Study Guide

Black Like Me Lust

By John Howard Griffin


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, N****es 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 N****es. Some wanted to know where they could find girls, wanted us to get N**** 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 N****, 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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N****, and all had, at base, the same stereotyped image of the N**** as an inexhaustible sex-machine with oversized genitals and a vast store of experiences, immensely varied. They appeared to think that the N**** 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 N****es 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. N****es 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 N**** 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 N**** 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?