the book's title… and he definitely does it in the body of the book.
And it is happening on a wider scale. Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance.
If some spark does set the keg afire, it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice—a holocaust that will drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings.
Then we will all pay for not having cried for justice long ago. (38.12)
One moment we're talking to a black kid, and the next moment Griffin is giving us explicit commentary on the future of race relations in America. Talk about whiplash-inducing changes of tone. This part of the book is totally different from any other part, and it's clear that Griffin is talking directly to the reader. This isn't about the past; this is about the future.
Griffin basically ends the book asking black people not to become violent against white people. He just wants peace between the races. Of course, he's not just saying this out of the blue. Things were changing in the two years it took for Griffin to publish this book.
While some civil-rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., were fighting for equality using nonviolent means, other people were not so peaceful. Black nationalist leaders like Malcolm X believed that black people were superior to white people, and advocated the use of self-defense by any means necessary, including violence.
So this is Griffin's way of saying, in an eloquent journalistic manner, "Can we all just get along?"
Griffin's wanderlust is on a par with Jack Kerouac's, at least in mileage if not months spent on the road. He leaves his home in Texas in order to roam through the Deep South. Then he visits New Orleans, Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia during his six weeks as a black man. That's a lot of traveling, if you ask us: if Griffin were running around today he'd be swimming in frequent flyer miles.
Because of all this traveling, Griffin is always on the move. We see him on buses, walking down highways, staying in hotels, or couch surfing with people he barely knows. This is great for us, but not so great for him.
Traveling means that we get to see lots of different aspects of race relations between blacks and whites in the South. Basically, it keeps things interesting. Unfortunately, what's interesting for us puts Griffin in danger. There is almost always some altercation when he's traveling from one place to another on the bus, let alone that whole hitchhiking incident which turned out to be one of the most disgusting parts of the whole book. Then, when he reaches his destination, Griffin has to lodge with possibly untrustworthy people or in gross, rundown hotels.
But we're pretty sure that Griffin doesn't just travel to entertain us and put himself in danger. He's a journalist after all. Griffin set out in the beginning of the book to expose the state of the black man in the South. If he only visited one state or one city, it would be easy to say that his experience wasn't representative of the whole South. But by going to various places, even places that claim they have good race relations, he was able to show the reality of life in the South for black people.
If you're good little Shmoopos and Shmoopettes, you'll remember when the civil-rights movement begins. In some ways, it begins as early as the 1800's. But when you're talking about Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks, you're talking about the civil-rights movement that lasted from 1955 to 1968. Griffin undertakes his experiment in 1959: smack dab in the middle of the fray.
Whoa, let's rewind for a second. We're going to give you the hyperfast summary of why racism is worse in the South than in the North. We could write a whole textbook just on this, but right now we're gonna keep it simple. Black people were shipped from Africa to the American South in order to work on plantations growing tobacco, cotton, and sugarcane. This was called slavery. It beyond sucked.
After the American Civil War, black people were freed from slavery and the South entered a period called Reconstruction. This was awesome because it attempted to rebuild the South after the destruction caused by the war and right the wrongs done to black slaves. In case you were wondering why we don't have a happy ending, that's because Reconstruction ended shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln and was replaced with Jim Crow. Okay, now you're up to speed.
You might think that, hey 1959 is four years after the civil-rights movement began, why aren't we seeing all of the action, protests, and violence that we associate with that time? Well, Griffin was one year too early for that. The Sit-ins will start in 1960, and in the next four years Martin Luther King will receive the Nobel Peace Prize, President Johnson will sign the Civil-Rights Act of 1964, and Martin Luther King will deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington.
In other words, Griffin does this experiment on the cusp of history. Civil-rights leaders have already been working hard to improve the status of black people in America, and we know that because Griffin even meets some of them. But their efforts won't make it into the national eye until after Griffin leaves the Deep South.
It's a pretty unique time and place to pretend to be a black man. If Griffin tried earlier, things would have been worse, which is almost impossible to comprehend. But just a little bit later, and the struggle for equality would really be heating up. This setting lets us see just how far back people have come, and just how much farther they have to go. It's a little halfway point checkup.
You got this. We're not saying that this is as easy as "See Spot Run," but we're pretty sure that you shouldn't have very much trouble reading Black Like Me. Remember, Griffin is a journalist, and most newspapers are written around a middle school reading level.
Sure, this book is obviously fluffed up a little, but the sentences are still straightforward and simple to read. You might get tired of all the hatred and racism featured in the book after a while, but that's not a readability issue. That's a what's-wrong-with-humanity issue.
Let's start with a quote:
I flicked the negatives, as he must have done, toward the corner, heard them scratch dryly against the wall and flap to the floor. One struck the dead globe, causing it to sing its strange filamental music of the spheres, fragile and high-pitched above the outside noises. Music from the jukebox, a grinding rhythm, ricocheted down the street. Harangity oomp oomp hangity hangity oomp hangity. The aroma of barbecue tormented my empty insides, but I did not want to leave the room to go back into the mainstream of hell. (10.246)
Can't you hear it? Can't you see it? This quote reads just like a scene from a movie. We see the negatives, hear them flutter against the floor; see the nasty and barren room. We even hear the beat of the music in the background. How much more imagery could we ask for?
By using all these descriptors that make us feel like we can see and hear everything that he does, Griffin uses imagery to transport us into his world. It's not just that we're reading about him becoming a black man, but it's like we are being transformed too. You know, just minus all the danger. Which is pretty cool.
You probably noticed that even though Griffin is able to make us feel a lot of things with his words, he doesn't really use flowery language. His words are simple, and his sentences are too. No long rambling sentences packed with commas, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, or footnotes. Just simple words.
Check out this description,
A police car cruised past, slowed. The plaster-white face of an officer peered toward me. We stared at one another as the car took a right turn and disappeared behind the decrepit rectory of the church. I felt certain the police would circle the block and check on me. (8.222)
Simple. Easy to understand. But at the same time, Griffin is able to make us feel a little jumpy because of the passing police officer.
This writing style is probably natural for Griffin because he's a journalist, but it has a secret advantage. It makes him sound trustworthy. Flowery language can sound like somebody hiding a lie, or like someone is writing only for the elite capital-L Literature lovers. But with this simple, straightforward language, that even a middle-schooler could understand, how could he be hiding anything?
Griffin is all about the contrasts. He'll never let us forget that the world is different for black people and white people. So often, when he's describing a place that he's experienced before, he'll show us the difference between how he's treated as a black man and as the white man. For example, here he tells us about a fancy restaurant that he once went to,
At Broussard's, I had supper in a superb courtyard under the stars—huîtres variées, green salad, white wine and coffee; the same meal I had there in past years. [...] Was there a place in New Orleans where a Negro could buy huîtres variées? (4.4)
This quote makes the privilege of white men startlingly clear. As a white man with money he was able to go to this restaurant and have oysters, salad, wine, and coffee: which sounds like a pretty freaking tasty meal. But as a black man, no matter how much money he had, there is probably no place fancy enough to have these dishes that would serve him.
Imagine if a restaurant wouldn't serve Beyoncé just because she's black. Even with all her money. Yeah, that insanity was the world of the Jim Crow South.
John Howard Griffin just isn't a symbols kinda guy. He's a journalist. He's after the cold, hard, truth. But there is at least one time that he lets his symbolism skills run wild.
The night that Griffin makes his entrance into the black community, he looks into a mirror and tells us what he sees:
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. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. (7.12)
Normally, a mirror is an affirmation of a person's identity. If you ever forgot you are, or what you looked like, you could just turn to the old looking glass. That's why people use the phrase "take a look in the mirror," to mean look at your own actions. Even MJ (that's Michael Jackson—RIP) needed to check himself out so much that he wrote a top-selling single about it. Fun fact: MJ's increasingly white skin was a result of vitiligo, the condition that Griffin's skin-darkening medication was designed to correct. Mind: blown.
But we digress: who does Griffin see when he looks in the mirror? He sees a stranger. A black man who does not share his history, his culture, his class, or his family. It's almost like he doesn't even see a human in the mirror, let alone himself.
When he started this experiment, Griffin thought that it would be a mere question of darkening his skin. Nothing else would change. But it's at this moment that we see he's in for a much bumpier ride than he thought. Not only has he darkened his skin, but he's also completely changed his identity. At this moment it seems like Griffin feels that he has totally lost his identity.
We see Griffin look in the mirror a couple of times after this, but there's no big revelation. Even when he turns back into a white person, it's not the mirror that helps him realize that he can pass. It's the reactions of other people. So does Griffin ever regain his identity? Was his identity ever really lost? Does he get a new one?
What do you think?
Won't somebody please think of the children?! Oh, wait. Somebody has. And his name is Griffin.
Having kiddos as a symbol in Black Like Me may seem like a sort of manipulative move… because it is. Children are equated universally with innocence and adorable hijinks. Griffin is hardly the first person to use children symbolically and he sure wasn't the last. You want someone to buy something? Use children. You want someone to feel something? Use children:
Their children resembled mine in all ways except the superficial one of skin color, as indeed they resembled all children of all humans. Yet this accident, this least important of all qualities, the skin pigment, marked them for inferior status. It became fully terrifying when I realized that if my skin were permanently black, they would unhesitatingly consign my own children to this mean future. (15.111)
Not subtle, Griffin.
But before you think our hearts are too sizes too small, let's take something into consideration. Griffin's use of children as symbolism might be poor literary form, but Black Like Me isn't literary fiction: it's non-fiction acting as a kind of call-to-arms. There are serious and truly evil problems that Griffin is trying to make America aware of, and he wants to use every weapon in his wordsmith's arsenal.
So he talked about kiddos with the intention of pulling on his audience's heartstrings, and it worked. Fair play, Griffin. You done good. And you know who else talked about children "(living) in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Yup. That's right. This guy.
This is basically a diary. Okay, we know that we don't write as nicely as this in our diaries, but this guy is a journalist. He writes his diary for a living. We write ours in order to remember our weird dreams.
Let's give you an example. Griffin writes:
The dark room. The streak of pale light through the transom. I woke to it several times, thinking it a long night. (8.1)
We'd write: "My room was dark when I woke up." That's why we're not literary geniuses. Sigh.
Like most diaries, it's written in the first-person, and Griffin is the central narrator. We see everything through his eyes, and that makes his whole experience a much more vivid story for us to read. It almost feels as if it was happening to us.
However, like any first person narrative, we see the story through the eyes of our narrator. Sometimes we have a trustworthy narrator, and sometimes we have an untrustworthy one. This time, we have a foreign one. A white man pretending to be a black man for six weeks.
So we see the struggles of black people, but we see it through the eyes of someone who does not regularly have to experience those struggles. Griffin can quit his experiment at any time, and he does when he realizes, "Suddenly I knew I could not go back up to that room with its mottled mirror, its dead lightbulb and its blank negatives,"(9.266). But black people can't stop being black.
Also, Griffin is not an anthropologist or sociologist, so he doesn't have even scholarly knowledge to help him interpret his experience. All he's got to help him understand things are his experiences as a white man and the rumors that he's heard. So yeah, not so much help.
That perspective probably helped put his white readers at ease, but it's a good thing to think about when reading the book and understanding his experiences. Even though he's a journalist and this book is based on "facts," all narratives are colored by the experience of the people writing them.
Griffin is the knight who has learned about the monster terrorizing villagers in a far-off land. That monster is called racism, the villagers are black people, and that village is the American South. Mighty Griffin has decided that he will strike down (or at least shed light on the problem of) racism by becoming a black man himself and sharing his experiences with the world. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything is going great. Griffin darkens his skin, travels to the South, and finally makes his transition into a black man. Even his first few days of a black guy go great. He's comforted by other black people, he has a job as a shoe shiner, and he has some riveting intellectual discussions with black leaders at the YMCA. This whole defeating racism thing is going to be easy-peasy.
Griffin's first days were easy, but now that he's trying to get a job the frustration is setting in and he realizes that maybe being black isn't as easy as he thought. First, no one wants to hire him even though he's educated. Then he can't cash a check just because white people don't like him.
Not to mention that he has to walk miles in order to find a bathroom, endure hateful stares, and experience the approximately four kablillion other everyday examples of prejudice. It's so bad that he has to run away to one of his friends in order to keep it together. He thought that racism was a level one boss. Hah! He'll need to level up before he beats this baddie.
It gets worse. We hear you asking, innocently, "But how could it get worse?" How about being forced to travel across state lines with guys who want you to approve of their raping little girls and women while also threatening you with lynching? End-your-faith-in-humanity-level horrific enough for you?
It just keeps going on like this for several days until Griffin has nightmares and decides that he has to end the experiment.
Normally at this point the hero miraculously escapes from the claws of the monster and kills it with some kind of mega-superpower. Then the hero gets the Princess and becomes king and everyone is happy. No such luck for Sir Griffin.
At first it seems like everything is going great, because he heads home to his "Princess" and gets to do all kinds of TV interviews. But it will take a lot more than a magazine article to kill this monster. Griffin's town threatens to castrate him, and his family has to move to Mexico for safety. We end the book with Griffin wondering if this monster will ever be beaten. Good question, Griff.
Griffin has a wonderful idea: What could be a better way to understand racism than for him to become a black man himself? Brilliant? Yes. Insanely dangerous? Most definitely. This section of Griffin getting ready for his experiment sets us up for the main part of his book and explains why he's doing this whole thing to begin with.
Griffin begins his escapades as a black man. Everything is new to him. It's all pretty confusing, but he finds someone to show him the ropes and eventually settles into his new persona. While he's at it he also gets his first taste of racism. Hooray? We are not quite at the climax yet, but we know it's coming. Things are getting more and more tense as life is getting more and more difficult for Griffin.
Kids, this is why your parents always told you not to hitchhike. Okay, maybe not because they are worried that racist guys will ask you to show them your private parts. But that's what happened to Griffin, and we're pretty sure he wishes that he had a private car. It just gets worse from here, and it's basically a whole week of threats, prejudice, hatred, and racism. By the end of this, Griffin has had enough of the hate stare. Enough of the double standards. Enough of holding his pee while he looks for a black restroom. Griffin can't handle anymore, so the experiment has come to a climax. He reaches the breaking point, and it's time to calm things down a bit.
Like Superman returning to being geeky old Clark Kent, Griffin transforms back into his everyday persona and heads to Texas. For a while life is sweet. People smile at him and he doesn't have to walk halfway across town to go to the bathroom. What more could you ask for? But Griffin is still haunted by the six weeks he spent as a black guy… and when he starts telling his story, people start acting horribly. His family is basically run out of town by death threats. Oh, and they threaten castration. It's almost time to wrap this bad boy up.
It's all over. Griffin's family has moved to Mexico. He's alone. It's the end of the story, and Griffin starts looking toward the future and asking Big Questions. What will happen if black people and white people can't talk to one another? Will there be violence? Who knows? It's not a very tidy conclusion, but that's all Griffin has to say to us in this story.
Griffin comes up with the best idea ever: to go undercover as a black guy and find out the truth about racism. After he darkens his skin and heads into the heart of Dixie, there's no turning back.
Being black is not as fun as Griffin thought it would be. In fact, it really sucks. And it seems to be getting worse the longer he stays undercover. It gets to the point where Griffin cannot deal with it. He's approaching breakdown territory.
You didn't think there wouldn't be consequences to a white guy pretending to be black, did you? Griffin becomes a TV star because of all the interviews that he's giving about his work, but at the same time his town hates him. They threaten to castrate him, and his family moves to Mexico to get away from the threats. The book ends with Griffin imagining a violent and depressing future for blacks and whites.