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Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | Motifs



Griffin discovers quickly the challenge of being able to find a place to relieve himself in the South when he is a black man. While such facilities are abundantly available for white patrons, African Americans are often sent long distances to remote and unsavory locations to take care of this basic need. When Griffin asks another black man in New Orleans where he can find a restroom, he is told, "Best thing's just to stick close to home."

Restrooms also become one of the only places of privacy Griffin can find to rest and get his bearings before heading back out into the world of insults and discrimination. He compares the restroom to a medieval church where people could once find refuge. "For a nickel," Griffin says, "I could find sanctuary in a colored rest room."

Public Transportation

It is on buses and trolleys that Griffin encounters much of the racial tension he witnesses. The confined space of a mass transit vehicle brings blacks and whites right up against each other in ways that both groups go out of their way to avoid in the streets. The tension it creates can lead to subtle provocations as well as explosive confrontation. Some black passengers see riding the bus as an opportunity to stand their ground and assert their right to exist. When Griffin almost makes the mistake of offering his seat to a white woman on a New Orleans bus, he realizes from the looks of the other black passengers that that would be "going against the race." Thus, his experiences on the bus teach him the ways in which blacks submit to their plight while simultaneously resisting it.

Griffin witnesses members of both races use the opportunity to engage in comments or conversations within their own sections that are just loud enough to let the other side know what they think about them. The drivers play a role as well. Sometimes sadistically using their control of the doors to prevent black passengers from getting off at the stop they request and then stranding them in unfamiliar parts of the city. In many ways, the bus can be seen as a concentrated microcosm of the larger Southern society.

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