In the words of some dead old Danish windbag, "to thine own self be true." But that's just the problem. Who is John Howard Griffin?
Well, we know he's a nice enough guy and a dedicated family man. But in Black Like Me, Griffin's sense of identity overgoes a makeover as complete as his fantastical skin-darkening treatment. By the book's end he—and much of the world— is left wondering: how much of racial identity has to do with nature (quick answer: none) and how much does it have to do with nurture (quick answer: lots)?
Identity in Black Like Me is unchangeable. You may have new experiences, but your core stays the same.
Identity in Black Like Me is whatever you claim or want it to be, even if you made it all up.
Family: those people that you kind of have to be around, even though you didn't choose them. Based on the number of times families come up in Black Like Me, we'd guess that Griffin's favorite hobby is reenacting scenes of Leave It To Beaver with his wife and kids. In other words, he's a family man.
Over and over again, Griffin tells us that black people have families too. And they love them, and want their kids to do well. That seems obvious, but what Griffin is really trying to tell us is that black people are human too. You know, because to have and love a family is to be human: at least in this book. It sucks that he lives in a world where some people doubt that fact.
In Black Like Me, black families are just as loving as white families.
In the book, familial love can overcome racism.
If you thought that this is where the good stuff is, you're mistaken. This is where the gross stuff is. In Black Like Me, lust is not about consenting adults having flings. It's about dehumanizing black people and escapism.
White racists in the book assume that black people are having some kind of wild sex-a-thon, since they're seen to have no morals. Black people in the ghettos turn to sex in order to escape the horrible reality of their lives, at least according to Griffin. But fun times? Nope. This isn't spring break.
White racists are the real sex-addled freaks in Black Like Me.
Living in the ghetto is just an excuse for being preoccupied with sex in Black Like Me.
Angels and priests are supposed to be the good guys, right? Nearly all religions are down with peacefully loving one another. But that's not always the case for religious people in Black Like Me. Racists pervert what Griffin sees as a gospel of love into one of hate.
Thankfully, not everyone sees things the same way, and many people really take the whole "God is love" thing to heart. In Griffin's eyes, religion is a saving grace, and it's not religion's fault if some people want to give it a bad reputation.
Since real Christians believe that God is love in Black Like Me, racists can't be Christians.
Many people in the book change their religion to suit their racial beliefs.
As we uncover in Black Like Me, racism doesn't always come wrapped in the same package. Sometimes it's a smiling face saying that you can't use the white bathroom. Sometimes it's an angry face threatening to kill you. Sometimes it's a face using "science" to prove its point.
Racism shows itself in a myriad of ways in this book. In fact, it's the sheer amount of ways that racism can rear its ugly little head that shocks Griffin the most. There's no end to it, and Griffin realizes how exhausting it is to live under the stormclouds of perpetual racism.
The black against black racism in Black Like Me is even worse than white against black racism.
Griffin's experiment proves that white people are almost oblivious to the extent of their own racism.
Hypocrisy runs rampant in Black Like Me. Seriously, it's all over the place. It's the way that "well-meaning" white racists excuse their prejudice and their double standards for the different races.
While in real life some hypocrites may be hard to uncover, in this book they are all terrible liars. We see them for what they are (terrible people) and Griffin doesn't allow us to fall under the spell of their illusions.
The hypocritical people in Black Like Me are better than sincere people, because at least they are trying to be nice.
Hypocritical racism is more dangerous than other types of racism in the text because the hypocritical racists don't even realize that they are racist.
Community is supposed to be all warm and fuzzy, isn't it? Well, that's not the only thing community is for in Black Like Me. Sure, people within the black community treat each other very nicely throughout the text, but there's more going on than meets the eye.
There's a tough side to this community spirit. It's this side that stops Griffin from giving up his seat on the bus to an old white lady. That's the side that stops the black people in the book from doing anything that might give black people a bad name. Sure, it sounds harsh, but they are playing for high-stakes: civil-rights and equality. The kid gloves are off. No more Mr. Nice Black Community.
Communities are great in Black Like Me because they help protect you.
Communities in Black Like Me just stop you from doing what you want to do.
You know, normally contrasting regions are different places. Well, obviously Griffin doesn't like doing things normally. In Black Like Me, the contrasting regions are all in your mind. They are the exact same place, but they are seen entirely differently by black people and by white people.
Griffin makes sure that we don't forget this, and shows us the contrasts constantly. By juxtaposing the white experience in the black experience, it only highlights how different and how unequal they are. Separate but equal? Yeah right.
Black people and white people in Black Like Me see things entirely differently.
It's impossible to bridge the gap of understanding between the races in Black Like Me.