Study Guide

Black Like Me Community

By John Howard Griffin


Under the dim light in the tiny room without windows, I realized I was having my first prolonged contact as a N**** with other N****es. 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 N****es 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 "N****ness" took over so completely that I fell into the same pattern of talking and thinking. It was my first intimate glimpse. We were N****es 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 N****es 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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N****. (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 N****, they just tell me I'm an 'outsider' and don't understand about the N****es. 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 N**** 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 N****es 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 N**** in the South was utterly hopeless—due to the racists' powerful hold on the purse strings of whites and N****es alike; and due to the lack of unanimity among N****es. (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.