Literature Study GuidesBlack Like MeDecember 1 1959 December 14 1959 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | December 1, 1959–December 14, 1959 | Summary

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Summary

With the stains he used to enhance his skin's darkness, Griffin develops a method of changing back and forth from black to white and back again so that he can observe how he is treated by people of both races in the same parts of Montgomery. He goes to visit Tuskegee University as a black man, and a drunken middle-aged white academic from New York approaches him. He identifies himself as an "observer" and wants to talk to black people. Despite his paternalistic tone, Griffin agrees to talk to him, but this man's exaggerated desire to prove to Griffin and everyone around them that he is not prejudiced backfires awkwardly.

Griffin heads next to Georgia, where he remembers that one of his father's distant ancestors had a city named after him in that state, and that Georgia's last governor was also a Griffin. Griffin plans to end up in Atlanta and meet photographer Don Rutledge for a photo shoot and a series of interviews with black civic and business leaders. As it will be a couple of days before Rutledge is available, Griffin decides to take a break from his undercover work and spend a few days at the Trappist monastery in Conyers. He tells the monks about his project and is restored by his conversations with them and the peace within the monastery walls. When he asks one of them if they ever have problems with white guests when they open their doors to black guests, the monk replies that a man who comes to the Trappists comes to experience peace and to be surrounded by a commitment to God. A person like this he says, "would hardly keep one eye on God and the other on the color of his neighbor's skin."

Griffin arrives in Atlanta undisguised but burdened by his feelings of hopelessness about the racial situation in the South. His conversations with influential black men in the city, however, convince him that progress is being made. He learns that three key things distinguish Atlanta from other Southern cities. First is the unity of its African American population around common goals. Second, Atlanta has an enlightened administration under Mayor William B. Hartsfield. Finally, the city has a newspaper with journalistic integrity that is not manipulated by the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan.

After his assignment in Atlanta is complete, Griffin returns to New Orleans. He is disguised one last time so that Rutledge can photograph him in some of the places where he socialized with other black men. It is a particularly enlightening experience for Rutledge. In part it is because he realizes that he can use restrooms and water fountains anywhere in the city, but Griffin cannot.

Analysis

When Griffin reverts to his white identity for the first time since the beginning of the project, it awakens an urgent curiosity in him that impels him to zigzag back and forth to process all he can witness from both angles. What he finds in his casual conversations with white people is that most of them are completely unaware of the lives lived by the African Americans they pass every day in the street. Although they claimed to have had long conversations with black people they didn't understand how little was revealed to them in these conversations: "The Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is." Indeed, one of Griffin's primary arguments is the harm caused by this lack of communication, resulting both from the reluctance of black people to talk about their experience and the inability of whites to hear the black experience.

The black John Howard Griffin experiences a moment of wry irony in Georgia. Marvin Griffin, the recently departed governor of the state and a likely distant relative of his, had been a corrupt segregationist, instrumental in ensuring that black citizens in Georgia were kept "in their place." John Howard Griffin's praise of William B. Hartsfield's progressive leadership as Atlanta's mayor provides a meaningful contrast with the leadership of Governor Griffin. Hartsfield's creation of a biracial coalition in the 1940s empowered black citizens in the political process. And it set the stage for integration. Atlanta's schools were integrated nonviolently in 1961, and Atlanta earned the nickname "The City Too Busy to Hate."

Griffin offers Atlanta as a lesson for other Southern cities, with the three keys he discovers from its black leadership proffered as a sort of a roadmap for moving past the racial divide. This roadmap is juxtaposed against the bumbling white New Yorker who has no idea how to interact with a black person as well as the civil rights efforts taking place in Montgomery. Obviously, Atlanta's plan is far more enlightened than the average citizen's take on race relations. And it avoids the dangerous and violent backlash of the civil rights movement. However, Griffin's analysis is perhaps a little short-sighted, given that Atlanta benefited from restoration efforts post-Civil War in ways that other Southern cities did not. Therefore, it had a much greater black leadership in the political arena and broader social and economic opportunities for black citizens. These opportunities were not available in cities in the deeper South such as Montgomery or Jackson, so the roadmap Griffin offers simply wouldn't work throughout the South.

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