Black Like Me Summary
John Howard Griffin is a pudgy white guy from Texas who wants to know what it's like to be a pudgy black guy in the American South in the 1950s. We can already tell that this is going to be a story full of fun times and laughter. Except not really. Griffin ends up hating it so much that he runs away. Twice. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Griffin is a journalist, so he figures that he'll do this experiment as a piece of investigative journalism and publish it in a magazine when everything is done. When he goes to propose the story, everyone thinks he's crazy. But they approve it anyway.
After finding a dermatologist who is willing to darken his skin, sitting in front of sunlamps, and taking special medicine, Griffin is finally ready. He cuts off his hair, puts on sunglasses to cover his eyes, and makes his way to the black part of town.
He freaks out. Once he realizes what he's done, Griffin kind of has a breakdown. Understandable. We'd freak out if we were suddenly subject to disgusting pre-Civil Rights racism one day. But there's no turning back now, so it's time to get a job and find a place to stay.
So about that racism. Yeah, it's a part of everyday life. Griffin can't even go to the bathroom without being reminded that as a black man, he's a second-class citizen, and apparently infectious.
Griffin's adventures of being a black man kind of get repetitive after a while, so we'll sum things up for you. Racism sucks, way, way, way more than Griffin could have ever imagined. He has nightmares about it. Guys, he has PTSD from being black. That's serious.
The racism he encounters includes huge things like being denied voting rights, but also small things like not being able to go to a certain bathroom or cash a check, and just getting the stink-eye everywhere you go. Griffin meets guys who are only interested in black people having sex. He meets people who forget all that love thy neighbor stuff when they see him, even right out of church. He also meets people who think that they are helping, but are actually part of the problem.
But racism isn't the only thing that Griffin discovers while he's black. He also discovers that the black community is taking its advancement into its own hands. Black people are uniting with one another, educating themselves, producing strong leaders and resisting self-hatred. They are growing into a strong and vibrant community. So it's no wonder that the only times Griffin doesn't seem to be scared are when he's surrounded by black people.
Then, Griffin decides one day that he's done with all of the prejudice and hate. The experiment is over, but the story isn't. When the news of his experiment gets out, Griffin's life changes entirely. His whole town turns against him. They even burn an image of him in effigy! In the end, his whole family moves to Mexico because they can't deal with the hatred and the threats.
The book ends shortly after the day his neighbors threatened to castrate him—they don't, though, phew. Griffin just spends the day cleaning up his parents' house with a young black boy who wonders why white people hate him so much.
October 28, 1959
- John Howard Griffin has been thinking about this for a while. What would happen if a white guy from the American South suddenly turned into a black guy from the American South?
- Black people were becoming more and more suicidal, but white people said that everything was going just fantastically. Who's telling the truth? This journalist wants to know.
- He decides that the only way to know is by becoming a black man himself, so he girds his loins for the crazy adventure that's about to come.
October 29, 1959
- Griffin drives to Fort Worth, Texas to meet his friend George Levitan. Levitan owns Sepia, a magazine for black people, and Griffin thinks he'll be interested in his project.
- He thinks it's crazy. But also crazy awesome. He'll do it, but it will be dangerous.
- Adelle Jackson, the editorial director, thinks that it's impossible, but they agree to the project in the end.
- Then he tells his wife that she will be getting to do her own experiment of being a single mom to three kids for a while. Great news for her. We bet she was thrilled. But it is the 1950s, so there's not much else she can do but accept it.
October 30, 1959
- Griffin has a lunch with Jackson, Levitan, and three FBI guys. You know, just a close intimate get-together.
- They talk about his plan, and he asks the guys if they think that they will still treat him the same when he is black as when he is white. Huh. In the 1950s South? Does he even have to ask?
November 1, 1959
- New Orleans! Full of site-seers, strippers, fine French dining, and witch boarding schools. Griffin goes there to stay at his friend's house while he darkens his skin.
November 2, 1959
- Time to get down to business. Griffin calls some dermatologists and one agrees to darken his skin through medication and UV rays. Step one, done.
- He hasn't told his friend what's going on because he wants to protect him. He must be a really good friend, because he doesn't ask a single question.
- Afterwards, Griffin goes to the black part of town, i.e. the poor part. It's pretty different from the fancy place where he ate French food yesterday.
- Next goal, figure out how to enter black society.
November 6, 1959
- So far, everything's been going good. Griffin has been on the medications for four days and it hasn't killed him yet.
- He's getting browner, and the only bad part is that he's nauseous all the time.
- The dermatologist was excited before, but now he's starting to chicken out. After all, according to the dermatologist, black people will just kill their best friends for no reason at all. Griffin tells him that's not true, but it's obvious that he doesn't believe him.
- Meanwhile, Griffin is trying to figure out how he'll become a black guy.
- Every time he's gone to New Orleans, Griffin gets his shoes shined by a guy called Sterling Williams; maybe he'll help him.
November 7, 1959
- Today's the day. The day that Griffin becomes black. It's his last appointment with the dermatologist (who still obviously thinks that he's going to die) and he tells his friend that he'll be leaving that night.
- Griffin shaves his hair, since he obviously doesn't have an Afro, puts on some kind of stain to make himself look darker, and packs his bags.
- When he looks in the mirror, he can't recognize himself. He's a totally different person. He's black.
- Let's just say that he doesn't react very well to being black. You should read this section just to feel how freaked out he is.
- Oh well, no turning back now. He's got to figure out how to start being black.
- After freaking out a little bit more, Griffin calms down when a taxi driver assumes that he's black. Then he goes back to the same places he visited when he was white, and realizes that everyone is treating him as if he didn't exist.
- After he gets to his hotel, Griffin goes to the bathroom.
- There's only one faucet, and someone else is already waiting to shower. They talk to each other politely, and Griffin goes back to his room feeling a little less lonely than he did before.
November 8, 1959
- It's time for Griffin's first day as a black person.
- He leaves the hotel, and no one notices him. Then he finally realizes that he's in the ghetto. Before he just pitied the people who lived there, and now he sees that it's different.
- He starts talking to a guy who tells him about staying at the YMCA. If you're like us, you probably expected a lot of the problems that Griffin has to face when he turns black… but you weren't expecting one of the problems to be finding a place to pee.
- We didn't realize that one byproduct of segregated bathrooms was having to hold your pee for miles while you walk around looking for a bathroom for "people like you."
- At the end of that conversation Griffin hops on a bus. If you remember anything about Rosa Parks, you probably know that there's trouble coming.
- After Griffin and the other black people are seated, white people start getting on the bus but they don't want to sit next to them so they stand. Griffin is about to give up his seat to an old white lady when he realizes that that would be a gallant action if he were white, but he would be betraying the race as a black man.
- Anyway, when she realizes that he's looking at her the old lady starts showing her racism, so we don't feel so sorry that she doesn't get a seat.
- When he gets off the bus, Griffin goes to find Sterling Williams again. He doesn't recognize him until Griffin tells him that he's the same guy whose shoes he used to shine.
- When he gets it, he's totally bowled over. Lucky for Griffin, Williams takes him under his wing and shows him how to be a black guy. It starts with him shaving the blonde hair off the back of his hands.
- Now he's in. And even Williams forgets that Griffin was ever white. He even gets hit on by a widow!
- They get down to work shining their customer's shoes, and Griffin notices that the white customers constantly asked them where they could find black women to have sex with. Classy.
- Then he meets Sterling's partner, Joe, who'd been looking for peanuts all this time. He didn't find any, but at least he cooks them some lunch.
- This part is a little weird because he kind of taunts and berates a homeless man across the street that he gives their scraps to. It's a pretty unsettling section.
- After work is done, Griffin decides to head over to the YMCA to spend the night. It's full, but he gets a room with a lady named Ms. Davis. So, he pays his money and heads back to the YMCA where he finds a group of black intellectuals having some conversations.
- He tells them that he's a writer, and that starts the conversation rolling.
- They talk about the state of black people in the South, their lack of unity, and self-hatred. What—aren't those the kinds of conversations that you guys strike up with total strangers?
- Before he leaves the coffee shop, Griffin reveals his true identity to a black insurance agent, who is so shocked that he's speechless.
- Griffin falls asleep and wakes up around 7:30, so he decides to go out and get something to eat.
- But while he's walking to a café, a white guy starts harassing him, saying that he's going to beat him up.
- Griffin asks for help, even from a police officer, but everyone ignores him. He finally gets rid of the hooligan by pretending that he's going to give him the beat down of his life.
- Of course, Griffin doesn't know the first thing about fighting, but he's a smart and resourceful guy.
- He goes to the local church to calm his nerves, but he can't even do that without looking suspicious, so he heads down to the local black café and eats some beans and rice.
November 9-10, 1959
- So, Griffin doesn't want to be a shoe shiner anymore, but tough—no one wants to hire him. We'll give you three guesses why.
- He notices that black people are crazy nice to him, going out of their way just to help him and refusing payment.
- One day he goes to the YMCA Café and those guys are talking up a storm, as usual. This time it's about why many black people don't become educated.
- Basically because the attitude is, "Well if I can't get a job anyway, what's the point?" They need equal job opportunities, but how to convince white people to give it to them?
- After that conversation, Griffin goes over to the French Quarter to depress himself by looking at all the restaurants that he used to eat at as a white man, ones that he can't even stare at for too long as a black man.
- Then he experiences racism without even knowing it, when a white man tells him not to sit in Jackson Square—not because black people are not allowed in there, but because he just doesn't want him there.
- After realizing that it's not really safe to sit down anywhere, Griffin starts riding the bus around town just so that he can sit.
November 14, 1959
- So it turns out that being black is not nearly as fun as Griffin thought it was going to be. Huh. In the 1950s South? Who would have thunk it?
- Seems that being unable to do the most basic of human functions without being reminded that you are a second-class citizen takes a toll on a person.
- To make matters worse, a jury in Mississippi has allowed lynchers to roam free. The black community is not too happy about it, to say the least.
- Since Griffin was a man who likes to flirt with danger, he decides to head down to Mississippi. Everyone tells him not to, but he doesn't care.
- He's running low on cash, so he tries to cash a traveler's check. No one will do it until he heads to the Catholic bookstore.
- Then, when he goes to buy a ticket, he gets another wonderful moment of racism when the ticket teller gives him the "hate stare" for no reason. Today's just a good day for him, we can tell.
- Finally, he gets on the bus. The drama doesn't stop there.
- Some guy named Christophe is arguing with everyone, and saying that they are stupid in multiple languages. Griffin guesses that he's high. All sorts of shenanigans follow, so you should probably read them.
- Christophe gets off the bus, and all the black people sitting around Griffin give him advice, basically The Dummies Guide to Being Black in Mississippi. It doesn't sound like fun.
- At the bus stop the driver doesn't let the black people off to use the bathroom, so they start plotting their revenge of peeing on the bus. Then they decide against it, because they know that the driver will just think that they're animals that can't hold their own pee.
- Anyway, back on the road.
- At the end Griffin gets some help from a guy named Bill Williams. He helps him find a place to stay and tells him how to be safe.
- Griffin seems okay at first, but it only takes him a little while to realize that coming to Mississippi was a horrible idea. He's pretty depressed.
- He sees the picture of life outside of his hotel room, and it's not pretty. People are drinking away their sorrows.
- Griffin says that white people might mistake this for living jubilantly, but he thinks it's just a way to dull the pain of living a hopeless life.
- Remember how we told you that Griffin was feeling depressed? We meant really depressed.
- He spends the next couple of pages talking about how much life sucks for black people, and how he can't believe that white people are so terrible to them.
- He's so depressed that he needs to get out of Mississippi, like now! So he calls up a white friend and stays with him for a while.
- His friend, P. D. East, is already known for seeking equality for black people. He takes Griffin in, and even gives him a copy of his autobiography. In it, he reads how East changed from being a journalist who appeased Southern racist views into one who challenged them. It wasn't easy, and he lost friends, subscribers, and was threatened with violence.
- But it must be a pretty good book, since Griffin doesn't stop to sleep and reads all night long.
November 15, 1959
- At 7:30 in the morning, East wakes Griffin up from his nap. He and East are obviously good friends, because they talk together for most of the day.
- East was supposed to give a lecture at Dillard University, but he refused. Then he was angry that the principal didn't beg him to do it. He's a little weird.
- Around 11 o'clock Griffin tries to go to bed, but ends up reading again.
November 16, 1959
- It seems like East has decided to get over himself, and he heads over to Dillard University with Griffin. Everybody jokes around about the silliness of racism, and they seem to be having a good time.
- East drops Griffin off on Canal Street in New Orleans. He's pretty happy not to be in Mississippi any more.
- He heads over to the local Jesuit church, and at first he starts reading the book in front of the church, but he realizes that looks suspicious and goes to a bathroom.
- It's covered in ads posted by white men looking to have sex with black girls, even underage ones.
- It's interesting that the people who say that they're superior are behaving in the most debased of ways.
November 19, 1959
- Griffin is on his way to Mobile, Alabama. He's hitchhiking his way from Biloxi, Mississippi and at first everything is going okay.
- The first man who picks him up is from Massachusetts, and doesn't really get racism.
- After that, he doesn't get a lot of rides, so he walks for miles. Or at least he does until nighttime. All of a sudden he gets lots of rides.
- Why? Because they want to talk to him about sex. You know, because that's totally something you talk about with strangers.
- Especially strangers who kill black men for even looking at posters of white women. If you want to know more about these guys you should check out this section—just be warned, these dudes are stomach-churningly sketchy.
- Luckily enough, Griffin finds a guy who's not racist at all to hitchhike with. After a night like he's had, he's amazed!
- The guy has a kid that he keeps talking about, so Griffin guesses that he loves this kid so much that he doesn't have any space left for hating black people.
- After that he gets picked up by an old black guy and they have a sleepover gossiping about Jesus, the miracle of Lazarus, and race relations. No, they did not paint their toenails or have pillow-fights.
November 21, 1959
- Two days later, and Griffin is spending three days in Mobile. What did he do? Walk around looking for jobs. And how many jobs did he find? Zero.
- One guy actually outright tells him that the white people at his job are orchestrating a plan to drive out all the black people from their company and from all of Alabama. That amount of straight up racism is shocking.
- This isn't Griffin's first time in Mobile. He's been here before as a white guy, preparing to ride on a fancy ship all the way to France.
- Back then he thought that southern white people were kind and wise, and black people did terrible jobs because those were the only ones they could do. Now, as a black man, he sees that's not the case.
November 24, 1959
- Back to the hitchhiking, which also means back to the sketchy questions about sex. Oh, with an added side of murderous threats. Wonderful.
- Lucky for Griffin, when he doesn't play along with this perverted guy's game, he gets kicked out of the truck.
- After a while Griffin gets picked up by a black guy who offers him a place to stay for the night. They don't have a lot, but the man, his wife, and his children give Griffin a very warm reception.
- The kids especially love Griffin. He's like a new toy, and when he shares a Milky Way bar with them it's like he did a magic trick.
- Even though he's surrounded by all these nice people, Griffin is pretty emotional. He feels isolated from the rest of humanity because of his black skin.
- It probably doesn't help that he's also missing his daughter's birthday. Well, at least he's not in a creepy hotel.
- After he leaves the family and the children, he rides on a bus to Montgomery. When he gets there, he calls his wife and talks to his children.
- He's tired of being black. Lucky him: he can stop this experiment.
November 25, 1959
- Montgomery is a little different from other places. Instead of feeling totally depressed, like he did before, Griffin feels a little more hopeful. This is, after all, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Junior had his congregation and the site of the Montgomery bus protests. If nowhere else is seeing progress, at least Montgomery is trying.
- Griffin doesn't get the white people here, because everything seems calm on the surface, but it's obvious that they just want black people to be violent so that they can claim self-defense.
- The "hate stare" is in full force, and even when Griffin tries to smile at some ladies right after church on Sunday, they stare him down. So much for brotherly love.
November 27, 1959
- Griffin is done. He's done with the hate. He's done with being black. He's done.
November 28, 1959
- Griffin has decided to try being white again. At first he's crazy nervous that he won't pass, but it works.
- Policemen are nice again, he can go to any restaurant or any bathroom that he wants to.
- You'd expect him to be happy, but he's not. We guess it's hard to be happy when you know how terrible people can be.
November 29, 1959
- Now Griffin is seeing a different side of the city. Everyone is smiling. The sun is shining.
- We bet even the birds are chirping and talking to him, just like in Snow White. Emphasis on the white.
- The only problem is that he's having trouble talking to white people because he realizes the full extent of their racism now, but he can't tell them anything. On top of that, he can no longer fit in with the black community that he's been hanging out in for the past few weeks.
- He's all alone.
December 1, 1959
- Secret agent John Griffin spends the next couple of days crossing enemy lines. One day he's black, and the next day he's white. Who knows what wonders or terrors he'll see next in his role as Mr. Race-Switching Man!
- Okay, he's not quite a superhero but Griffin does switch between races during this chapter. When he's white, white people love him and black people hate him. And vice versa when he's black.
- One day as a black guy Griffin visits the Tuskegee Institute, where he notices that the students are more serious about their learning than at most white universities. That's probably because their ancestors weren't even allowed to read until recently.
- While he's there, Griffin meets a white PhD who has come down from New York to observe black people. No one wants to talk to him because he's pretty sketchy, and he keeps talking about "brotherhood," whatever that means.
- While Griffin talks to him everyone else is standing around looking at the guy with disapproval. He keeps saying that he's one of them, but after talking with Griffin for a couple of minutes he reveals himself to be just as racist as everyone else.
- Later, Griffin heads to Atlanta on a bus. A fight is just about to break out because some white women who boarded the bus don't want to sit next to the black people, but luckily nothing happens. After everything is over, a white man says that he would've stuck up for them, but nobody thanks him because he didn't stick up for them when he was needed.
- Griffin changes back into a white guy in a bathroom in Atlanta.
December 2, 1959
- It looks like this is the end of Griffin's experiment. He calls Sepia, but it will be two more days before his photographer can come and wrap up the story. So Griffin decides to go spend some time in a Trappist monastery.
- He's kind of amazed that there actually is some place on earth where people aren't constantly disrespecting and hating one another.
- They actually get along, and things are peaceful. Shocking!
- Honestly, we're pretty happy to not be reading another scene of racism. And we're just reading about it, not living it.
- At the monastery, Griffin hangs out with a monk who tells him that racism and Christianity are incompatible. They spend a little bit of time laughing about how some people twist the Bible to support their racism, and the monk leaves him with a book that compares this kind of Christianity to atheism.
- It blows Griffin's mind.
December 4, 1959
- Nothing much to see here. Griffin heads back to Atlanta and gets some weird treatment at his hotel. His photographer shows up, and he's a pretty cool dude.
December 7, 1959
- Griffin is assigned to interview some leaders of the black community, and they make him feel better about the state of black people in the South. There's a lot of information in this section about what makes Atlanta different from the rest of the South, so you should definitely read this for yourself.
- Here are the highlights: Atlanta has better leadership, newspapers that are willing to stand up for justice, people attempting to be educated, financial aid for black people, and a ton of successful black people who feel responsibility toward their communities.
- In other words, Griffin depicts Atlanta as a black utopia, or at least on its way there.
- The chapter ends with Griffin and his photographer on their way to New Orleans to take pictures for this article about being a black man.
December 9, 1959
- You would think that race would have nothing to do with getting your picture taken, and you would be wrong.
- Both white people and black people are suspicious of this white photographer and his black subject, so they have to pretend that they don't know each other in order to get the shots.
December 14, 1959
- When the photos are done, Griffin returns to being a white guy for the last time. He's surprised that he feels kind of sad. We are too.
December 15, 1959
- Griffin is heading home. He's finally going to see his family, and even though he knows he has a tough task ahead of him, that's all that matters.
January 2, 1960
- After the holidays, Griffin's editor calls him to say that he doesn't have to run the article if he doesn't want to.
- Griffin doesn't get it at first, but what his editor means is that he doesn't want Griffin to die. Griffin is braver than we are, because he says to publish the article in March.
- Okay guys. It's two months until P-Day (that's Publication Day).
February 26, 1960
- It's getting closer to March, and people know what Griffin has been up to. He's had some second thoughts, but it's a bit late now and he just decides to face the music.
- On the plus side, he's going to be on that newfangled invention, the TV.
March 14, 1960
- Everyone is watching Griffin's TV appearance. Everyone in the whole Dallas-Fort Worth area.
- After the show airs, some of Griffin's coworkers call so that no one else can call the family and threaten them. But after they hang up, no one calls. Not even friends.
March 17, 1960
- Everyone wants to interview Griffin or have him on their TV show, so he's pretty busy.
- Oh, and we get to find out what happened to all those phone calls. They went to his mom. People were calling her and threatening Griffin's life. Real brave, guys. Harassing a sweet old lady.
March 18, 1960
- Things go awesome on the Garroway show.
March 23, 1960
- More interviews and more TV shows fill up Griffin's schedule.
- It's like he's a celebrity.
- He's only worried about one of the TV shows though, since the host is known for being kind of controversial. But after he talks to the guy, he realizes that he's a good dude. So they have drink of whiskey and go out there and work that stage.
April 1, 1960
- The news has gone global, and even French media wants to interview Griffin.
- Meanwhile, things are suspiciously quiet back home. No one is saying anything to him, but apparently everyone is talking about him.
- That's kind of weird, but since nothing violent has happened, Griffin is starting to believe that the worst is already over.
April 2, 1960
- Yeah, so about that whole "peaceful life" thing and "the worst being over"? Griffin let his guard down way too early.
- He's hung in effigy right in the middle of his hometown. He only hears about it because a journalist calls him to ask about it.
- Not a single person in his neighborhood says a thing about the effigy.
- Stuff is starting to get scary. Griffin's wife and kids leave the city and go hang out with some friends, but Griffin stays behind.
- Before his family even gets to leave, someone threatens him with castration. Whoa, guys. That's below the belt (badoom-ching!)
- Things are not going so well, to say the least.
April 7, 1960
- A newspaper article is released about the effigy hanging, and a cross is burned in front of a black school.
April 11, 1960
- Griffin's family returns home, and they find a bunch of letters supporting their cause.
- Local people, on the other hand, thought Griffin was stirring up too much trouble. They just want to be "peaceful."
June 19, 1960
- So far, out of the 6,000 letters the family has received, only nine of them were negative. Outside of Griffin's little town, people seem to like him and what he's done. But in his town people hate him.
- They stare at him and make lewd gestures. Ugh. Time for the Griffin family to move, we think.
August 14, 1960
- Unable to deal with all the hostility, Griffin's parents decide to move to Mexico along with his wife and children.
- Griffin stays behind because he doesn't want people to say that he they ran him out of town. They threatened to castrate him on August 15, so he'll wait for them.
August 17, 1960
- We guess that Griffin is braver than his neighbors, because no one came for him.
- He hires a young black kid to help him clean up his parents' house and they start talking about why white people hate black people and call them "niggers."
- The conversation makes Griffin realize that the lack of communication between black people and white people only causes more problems.
- He is worried that black people will turn to violence while trying to fight against racism. And if that happens, well, we can't say he didn't warn them.