Literature Study GuidesBlack Like MeNovember 19 1959 November 29 1959 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | November 19, 1959–November 29, 1959 | Summary

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Summary

Griffin takes a bus back into Mississippi, this time to Biloxi on the Gulf coast. He arrives late at night and finds a decrepit old shed to sleep in. In the morning, he learns that African Americans are not allowed to enjoy the beaches, so he begins hitchhiking to Mobile. Griffin is picked up by an array of drivers, many of whom want to pry information out of him about the sexual lives of black men. Griffin is shocked by the crudeness and ignorance of their questions, and he tries to steer the conversations away from these uncomfortable topics. He ends up in Mobile at night, where he meets an elderly black man who offers Griffin a place to sleep while he is in Mobile. The two men share lively conversation about Bible stories and the South before falling asleep.

Griffin spends three days in the town of Mobile looking for jobs. He is turned down by everyone he approaches and is mightily inconvenienced by the hardship of trying to find drinking water and places to relieve himself throughout the day. Griffin embarks on another stretch of hitchhiking as he makes his way to Montgomery. He endures more pointed sexual questions from white men, as well as their bone-chilling comments about how easy it is for them to get away with raping black women and how they could kill a black man "and toss him into that swamp and no one'll ever know what happened to him." Stranded in the Alabama swamplands himself after hearing these words, Griffin is relieved when a black sawmill worker offers him a ride as well as a place to stay for the night. Griffin is warmly welcomed by the man's wife and six children, and he sleeps on the floor of their two-room shanty after they share a meal together. In the middle of the night he has a nightmare about white men and women with hatred in their eyes closing in on him and backing him up against a wall.

Restrooms, when he can find them, become an odd sanctuary for Griffin. They are the only public places where he can sit and relax without scrutiny and where he can refresh himself with water to drink and splash on his face. When Griffin arrives in Montgomery, he is struck by an atmosphere he hasn't seen in any of the other cities he visited. Blacks are not so completely caught in a cycle of despair. Rather, they are animated by "a determined spirit of passive resistance. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s influence ... prevails." As a result of this effective black activism, Griffin encounters more "hate stares" than ever from white people.

At the end of November, Griffin stops taking the medicine he's been prescribed to darken his skin, and when he feels that he is light enough, he decides to try to pass back into white society. The instant shift in how he is regarded astonishes him. Standing on a street corner next to a young black man, he is perceived as a potential threat. When he enters a restaurant and sits at the counter, a white waitress smiles at him.

Analysis

Griffin is disturbed by the way so many white men who pick him up when he is hitchhiking take advantage of the car's privacy to discuss with him all their lewd assumptions about black sexuality. Griffin knows that the uninhibited crudeness of their questions is reserved for black men only. This was not because the white men feel any kind of intimacy or male kinship with them, but because black men represent anonymity and because they assume that black men have no sense of dignity, shame, or decency when it comes to sex. He saw related behavior in the white men who visited the shoeshine stand and assumed that he and Sterling Williams could hook them up with black girls for sex. Of the shoeshine customers, Griffin writes that they could say or ask us anything because they believed "that we were people of such low morality that nothing could offend us." Griffin's glimpse into the lurid details of these men's imaginations shows him more about their own lack of self-respect than anything else, and he is embarrassed for them.

These stories are very far removed from the time Griffin spends with black men and their families. This time is spent talking about the Bible, eating simple meals, and sharing time with wives and children. The contrast is clear: white men are indulging themselves in fantasies of black sexuality while black men are living lives of quiet decency.

Each of the places Griffin has visited has presented him with a paradox, and Montgomery is no different. Among all the places he has visited, Montgomery is perhaps the furthest along the road to desegregation thanks in large part to the efforts of community activist leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet white hatred runs deeper here than anywhere else he has been. Clearly, white Southern society will not allow their social order to be changed without a fight. And the harder the black community presses, the worse the fight will get.

Not surprisingly, when Griffin passes back into white society, he is flooded with enormous relief. After weeks of relentless hostility from white people, the courtesies he suddenly begins to receive again feel like a miracle to him. He says, however, that his feelings have been corrupted by all that he has experienced in the previous four weeks: "I felt no joy in it ... The miracle was sour." The other sadness he feels about returning to his white identity is that the black men who treated him with genuine warmth and camaraderie when his skin was dark now avoid him or adopt obsequious mannerisms around him. The deep-rooted lack of trust Griffin witnesses between blacks and whites in the South makes him wonder if genuine kindness and respect will ever extend across the color line.

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