Study Guide

Black Like Me Contrasting Regions: White South vs. Black South

By John Howard Griffin

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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N****, 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 N**** sees. […] The N**** sees and reacts differently not because he is N****, 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 "N****" […] (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.