Study Guide

Black Like Me Themes

  • Identity

    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)?

    Questions About Identity

    1. Which characters in Black Like Me struggle with their identity? Why?
    2. Would you agree with Griffin that he is wholly, partially, or essentially black? Why or why not?
    3. When Griffin returns to being a white man, is his identity the same as it was before the start of the experiment? How or how not? Why or why not?
    4. Does location have anything to do with identity in Black Like Me? For example, is Griffin the same man in Louisiana as he is in Alabama? What about if he went to Paris?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Who has good family relations in this book? Who has bad ones? How does Griffin depict them?
    2. Why do many of the white people in Black Like Me seem to think that black families are entirely different from their own? How does this make them view black people?
    3. How do you think the characters in the book would react to a positive depiction of black families, like The Cosby Show?
    4. How do you think white readers reacted to the depictions of black families in the book? How did you react? How might your reactions be the same or different?

    Chew on This

    In Black Like Me, black families are just as loving as white families.

    In the book, familial love can overcome racism.

  • Lust

    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.

    Questions About Lust

    1. Why do you think that the men that Griffin hitchhikes with are all obsessed with sex?
    2. What sorts of people in Black Like Me solicit or talk about sex? Are they racists? Are they nonracists?
    3. This book is pretty male-centric, and most of the sexuality talk focuses on men, but based on the text what is the image of black women's sexuality?
    4. Some of the white racists in Black Like Me are against interracial couples. Based on their behavior in the book, why is that?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why do you think Griffin continually turns to famous Catholic thinkers throughout Black Like Me? What do these thinkers have in common?
    2. How does religion impact the way that some of the African-Americans Griffin meets in the book approach race relations? How is it the same or how does it differ from the approach of the white people he meets?
    3. When Griffin meets the priest at the monastery, he says that racists would not visit them. Why? What sort of views do you think a person who visits a Trappist monastery would have?
    4. How do the racists in the book justify their actions despite their Christian beliefs?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Race

    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.

    Questions About Race

    1. How many different forms of racism are presented in Black Like Me?
    2. How do the black people in this book feel about their own race? Are there black racists? Why or why not?
    3. What was Griffin's approach to racism before he began his experiment in Black Like Me? What is it afterwards?
    4. How does racism impact the everyday life of black people in the book? Do you think Griffin would've become the person that he is if he were born a black man? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Which is worse according to its depiction in Black Like Me, hypocritical racism or plain old racism? Or are they the same?
    2. Which people in the text are hypocritical? What sort of people are they?
    3. Why do you think the hypocritical people in the text use hypocrisy? What advantages does it give over sincerity, if any?
    4. How the hypocrites give themselves away in Black Like Me?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Community

    1. How do black people treat other black people in the text?
    2. What is the importance of community to the black people in Black Like Me? What role does it play, if any, in the fight for equality?
    3. Which people are depicted as individuals in the text, in which people are depicted as groups? Why do you think that is? Are they racists or not racists? Are they black or white people?
    4. Which people in Black Like Me disrupt the unity of the community?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Contrasting Regions: White South vs. Black South

    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.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: White South vs. Black South

    1. How do you think the white people in the text would describe their neighborhoods? How would the black people describe their neighborhoods? How do you think they would describe each other's neighborhoods?
    2. Griffin tells us that white people and black people live far away from each other. How do you think their relationships would be different if they lived in the same neighborhoods?
    3. Look at the scenes in Black Like Me where Griffin contrasts the white view of a place with the black view. What literary techniques does he use to really make us understand the differences between them?
    4. When Griffin presents us with the white and black of a place, which one is right? The white one? The black one? Both? Neither?

    Chew on This

    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.