Study Guide

Black Like Me Identity

By John Howard Griffin


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 N****, regardless of what he once may have been. (7.12)

What does Griffin mean by, "the black man is wholly a N****?" 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 N****," 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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N****es and whites have gained this strange certainty from the experiment—because I was a N**** for six weeks, I remained partly N**** or perhaps essentially N****. (38.2)

Maybe we're the only ones confused, but what does it mean to be "partly N****," or "essentially N****?" 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.