Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | Context

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Catholicism

The Catholic Church was a source of guidance and spiritual nourishment for John Howard Griffin. His desire to study Gregorian chants brought him back to France after World War II. There, while studying music at several monasteries as his eyesight waned, he underwent a religious transformation. Griffin converted to Catholicism in the early 1950s. He was strongly influenced by the writings of Italian priest Saint Thomas Aquinas and French philosopher and liberal Christian humanist Jacques Maritain. Maritain was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

In Black Like Me, Griffin visits Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church for a peaceful moment as he adjusts to life as a black man in New Orleans. He also finds that the Catholic Bookstore is the only place in the city that will allow him to cash a traveler's check. Toward the end of his journey through the South, Griffin takes refuge within the walls of a Trappist monastery in Georgia. There, he reads a book, For Men of Good Will (1961) by Father Robert Guste. The book makes him think about the hypocrisy of the racist Christians he encounters in the South. All of these Catholic spaces and prominent theologians provide Griffin with renewed resolve to work against bigotry. In 1964 Griffin and President John F. Kennedy (posthumously) both received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. The award is presented by the Catholic Church "to honor a person for their achievements in peace and justice, not only in their country but in the world."

Following Ray Sprigle's Example

John Howard Griffin was not the first white journalist to go undercover as a black man in America. In 1948 Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Ray Sprigle darkened his skin. He then traveled with the black civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs as his companion into the same states that Griffin would visit a little more than a decade later. Sprigle's goal was to reveal to white Americans what it was really like to be a black man in the South.

The region was still under the sway of Jim Crow laws that had been written to forcibly separate white citizens from black citizens in almost every aspect of public life. The laws denied African Americans access to many recreational places altogether. Sprigle wrote the 21-part series, "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It opened many people's eyes to the humiliation and injustice of this rigid segregation and of white supremacy. The articles were instrumental in helping prepare white Americans for future desegregation legislation.

Civil Rights Movement and Racist Backlash

In the years leading up to the publication of Black Like Me, a number of civil rights victories were achieved. The book was written six years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka mandating the desegregation of all American public schools. A year later, African American seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In response to her arrest, black citizens of Montgomery, among them African American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., organized a yearlong boycott of the city's public buses. The boycott ended on December 20, 1956, when another landmark Supreme Court case, Browder v. Gayle, declared bus segregation unconstitutional.

Racial tensions ran high in the deep South as these impending changes began to be discussed. Thousands of white Southerners joined organizations like White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan in reaction to the new federal rulings. Both of these groups promoted the use of violence and intimidation tactics to discourage integration and black voter registration. John Howard Griffin writes about a willful ignorance he witnessed among many white citizens who refused to acknowledge the degrading impact of racial discrimination on African American citizens.

Knowing When to Step Aside

Griffin acknowledged that his involvement in racial reconciliation after Black Like Me was published may have helped to build some bridges between white and black civic leaders in the early 1960s. However, Griffin felt uncomfortable in his role as spokesman on behalf of black people, even as he felt compelled to represent their interests in a nation that simply would not give them a voice.

As early as 1975 Griffin said in an interview, that at one time, it was necessary for whites to speak up for black people because most white people simply wouldn't listen to what black people had to say. "But those days are over," Griffin said, "and it is absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own." From the moment he was awakened to the injustices of racism, Griffin strived to recognize the dignity of African American men and women. He respected their autonomy and never presumed to know better than they did what course of action to take in the struggle for their civil rights.

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