Literature Study GuidesBlack Like MeNovember 14 November 16 1959 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | November 14–November 16, 1959 | Summary

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Summary

John Howard Griffin wakes up in New Orleans on November 14 to find African Americans throughout the neighborhood talking about news that a Mississippi jury has ruled unfairly on a lynching case. This gives Griffin incentive to head to Mississippi, and he lets his new friends know his plans. Joe thinks he's foolish to go there and warns, "That's no place for a colored man."

Trying to get out of New Orleans presents Griffin with numerous obstacles. He must cash traveler's checks, buy a bus ticket to Hattiesburg, and find a place to wait for the bus. Throughout the process, he confronts passionate and sometimes exaggerated hatred from the whites he does business with because of the color of his skin. Griffin remarks on the way it physically transforms otherwise polite and attractive people so that they suddenly possess a horrible "insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you."

Griffin encounters a new kind of disparaging racism on the bus to Hattiesburg, directed at poorer black passengers by a well-groomed, angry African American man named Christophe. Christophe targets two black men in particular with abusive, threatening language. He thinks that Griffin is an educated priest, and he confides in him. Once Christophe gets off the bus, tensions fade, and Griffin is able to converse comfortably with the other black passengers. All are happy to offer him advice on how to navigate the Mississippi racial codes. A man named Bill Williams helps Griffin find a safe room for the night, but Griffin is so overcome by his sense of danger in this part of the city that he needs to get away.

He places a phone call to his journalist friend P.D. East, whose wife answers and arranges for him to stay with them at their Hattiesburg home. East's brave insistence on truthful reporting has lost him business and has made him a target of white racists who have "starved him out for expressing views not in harmony with their prejudices." The next day, East and Griffin make a road trip to visit Sam Gandy, the dean of the historically black Dillard University in New Orleans. Griffin tells Gandy about his project and promises to return when his research is completed.

Analysis

Griffin's journalistic imperative is evident in his desire to head to Mississippi, considered by many to be the most dangerous state for a black man in the South. Racial tensions in the state are running particularly high in response to the recent lynching trial. However, the warnings he receives seem to make Griffin more resolved to discover Mississippi for himself.

Not surprisingly, as heads for the state, he discovers numerous obstacles and increasingly open and vile demonstrations of disgust and hatred toward another human being. However, while in New Orleans Griffin had explored questions of segregation between white and black, in Mississippi he discovers a new kind of segregation among blacks based on shades of skin color.

The character of Christophe walks onto the bus "giving the whites a fawning, almost tender look," as he heads toward the back. His longing to be included in the sphere of privilege and elegance is extreme. And he draws public attention to himself in a way that Griffin finds uncharacteristic of African Americans he has seen on the bus up to that point. Rather than trying to keep a low profile and avoid altercations, Christophe incites them. His agitation is unprovoked by anyone's actions on the bus. Rather, it seems the result of a frustrated desire to be seen as special, unique, and worthy of admiration in a social structure that tries its best to negate him. In his efforts to appear superior to the poorer and less-educated blacks on the bus, Christophe laces his insults with snippets of foreign phrases he doesn't fully understand himself: "You don't deserve anything better. Mein Kampf! Do you speak German? No. You're ignorant." He oddly uses the title of Adolf Hitler's autobiography as though it is an interjection, perhaps thinking it means "My God!" The fact that its actual translation is "My Struggle" adds a layer of situational irony to a scene in which he is criticizing the ignorance of others.

Christophe's struggle is tragic because it is filled with self-loathing. For all his attempts to distance himself from the other blacks on the bus, he ends up confessing to Griffin, "I hate us," including himself as an object of his own scorn. He is filled with disgust for the way Southern black men appear to the rest of the world as it has kept him from living all of his dreams and wreaked havoc on his mind. It is clear how dangerous and desperate he has become when he tells Griffin, before getting off the bus, "I've got to shoot up a couple of guys."

In Christophe, Griffin encounters his most extreme example of segregation's result on the black population. Yes, whites in the South are lynching blacks and getting away with it, and that is a horror too terrible to describe. Yes, blacks are denied basic decencies such as clean water and sanitary bathroom facilities and must spend valuable time planning around such contingencies. But worst of all is that blacks have adopted the white attitude, have learned to hate the color of their own skin and to discriminate among themselves. Legal and social reform may help to resolve the first two problems, but the last is potentially irreversible.

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