Study Guide

Black Like Me Family

By John Howard Griffin


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 N****'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 N****es 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 N**** families I had known already as a N****: 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 N**** 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 n*****." […] 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 "N****-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 N****, 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.