Study Guide

Black Like Me Quotes

  • Identity

    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)

    What do you think is so shocking to Griffin about seeing himself in the mirror? What would you do if you suddenly looked entirely different? Would that change who you are?

    I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won't rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been. (7.12)

    What does Griffin mean by, "the black man is wholly a Negro?" Does simply darkening your skin make you a black person? What about if you lightened your skin? Are you a white person then?

    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)

    We're pretty sure that you have to do a lot more than some intense sun tanning to mess with, "the mystery of existence." It's interesting, though, that he uses the word invisible to say what happened to his old self. When something is invisible, that just means that you can't see it. Not that it's totally gone. So yeah, we can't see the white Griffin. But he's still there. Right?

    "Why, I just started reading that. My lawyer friend lent it to me," he said. He gazed at me and I had no doubt he thought I was either a tremendous liar for claiming authorship of a white man's book or that I was confessing something to him.

    "I promise you I wrote it," I said. "I can't tell you more, but read the book, and the piece in last September's Reader's Digest and you'll know who I really am." (8.168)

    For all his talk about fully becoming a black person, we can see what Griffin really thinks about his identity. His identity as a white person is who he really is, according to what he tells this guy he meets at a YMCA Café.

    For an instant I imagined the expression on some police officer's face as he looked at my black body and read my identification papers: JOHN HOWARD GRIFFIN MANSFIELD, TEXAS Weight: 196 Hair: Brown Race: White Sex: Male Height: 6" Would he think I had merely stolen the papers from some white man? (8.199)

    We kind of like this idea, that your identity is just a bunch of numbers and facts written on a piece of paper. But even here, it's kind of problematic. His body and his papers don't match. So which one is telling the truth?

    "I'm not pure Negro," he said proudly. "My mother was French, my father Indian." "I see…" "She was Portuguese, my mother -- a lovely woman," Christophe sighed. "I see…" The man across the aisle smiled broadly at the obvious admission of a lie from Christophe. I gave him a warning glance and he did not challenge our friend's French-Portuguese-Indian background. (10.111)

    Earlier on in the book, Griffin hears about self-hating black people. Christophe is the self-hating black person incarnate. The cool thing about him is that he makes up his own identity as he goes along. The not-so-cool thing? It's a lie that tries to make him whiter than he is.

    "Florida Navaho," he interrupted triumphantly. "Your mother was part Florida Navaho, wasn't she?" I felt like laughing, first with relief and then at the thought of my Dutch-Irish mother being anything so exotic as Florida Navaho. At the same time, I felt vaguely disappointed to find Christophe no brighter than the rest of us. (10.118)

    There are two pretty interesting things about Griffin's interaction with Christophe. The first is that even though he's a liar, Christophe brings up the fact that the majority of African-Americans are of mixed heritage. That's something most people don't talk about. The second thing is, by making up his stories, he is trying to find roots, something that many African-Americans still search for today since slavery basically denied them the ability to maintain their connections to their heritage.

    When my wife answered, the strangeness of my situation again swept over me. I talked with her and the children as their husband and father, while reflected in the glass windows of the booth I saw another man they would not know. At this time, when I wanted most to lose the illusion, I was more than ever aware of it, aware that I was not the man she knew, but a stranger who spoke with the same voice and had the same memory. (15.150)

    What do you think makes Griffin feel like such a stranger to his family? Is it society? Is it his new looks? Or is it something else?

    At such a time, the Negro can look at the starlit skies and find that he has, after all, a place in the universal order of things. The stars, the black skies affirm his humanity, his validity as a human being. He knows that his belly, his lungs, his tired legs, his appetites, his prayers and his mind are cherished in some profound involvement with nature and God. The night is his consolation. It does not despise him. (15.153)

    So black people can only have their identities affirmed by nature. Oh, now that's just super.

    I hired a Negro youth to come and help me clean up my parents' house so it would be spotless for the new owners. The youth knew me and had no reticence in talking since he was sure I was "one of them" so to speak. Both Negroes and whites have gained this strange certainty from the experiment—because I was a Negro for six weeks, I remained partly Negro or perhaps essentially Negro. (38.2)

    Maybe we're the only ones confused, but what does it mean to be "partly Negro," or "essentially Negro?" Seriously. We want to know. But that, friends, is a question that every reader of this book has to answer for him or herself. No easy answers here.

  • Family

    She offered, as her part of the project, her willingness to lead, with our three children, the unsatisfactory family life of a household deprived of husband and father. (2.12)

    This is really the one time that we kind of get to see things from Griffin's wife's point of view. Sure, he's going out having fun with his experiment, but she's just at home raising her children as a suddenly single mother. Not so much fun.

    His questions had the spurious elevation of a scholar seeking information, but the information he sought was entirely sexual, and presupposed that in the ghetto the Negro's life is one of marathon sex with many different partners, open to the view of all; in a word, that marital fidelity and sex as love's goal of union with the beloved object were exclusively the white man's property. (13.51)

    Families humanize people. Everyone has one, so it's an easy way to find something in common with just about everyone else. You know, like commiserating over noogies from your big brother. This guy that Griffin meets says that he's not racist, but it's obviously not true. One way we know that is that he sees black people as people without families. In other words: not quite human.

    I knew that what he really meant was that Negroes grew up seeing it from infancy. He had read the same stories, the same reports of social workers about parents sharing a room with children, the father coming home drunk and forcing the mother onto the bed in full view of the young ones. I felt like laughing in his face when I thought of the Negro families I had known already as a Negro: the men on the streets, in the ghettos, the housewives and their great concern that their children "grow up right." (13.56)

    If Griffin is right, and black families are just as concerned about their children being raised correctly as white families, what prevents the truth from being heard? Where do these stories that the man Griffin is hitchhiking with repeats come from?

    Ignorance keeps them poor, and when a town-dwelling Negro is poor, he lives in the ghetto. […] He no longer cares. He will do anything to escape it -- steal or commit acts of violence—or perhaps try to lose himself in sensuality. Most often the sex-king is just a poor devil trying to prove the manhood that his whole existence denies. This is what the whites call the "sorry nigger." […] To a young girl who has nothing, has never known anything, the baubles she can get—both in a kind of crude affection and in gifts or money—by granting sex to a man or boy appeal to her as toys to a child. She gets pregnant sometimes and then the vicious circle is given impetus. […] But none of this is "Negro-ness." (13.76)

    It's the circle of life! Except, instead of Rafiki smiling and putting gourd-juice on a baby lion's head, it's a cycle of grueling poverty. Griffin is basically telling us that racism kills families. How would this family look if you didn't know the reasons behind their actions? How do you see them with Griffin's explanation? How could they end the cycle?

    I could only conclude that his attitude came from an overwhelming love for his child, so profound it spilled over to all humanity. I knew that he was totally unaware of its ability to cure men; of the blessing it could be to someone like me after having been exhausted and scraped raw in my heart by others this rainy Alabama night. (13.104)

    This baby should be a superhero: Magical Love Antiracism Kid.

    "I don't want them to. They'll come back for my funeral. That's the worst part of this devilment. If the young ones want a decent life, they've got to go somewhere else. All the families are being split up. That's the shame of it." (13.120)

    Earlier, Griffin talked about one way that racism destroys families. This is another way: by moving away in order to find a better life… not that we can blame anyone for doing that, but wouldn't it be nice if the kids could stay local and still have a good life?

    I congratulated them on such a fine family. The mother told me they had been truly blessed. "Ours are all in good health. When you think of so many people with crippled or blind or not-right children, you just have to thank God." I praised the children until the father's tired face animated with pride. He looked at the children the way another looks at some rare painting or treasured gem. (15.76)

    To put this in context, this family has a house full of six children who are so excited about the idea of sharing tiny slivers of Milky Way bars that saliva falls out of their mouths. But still, their parents feel that they are blessed just because they're healthy. That's some love.

    While we spread tow sacks on the floor and then feed sacks over them, the children asked questions about my own children. Did they go to school? No, they were too young. How old were they then? Why, today is my daughter's fifth birthday. Would she have a party? Yes, she'd certainly had a party. Excitement. Like we had here, with the candy and everything? Yes, something like that. (15.95)

    Okay, besides these kids being the cutest thing ever, this scene points out something important to us. The ginormous gap between Griffin's life and the lives of these kids. Their birthday party looks like this, and his daughter's birthday party looks like this. That's a big difference.

    It was thrown full in my face. I saw it not as a white man and not as a Negro, but as a human parent. 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)

    Ah, that's what it took to get Griffin to realize how insane it is that some people's fates are determined by something as stupid as the color of their skin. Don't mess with Griffin's kids' future: he's one protective Papa Bear.

    When the plane landed, I hurried to collect my bags and walk out front. The car soon arrived, with children waving and shouting from the windows. I felt their arms around my neck, their hugs and the marvelous jubilation of reunion. And in the midst of it, the picture of the prejudice and bigotry from which I had just come flashed into my mind, and I heard myself mutter: "My God, how can men do it when there are things like this in the world?" (26.3)

    This happens at the end of Griffin's experiment, when he's going home to his family that he's been missing for six weeks. The weird thing is, he's spent the whole time away thinking about his family, but now that he's actually with his family he's thinking about prejudice again.

  • Lust

    Here sensuality was escape, proof of manhood for people who could prove it no other way. Here at noon, jazz blared from juke boxes and dark holes issued forth the cool odors of beer, wine and flesh into the sunlight. Here hips drew the eye and flirted with the eye and caused the eye to lust or laugh. It was better to look at hips than at the ghetto. (8.18)

    What do you think would happen if the people that Griffin describes did not use sexuality as an escape from their lives in the ghetto?

    Customers came—whites, Negroes and Latin Americans. Well- dressed tourists mingled with the derelicts of the quarter. When we shined their shoes we talked. The whites, especially the tourists, had no reticence before us, and no shame since we were Negroes. Some wanted to know where they could find girls, wanted us to get Negro girls for them. We learned to spot these from the moment they sat down, for they were immediately friendly and treated us with the warmth and courtesy of equals. I mentioned this to Sterling. "Yeah, when they want to sin, they're very democratic," he said. (8.115)

    Why do the attitudes of these white people change when they want to have sex with black women? Also, why do the white men have no shame in front of Griffin and Sterling?

    "Well, you know you don't want to even look at a white woman. In fact, you look down at the ground or the other way." (10.143)

    Okay, so we just saw how these white guys are pretty excited to have sex with black women, but a black guy can't even look at a white woman? What's up with these rules?

    The visual barrier imposed itself. The observing self saw the Negro, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the ghetto, write "Darling" to a white woman. The chains of my blackness would not allow me to go on. Though I understood and could analyze what was happening, I could not break through. Never look at a white woman—look down or the other way. What do you mean, calling a white woman "darling" like that, boy? (10.252)

    Earlier, Griffin learned that he's not even supposed to look at a white woman, so now he feels weird about writing to his wife. Even though Griffin doesn't mention it in the book, black men in the South were often killed for any kind of interaction with a white woman, so it's understandable why he would be a little scared.

    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. Otherwise, the sounds from the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails. (10.259)

    Do you agree with Griffin's assessment? Or is he just making excuses/ overgeneralizing?

    This man offered his services free to any Negro woman over twenty, offered to pay, on an ascending scale, from two dollars for a nineteen-year-old girl up to seven fifty for a fourteen-year-old and more for perversion dates. He gave a contact point for later in the evening and urged any Negro man who wanted to earn five dollars for himself to find him a date within this price category. (12.26)

    This seems more than a little hypocritical when you remember that the white racists in Black Like Me say that black people are depraved. But posters like this are so common that when a black man sees it, he's not even surprised. Remind us, who are the depraved ones again?

    Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly subtle. All showed morbid curiosity about the sexual life of the Negro, and all had, at base, the same stereotyped image of the Negro as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied. They appeared to think that the Negro has done all of those "special" things they themselves have never dared to do. They carried the conversation into the depths of depravity. (13.33)

    Historical note: at this time many strains of racism included the belief that black people, and specifically black men, were obsessed with sex. In particular black men were supposed to have giant penises and just be waiting for the opportunity to rape white women. Ugh. This makes us want to throw the keys to our DeLorean into the storm sewer.

    "Well, you people don't seem to have the inhibitions we have. We're all basically Puritans. I understand Negroes do a lot more things—different kinds of sex—than we do. Oh, don't get me wrong. I admire your attitude, think it's basically healthier than ours. You don't get so damned many conflicts. Negroes don't have much neuroses, do they? I mean you people have a more realistic tradition about sex—you're not so sheltered from it as we are." (13.56)

    Historical note number two: black people were thought to basically be like animals. For plain old racists, this meant things like they were stupid and couldn't feel pain. For paternalist racists in denial, like this guy Griffin is hitchhiking with, it meant that black people were "closer to nature," or in this guy's words, were "not so sheltered from it as we [white people] are."

    The boy ended up wanting me to expose myself to him, saying he had never seen a Negro naked. I turned mute, indrawn, giving no answer. (13.64)

    That must be the most awkward ride ever in the history of awkward rides.

    "I know. Southern newspapers print every rape, attempted rape, suspected rape and "maybe rape," but outstanding accomplishment is not considered newsworthy. Even the Southern Negro has little chance to know this, since he reads the same slanted reports in the newspapers." (13.82)

    Why don't Southern newspapers report positive things about black people? What image do you think they are trying to create?

  • Religion

    Small gold-lettering on the window of a store caught my attention: Catholic book store. Knowing the Catholic stand on racism, I wondered if this shop might cash a Negro' s check. With some hesitation, I opened the door and entered. I was prepared to be disappointed. "Would you cash a 20-dollar travelers check for me?" I asked the proprietress. "Of course," she said without hesitation, as though nothing could be more natural. She did not even study me. (10.42)

    History snack: the Vatican's official position on racism was that it is bad, bad, bad. So it makes sense that Griffin hopes that he can cash his check there.

    I thought of Maritain's conclusion that the only solution to the problems of man is the return of charity (in the old embracing sense of caritas, not in the stingy literal sense it has assumed in our language and in our days) and metaphysics. Or, more simply, the maxim of St. Augustine: "Love, and then do what you will." (13.105)

    Okay this is kind of complicated, but it's important to understand what Griffin means by caritas. When we think charity, we think of giving to people in need or donating to some kind of organization through a text on our smartphones. That's not what he's talking about. Caritas is the love of God according to the Catholic religion. So when humans express caritas, they are supposed to love other people the same way that God loves humans. So kind of the way your parents love you even if you crash their car and flunked all of your grades that semester. If we felt that way about everyone, there definitely wouldn't be any prejudice.

    We spoke of the whites. "They're God's children, just like us," he said. "Even if they don't act very godlike any more. God tells us straight—we've got to love them, no ifs, ands, and buts about it. Why, if we hated them, we'd be sunk down to their level. There's plenty of us doing just that, too." (13.121)

    Not only the speaker of this quote a wonderful peace-loving old man, but he's also a proponent of the type of nonviolent resistance that Griffin advocates for at the very end of the book.

    Two well-dressed men stood talking in front of the Hotel Albert. "Pardon us, sir," one of the women said, holding a tract in her hand. "We're soliciting contributions for our missionary—" "G'wan," the older one snapped, "I got too many of them damned tracts already." (15.144)

    Imagine someone being rude to a nun. That's these guys. Real winners, obvs.

    The hate stare was everywhere practiced, especially by women of the older generation. On Sunday, I made the experiment of dressing well and walking past some of the white churches just as services were over. In each instance, as the women came through the church doors and saw me, the "spiritual bouquets" changed to hostility. The transformation was grotesque. (16.7)

    Earlier, Griffin goes to a Catholic bookstore that is the only place to treat him like an equal. What do you think is different about these women?

    I took a seat beside white men at the counter and the waitress smiled at me. It was a miracle. I ordered food and was served, and it was a miracle. (18.10)

    You can really tell that Catholicism is an important part of Griffin's life, because even little moments like this are seen through the lens of religion.

    In medieval times, men sought sanctuary in churches. Nowadays, for a nickel, I could find sanctuary in a colored rest room. (20.68)

    More everyday things seen through the lens of religion, but this also tells us something else. As a black man, the only place that Griffin feels safe and sound is in the bathroom. What does that tell you about the experience of black people in public spaces like streets and stores?

    The contrast was almost too great to be borne. It was a shock, like walking from the dismal swamps into sudden brilliant sunlight. Here all was peace, all silence except for the chanted prayers. Here men know nothing of hatred. They sought to make themselves conform ever more perfectly to God's will, whereas outside I had seen mostly men who sought to make God's will conform to their wretched prejudices. (21.8)

    Can't you just hear the angelic chorus? It's probably clean and bright, with little birds chirping in the background. Honestly, after all the bad times Griffin has described to us, his visit to the Trappist monastery is a breath of fresh air.

    God is invoked… And He is invoked against the God of the spirit, of intelligence and love—excluding and hating this God. What an extraordinary spiritual phenomenon this is: people believe in God and yet do not know God. The idea of God is affirmed and at the same time disfigured and perverted. He goes on to say that this kind of religion, which declines wisdom, even though it may call itself Christian, is in reality as anti- Christian as is atheism. (21.26)

    Do you agree that this type of Christianity is really as anti-Christian as atheism? What does that even mean?

    Then I realized that he was describing racists everywhere and from all times—that this is the religious trait of men who twist their minds to consider racial prejudice a virtue—whether it be a White Citizens Council or Klan member, a Nazi gauleiter, a South African white supremacist or merely someone's aunt who says: "Nobody's worse than those Italians (or Spaniards, or Englishmen, or Danes, etc.)." (21.28)

    Does all racism come from the same place? Or are there types of racism that are fundamentally different from other types?

  • Race

    "Do you suppose they'll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?" I asked. "You're not serious," one of them said. "They're not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you'll be a Negro and that's all they'll ever want to know about you." (3.2)

    Someone had to say it. This scene alone is one of the most informative scenes about who Griffin was before he began the experiment. Basically it seems like he thought that black people were treated badly because they did something to be treated that way, and that racism wasn't as bad as they said it was. He's in for a rude awakening.

    I wanted to discover what sort of work an educated Negro, nicely dressed, could find. I met no rebuffs, only gentleness when they informed me they could not use my services as typist, bookkeeper, etc. (9.1)

    Remember kids, racism and prejudice isn't only violent lynching and angry people. It's also smiling people who politely refuse to hire you, even though you're qualified for the job.

    "You take a young white boy. He can go through school and college with a real incentive. He knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out. But can a Negro—in the South? No, I've seen many make brilliant grades in college. And yet when they come home in the summers to earn a little money, they can't get jobs according to their education or capabilities. No, they have to do the most menial work. And even when they graduate it's a long hard pull. Most take postal jobs, or preaching or teaching jobs. This is the cream. What about the others, Mr. Griffin?" (9.20)

    The explanation that many racists gave for the poverty of black people was that they were unskilled and uneducated. But, as this black man that Griffin talks to explains, even the most skilled and educated black people are not able to find jobs that match their level of education.

    First, the discrimination against him. Second, and almost more grievous, his discrimination against himself; his contempt for the blackness that he associates with his suffering; his willingness to sabotage his fellow Negroes because they are part of the blackness he has found so painful. (9.35)

    It's probably hard to believe that being black isn't a bad thing when everything that you read, every movie you see, and a large chunk of the people that you meet, all say that blackness is evil.

    My first vague, favorable impression that it was not as bad as I had thought it would be came from courtesies of the whites toward the Negro in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy—that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one. His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. (10.1)

    Why do you think that Griffin says that black people are treated as tenth class citizens, and not even second-class ones? That's a pretty big downgrade. What things in a black person's day-to-day living constantly remind them that they are inferior?

    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)

    This is really interesting. Griffin says that the hate stare is not threatening, but he hates it because the person is being obscene. Do you think that this is the way a black person would interpret this stare?

    An army officer hurried to get at the rear of the white line. I stepped back to let him get in front. He refused and went to the end of the colored portion of the line. Every Negro craned his head to look at the phenomenon. I have learned that men in uniform, particularly officers, rarely descend to show discrimination, perhaps because of the integration of the armed forces. (10.67)

    It's pretty cool that this Army officer decides to wait in line for the bus instead of skipping all the black people. Why do you think that is?

    Scenes from books and movies came back—the laces, the shaded white-columned veranda with mint juleps served by an elegantly uniformed "darky," the honor, the magnolia fragrance, the cotton fields where "darkies, happy and contented," labored in the day and then gathered at the manse to serenade their beloved white folks with spirituals in the evening after supper… Until the time when they could escape to freedom. (10.263)

    Ah, here's another mode of racism. Instead of dehumanizing black people, this mode pretends that slavery and subjugation are actually the best way for black people to live. That makes the racists feel better because then they are doing a good thing, and the black people are happy. Everybody wins! Except this is a big fat lie, and everyone loses.

    "No use trying down here," he said. "We're gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We're taking it slow, but we're doing it. Pretty soon we'll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have." [...] "We're going to do our damndest to drive every one of you out of the state." (14.9)

    This scene amazed us because this man straight up explains his whole racist plan to Griffin. That takes some cojones… and some freaking evilness. Besides this guy, everyone else seems to pretend that they aren't being racist when they are. So, at least he's honest? No, we're not even going to give him points for that.

    "I'll tell you how it is here. We'll do business with you people. We'll sure as hell screw your women. Other than that, you're just completely off the record as far as we're concerned. And the quicker you people get that through your heads, the better off you'll be." (15.16)

    There are a ton of things going on here, but let's just look at a couple of words. "We'll sure as hell screw your women." Notice that he says screw. That's not even a neutral word, like sex. Screw implies something vulgar. It also ignores the idea of love. So for this guy, black women are simply there like sex toys to be used. Classy.

    The white racist is bewildered and angered by such an attitude, because the dignity of the Negro's course of action emphasizes the indignity of his own. It is a challenge to him to needle the Negro into acts of a baser nature, into open physical conflict. He will walk up and blow cigarette smoke in the Negro's face, hoping the Negro will strike out at him. Then he could repress the Negro violently and claim it was only self-defense. (16.2)

    Oh, this just sucks. Because white Southerners knew that getting attacked by a black man would basically ensure that the black man went to jail (or worse), they tried to provoke the black men into violence by being degrading dirtbags. Ugh. People are horrible.

    "We must return to them their lawful rights, assure equality of justice—and then everybody leave everybody else to hell alone. Paternalistic—we show our prejudice in our paternalism—we downgrade their dignity." (20.50)

    Paternalism is when someone stops someone else from doing something because they think they know better. When a mom stops a baby from sticking their finger into a socket, no one has a problem that. But when someone stops a fully grown adult from doing things that other adults can do, that's paternalism and it implies that person is too stupid to make choices for themselves.

  • Hypocrisy

    I read recently where one of them said that equality of education and job opportunity would be an even greater tragedy for us. He said it would quickly prove to us that we can't measure up— disillusion us by showing us that we are, in fact, inferior. "I wish those kind souls wouldn't be so protective. I know plenty who'd be willing to take the chance of being "disillusioned," the proprietor laughed. (9.25)

    What reasoning do you think the man who wrote this article had for believing that equality would disillusion black people?

    We need a great saint—some enlightened common sense. Otherwise, we'll never have the right answers when these pressure groups—those racists, super-patriots, whatever you want to call them—tag every move toward racial justice as communist-inspired, Zionist-inspired, Illuminati-inspired, Satan-inspired… Part of some secret conspiracy to overthrow the Christian civilization. "So, if you want to be a good Christian, you mustn't act like one. That makes sense," Mr. Gayle said. (9.29)

    We're pretty sure that there are two definitions of Christian civilization here. What do you think Mr. Gayle means by that? What's the other meaning?

    "That's what they claim. The minute you give me my rights to vote when I pay taxes, to have a decent job, a decent home, a decent education—then you're taking that first step toward 'racemixing' and that's part of the great secret conspiracy to ruin civilization—to ruin America." "So, if you want to be a good American, you've got to practice bad Americanism. That makes sense, too," Mr. Gayle sighed. (9.31)

    Here's another case of two meanings for the same word. We get the feeling that the people who think that equality will ruin America mean that it will ruin a land of smiling white families with 2.5 children and white picket fences. Mr. Gayle, on the other hand, probably means the America that stands for equality, democracy, multiculturalism, and all that jazz.

    "You mean a white driver! Take a Negro passenger?" I asked. "Yeah." "They wouldn't in New Orleans… They said they weren't allowed to." "They're allowed to do anything to get your dime here," he said. (10.210)

    So taking black people's money is fine, but letting them have jobs so that they can make that money isn't?

    He cannot understand how the white man can show the most demeaning aspects of his nature and at the same time delude himself into thinking he is inherently superior. To the Negro who sees this element of the white man's name—and he sees it much more often than any other—the white man's comments about the Negro's alleged "immorality" ring maddeningly hollow. (12.27)

    Why do you think these white men feel that it's okay to show their dark sides to black people?

    He appeared astonished and delighted, not at what I said but at the fact that I could say it. His whole attitude of enthusiasm practically shouted, "Why, you talk intelligently!" He was so obtuse he did not realize the implied insult in his astonishment that a black man could do anything but say "yes sir" and mumble four-letter words. (12.62)

    Amazing. I wonder what he would say if he knew that black people could run America. We bet it would look something like this.

    "Well, they sure as hell do. We figure we're doing you people a favor to get some white blood in your kids." The grotesque hypocrisy slapped me as it does all Negroes. It is worth remembering when the white man talks of the Negro's lack of sexual morality, or when he speaks with horror about mongrelization and with fervor about racial purity. Mongrelization is already a widespread reality in the South—it has been exclusively the white man's contribution to the Southern Way of Life. His vast concern for ""racial purity" obviously does not extend to all races. (15.25)

    Remember kids, eugenics is totally racism, not really science, and doesn't really make any sense. The more you know.

    "Wait a minute, dammit. You people are my brothers. It's people like me that are your only hope. How do you expect me to observe if you won't talk to me?" (20.24)

    Of course. This white guy attempting to observe black university students is the only hope of the entire race. Because they can't, you know, stand up for themselves.

    The unpardonable had been said. The white man, despite his protestations of brotherhood, had made the first dirty suggestion that came to his mind. He was probably unaware of it but it escaped none of us. By the very tone of his question he revealed his contempt for us. His voice had taken on a hard edge, putting us in our place, as they say. He had become just like the whites he decried. (20.45)

    This guy is the same dude in the previous quote. We knew that this was going to happen. You know how? Say it with us: Because paternalism is still just racism.

    At the Atlanta station we waited for the whites to get off. One of them, a large middle-aged man, hesitated, turned and stepped back toward us. We hardened ourselves for another insult. He bent over to speak to the young Negro. "I just wanted to tell you that before he slapped you, he'd have had to slap me down first," he said. None of us smiled. We wondered why he had not spoken up while whites were still on the bus. […] "Well, I just wanted you to know—I was on your side, boy." He winked, never realizing how he had revealed himself to us by calling our companion by the hated name of "boy." We nodded wearily in response to his parting nod. (20.65)

    We have another word to add to your list of racism related vocabulary: infantilization. That's when you reduce someone to the same status as a child or a baby. That's what this guy is doing by calling the black man "boy."

  • Community

    Under the dim light in the tiny room without windows, I realized I was having my first prolonged contact as a Negro with other Negroes. Its drama lay in its lack of drama, in its quietness, in the courtesies we felt impelled to extend to one another. I wondered if the world outside were so bad for us that we had to counter it among ourselves by salving one another with kindness. (7.60)

    Why do you think that Griffin is so amazed by how nicely black people treat each other?

    A middle-aged woman with stringy gray hair stood near my seat. […] I half rose from my seat to give it to her, but Negroes behind me frowned disapproval. 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. (8.41)

    Who do you think was right here? Griffin, or the black people on the bus?

    An odd thing happened. Within a short 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 "Negroness" 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 ourselves in his esteem without for one moment letting him think he had any God-given rights that we did not also have. (8.91)

    Wow, it seems like Griffin was accepted into the black community very quickly. What do you think it takes to be a part of the black community of this book?

    "What do you see as our biggest problem, Mr. Griffin?" Mr. Gayle asked. "Lack of unity." "That's it," said the elderly man who ran the cafe. "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?" (8.162)

    We'll help you out with this quote by defining two slang terms. Conked out hair was hair that had been straightened by a chemical called congolene. It looked like this. And when Mr. Gayle refers to a Valentino, he's talking about Rudolph Valentino, who was an old school heartthrob (with straight hair).

    It gives him a view of the white man that the white can never understand; for if the Negro is part of the black mass, the white is always the individual, and he will sincerely deny that he is "like that," he has always tried to be fair and kind to the Negro. (10.3)

    Way to dehumanize people #253: always think about them in terms of a mass. That one time that black kid stepped on your toe in the lunch line? A sure sign that black people are all horrible violent thugs. Don't think like this. A) it's racist, and b) It's just plain stupid.

    The move was on, but it was quelled by another voice: "No, let's don't. It'll just give them something else to hold against us," an older man said. A woman agreed. All of us could see the picture. (10.180)

    This quote comes after the black people on a bus are not allowed to leave and use the restroom. They plot to pee on the bus, but then they decide against it. Why do you think they are self-policing themselves?

    "They can't discuss it," he said. "It's a shame but all they do is get mad whenever you bring it up. I'll never understand it. They're blocked on that one subject. I've lived here over five years now—and they're good neighbors; but if I mention race with any sympathy for the Negro, they just tell me I'm an 'outsider' and don't understand about the Negroes. What's there to understand?" (12.16)

    Almost all of the talk about community in this book is about black people, so it's interesting to get this peek into white communities. Apparently this Northern transplant doesn't qualify for entrance into the community of white Southerners.

    "No… We can't do that any longer either. We're supposed to get our rights in a proper way. And try to understand that it's hard for them, too, to change around from the old ways. We've got plenty of old Uncle Toms that don't want things changed any more than the whites. You can give them two dollars and they'll pull the string that sends us all to hell. They're a disgrace to our race. And then we've got plenty of young smart-aleck people that don't want nothing except the chance to "get even" with the whites […] they're full of hate and piss and it's a God's shame. They're just as much Judases as the Uncle Toms." (13.127)

    Here we get two kinds of people who are described as messing with the black community. There are self-hating blacks, who see no reason to change the system of racism. And then there are black people who see violence as the solution to the problem. Why are they a problem for the black community?

    Where the Negro has lacked unity of purpose elsewhere, he has in Montgomery rallied to the leadership of King. Where he has been degraded elsewhere by unjust men of both races, here he is resisting degradation. (16.3)

    How does this description of Montgomery differ from other cities that Griffin has visited?

    The Negroes with whom I associated feared two things. They feared that one of their own might commit an act of violence that would jeopardize their position by allowing the whites to say they were too dangerous to have their rights. They dreaded the awful tauntings of irresponsible white men, the jailing, the frames. (16.5)

    We guess the thing about fighting a war (or fighting for equality) is that everybody has to be pretty clear about the game plan and who the enemy is. If some troops start fighting each other (or start playing hopscotch instead of fighting) you've got a problem on your hands.

    I had arrived in Atlanta feeling that the situation for the Negro in the South was utterly hopeless—due to the racists' powerful hold on the purse strings of whites and Negroes alike; and due to the lack of unanimity among Negroes. (23.2)

    Okay, Montgomery is awesome because Martin Luther King Jr. unified people there. Griffin seems to be suggesting that there needs to be an Atlanta-based King.

  • Contrasting Regions: White South vs. Black South

    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. I saw everything—the lanterns, the trees, the candlelit tables, the little fountain, as though I were looking through a fine camera lens. Surrounded by elegant waiters, elegant people and elegant food, I thought of the other parts of town where I would live in the days to come. Was there a place in New Orleans where a Negro could buy huîtres variées? (4.4)

    Nowadays everyone dreams of being rich, but imagine how much it would suck if there were some things you still couldn't do (not illegal things, silly) even if you were richer than Bill Gates. Like go to a fancy restaurant and eat huîtres varies—which are mixed oysters, by the way: change "mixed oysters" to "ice cream sundaes" for all you non oyster-fans out there.

    I passed the same taverns and amusement places where the hawkers had solicited me on previous evenings. They were busy, urging white men to come in and see the girls. The same smells of smoke and liquor and dampness poured out through half-open doors. Tonight they did not solicit me. Tonight they looked at me but did not see me. (7.23)

    It's not just that Griffin has certain things closed off to him as a black man, but he's even made entirely invisible to the people looking at him.

    It was the ghetto. I had seen them before from the high altitude of one who could look down and pity. Now I belonged here and the view was different. A first glance told it all. Here it was pennies and clutter and spittle on the curb. (8.17)

    Before, Griffin felt pity for the people who lived in the ghetto. What do you think his emotions about the ghetto are after him becomes a black man?

    He told me that he often took the bus into the better parts of town where the whites lived, "just to get away from this place. I just walk in the streets and look at the houses… Anything, just to get somewhere where it's decent… To get a smell of clean air. (8.31)

    You might think that Griffin is noticing the difference between black and white neighborhoods just because he's experienced them both. But it's obvious that he's not the only one who notices that things are much nicer where the white people live.

    The whites seemed far away, out there in their parts of the city. The distance between them and me was far more than the miles that physically separated us. It was an area of unknowing. I wondered if it could really be bridged. (8.233)

    During this time, most white and black people lived very far away from one another. They hardly interacted with one another. How do you think this impacted their ability to understand each other?

    "I can't imagine how it must be," he said. "I don't think it's fair. But just the same, plenty of whites don't have access to these things—to art, history, literature and philosophy. Some of the finest people I know live in the country where they never get to museums, concerts." "Living in the country, they are surrounded by natural museums and concerts," I said. (13.75)

    This scene is interesting, because it almost seems crafted as a rebuttal to people who would argue that poor white people, or white people living in the country, were just as disadvantaged as black people. While they are disadvantaged, it's not the same because they are not barred from things like museums, concerts, and higher education. Black people in the south were.

    Again, an important part of my daily life was spent searching for the basic things that all whites take for granted: a place to eat, or somewhere to find a drink of water, a rest room, somewhere to wash my hands. (14.2)

    Think about it this way, if you have to spend so much of your life thinking about things like where to pee, how much time do you have to figure out the theory of relativity? Not much.

    I had known the city before, in my youth, when I sailed from there once to France. […] I had seen the Negro dock workers stripped to the waist, their bodies glistening with sweat under their loads. The sight had chilled me, touched me to pity for men who so resembled beasts of burden. But I had dismissed it as belonging to the natural order of things. The Southern whites I knew were kind and wise. If they allowed this, then surely it must be right. Now, walking the same streets as a Negro, I found no trace of the Mobile I formerly knew, nothing familiar. The laborers still dragged out their oxlike lives, but the gracious Southerner, the wise Southerner, the kind Southerner was nowhere visible. I knew that if I were white, I would find him easily, for his other face is there for whites to see. It is not a false face; it is simply different from the one the Negro sees. […] The Negro sees and reacts differently not because he is Negro, but because he is suppressed. (14.14)

    Here Griffin describes the exact same scene through two entirely different sets of eyes. Why do you think the description has changed so much? Griffin says that black people see things differently because they are suppressed. How do you think the vision of a wealthy black person and a poor black person would differ today?

    The policeman nodded affably to me and I knew then that I had successfully passed back into white society, that I was once more a first-class citizen, that all doors into cafes, rest rooms, libraries, movies, concerts, schools and churches were suddenly open to me. (18.10)

    Isn't it interesting that the marker of passing successfully for a white person is a lack of police aggression?

    At Spelman College, hearing Rosalyn Pope play magnificently the Bach Toccata in D, and then the strange, bewildered expression on her face when she told me about arriving in Paris to spend a year studying piano—the strangeness of living in a great city where she could attend concerts to her fill, where she could walk into any door, where she was a human being first and last and not dismissed as a "Negro" […] (23.23)

    History nugget: Paris was basically the place to be for black people before World War II. The Négritude movement drew all kinds of black poets and artists to France. Things got pretty bad during the war, but around the time that the civil-rights movement got going in the USA, and probably around the time that Pope went to Paris, a similar movement started in France.