Study Guide

Black Like Me Religion

By John Howard Griffin


Small gold-lettering on the window of a store caught my attention: Catholic book store. Knowing the Catholic stand on racism, I wondered if this shop might cash a N****' s check. With some hesitation, I opened the door and entered. I was prepared to be disappointed. "Would you cash a 20-dollar travelers check for me?" I asked the proprietress. "Of course," she said without hesitation, as though nothing could be more natural. She did not even study me. (10.42)

History snack: the Vatican's official position on racism was that it is bad, bad, bad. So it makes sense that Griffin hopes that he can cash his check there.

I thought of Maritain's conclusion that the only solution to the problems of man is the return of charity (in the old embracing sense of caritas, not in the stingy literal sense it has assumed in our language and in our days) and metaphysics. Or, more simply, the maxim of St. Augustine: "Love, and then do what you will." (13.105)

Okay this is kind of complicated, but it's important to understand what Griffin means by caritas. When we think charity, we think of giving to people in need or donating to some kind of organization through a text on our smartphones. That's not what he's talking about. Caritas is the love of God according to the Catholic religion. So when humans express caritas, they are supposed to love other people the same way that God loves humans. So kind of the way your parents love you even if you crash their car and flunked all of your grades that semester. If we felt that way about everyone, there definitely wouldn't be any prejudice.

We spoke of the whites. "They're God's children, just like us," he said. "Even if they don't act very godlike any more. God tells us straight—we've got to love them, no ifs, ands, and buts about it. Why, if we hated them, we'd be sunk down to their level. There's plenty of us doing just that, too." (13.121)

Not only the speaker of this quote a wonderful peace-loving old man, but he's also a proponent of the type of nonviolent resistance that Griffin advocates for at the very end of the book.

Two well-dressed men stood talking in front of the Hotel Albert. "Pardon us, sir," one of the women said, holding a tract in her hand. "We're soliciting contributions for our missionary—" "G'wan," the older one snapped, "I got too many of them damned tracts already." (15.144)

Imagine someone being rude to a nun. That's these guys. Real winners, obvs.

The hate stare was everywhere practiced, especially by women of the older generation. On Sunday, I made the experiment of dressing well and walking past some of the white churches just as services were over. In each instance, as the women came through the church doors and saw me, the "spiritual bouquets" changed to hostility. The transformation was grotesque. (16.7)

Earlier, Griffin goes to a Catholic bookstore that is the only place to treat him like an equal. What do you think is different about these women?

I took a seat beside white men at the counter and the waitress smiled at me. It was a miracle. I ordered food and was served, and it was a miracle. (18.10)

You can really tell that Catholicism is an important part of Griffin's life, because even little moments like this are seen through the lens of religion.

In medieval times, men sought sanctuary in churches. Nowadays, for a nickel, I could find sanctuary in a colored rest room. (20.68)

More everyday things seen through the lens of religion, but this also tells us something else. As a black man, the only place that Griffin feels safe and sound is in the bathroom. What does that tell you about the experience of black people in public spaces like streets and stores?

The contrast was almost too great to be borne. It was a shock, like walking from the dismal swamps into sudden brilliant sunlight. Here all was peace, all silence except for the chanted prayers. Here men know nothing of hatred. They sought to make themselves conform ever more perfectly to God's will, whereas outside I had seen mostly men who sought to make God's will conform to their wretched prejudices. (21.8)

Can't you just hear the angelic chorus? It's probably clean and bright, with little birds chirping in the background. Honestly, after all the bad times Griffin has described to us, his visit to the Trappist monastery is a breath of fresh air.

God is invoked… And He is invoked against the God of the spirit, of intelligence and love—excluding and hating this God. What an extraordinary spiritual phenomenon this is: people believe in God and yet do not know God. The idea of God is affirmed and at the same time disfigured and perverted. He goes on to say that this kind of religion, which declines wisdom, even though it may call itself Christian, is in reality as anti- Christian as is atheism. (21.26)

Do you agree that this type of Christianity is really as anti-Christian as atheism? What does that even mean?

Then I realized that he was describing racists everywhere and from all times—that this is the religious trait of men who twist their minds to consider racial prejudice a virtue—whether it be a White Citizens Council or Klan member, a Nazi gauleiter, a South African white supremacist or merely someone's aunt who says: "Nobody's worse than those Italians (or Spaniards, or Englishmen, or Danes, etc.)." (21.28)

Does all racism come from the same place? Or are there types of racism that are fundamentally different from other types?