HomeLiterature Study GuidesBlack Like MeDecember 15 1959 August 17 1960 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | December 15, 1959–August 17, 1960 | Summary

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Summary

Once John Howard Griffin's travels in the deep South are concluded, he returns to his family in Texas on December 15. Flashbacks of the bigotry and prejudice he witnessed are superimposed over his joyful reunion with his wife, parents, and children. George Levitan at Sepia magazine meets with him a few weeks later to talk about the trip. Fearing the potentially violent responses that Griffin will be facing after publishing his report, Levitan gives him the option to drop the whole deal, but Griffin declines.

Griffin writes his report through January and February of 1960, researching statistics and sociological studies to back up his findings. In the end, however, he makes a decision to let his personal story stand on its own. Once Sepia runs it, requests from radio and television interviewers begin pouring in, asking Griffin to be guests on their shows. Among them are Paul Coates, Mike Wallace, and Dave Garroway. Even a French station flies out to Griffin's home to get his story. Amid his travels to New York and Hollywood, Griffin's mother receives a threatening phone call, making police surveillance for the family homes necessary.

Of the 6000 letters he receives in the first three months after his story is published, all but nine are supportive. The people of Griffin's town are varied in their responses to his project. Some go out of their way to show their support when they bump into him in town, but others make their displeasure known by giving him "hate stares" and even hanging Griffin in effigy on Mansfield's Main Street. (An effigy is a likeness of a person.) Curry's, the local segregationist cafe in Mansfield, adds a sign that reads NO ALBINOS to the WE DON'T SERVE NEGROES sign already on the door. Griffin is told by a stranger in a pickup truck that a group of men are planning to come and castrate him. This never happens, but Griffin and his family make plans to move to Mexico until things calm down.

Analysis

While George Levitan's offer to drop publication of Griffin's project is tempting, Griffin knows that Sepia is a popular periodical among Southern blacks. For that reason he decides to push forward with his article. He remembers the hopelessness and isolation he heard in so many of the African Americans he visited. He writes, "I felt it was the best way of letting them know that their condition was known." And he adds, it was "the best way to give them hope."

Griffin's record of his struggles writing the story reflect the struggles he experienced with his identity while moving through the South as alternately a black and a white man. Is the book a sociological and ethnographic study of a subordinate race living among a dominant one? Is it a personal reflection about the ways social reactions to a man influence his identity? Is it a manifesto on behalf of the black South? Griffin's inability to decide mimics society's inability to answer the South's racial problems. The best that can be done, for the moment, is to publish the book and describe the problem. The rest must be left to the people.

The peculiar sign on Curry's cafe, NO ALBINOS, horrifies Griffin's mother. Griffin, however, finds it more clever and convoluted in its reasoning than he would have expected from a man like Foy Curry. Albinism is a genetic disorder that reduces the pigment in a person or animal making them appear white. To Foy Curry, Griffin has betrayed his race and doesn't deserve to be considered a white man in the conventional sense. Rather, he is an albino whose whiteness is an abnormality. The implication is that Griffin, because he crossed the color line, is now perceived as a black man with a pigmentation disorder, not a white man who elected to be black.

The "fan mail" letters that hold the most significance to Griffin are those written by white Southerners. This confirmation that "the average Southern white is more properly disposed than he dares allow his neighbor to see" plants seeds of hope. These people will eventually find each other and begin to combat the violence in their towns.

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