Literature Study GuidesBlack Like MeNovember 7 1959 November 12 1959 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | November 7, 1959–November 12, 1959 | Summary

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Summary

At Griffin's final visit to the dermatologist, the doctor sends him off, saying, "Now you go into oblivion." Griffin shaves his head to complete his transformation, and when he looks at himself in the mirror, he is startled: "I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship." He wonders where he will find food, water, and shelter.

When he steps out into the street as a black man for the first time, Griffin is aware of how simplistic his first realizations are. The world outside still smells the same and his body still feels the same to him even though his skin is now brown. Waiting for a trolley, he remembers to let a white man take his seat on the trolley first. Griffin gains confidence about the success of his disguise when the African Americans on the bus show no particular curiosity about him. Griffin ends up at a hotel in a lonely room that is windowless but clean. He has his first sustained conversation as a black man with other black men outside the hall bathroom while he and two others take turns washing up for the night.

The next day, Griffin walks around the New Orleans ghetto and eats breakfast at a Creole café. A black man at the counter chats with him and confesses that he likes to take the bus into white neighborhoods "just to get somewhere where it's decent ... to get a smell of clean air." Griffin asks him directions to the nearest restroom and learns that there are not many of them available for African Americans. He has his first brush with white hostility on a bus after he smiles at a white woman passenger and indicates to her that the seat beside him is free.

Griffin visits Sterling Williams's shoeshine stand and tells him about his project. Sterling is eager to help Griffin acclimate. He lets him work beside him at the shoeshine stand. Now in the inner circle of African American life, Griffin begins to see aspects of the city he never witnessed as a white man. He is surprised that a number of white customers ask if the black men can find them black girls for sex. Sterling's partner Joe shows up with food, and a hungry beggar waits for their leftovers.

Griffin joins leaders from the black community who gather at the YMCA coffee shop for regular conversation about politics and current events. As he strolls outside afterward, he is followed for several blocks by a white youth who threatens to attack him. Griffin lures the boy into a remote alley and scares him away by turning on him and bluffing that he is ready to fight.

Griffin spends two days job hunting in New Orleans and comes up empty. He speaks with the men at the YMCA café about this, and they discuss the economic injustice wreaked on Southern blacks. At the end of an exhausting day, a cruel bus driver purposely drives eight blocks past Griffin's stop before he will let him get off the bus.

Analysis

When Griffin's idea becomes a deed, he suddenly realizes the implications and potential consequences of his transformation. He realizes how unprepared he is for what will come next. He is self-conscious and uncertain how to behave once he exits the door of his friend's house.

Griffin emphasizes throughout the distinction between his inner feelings and his outer appearance. When he first steps outside, he experiences the world in the same way he always has, but he realizes that the world's experience of him is different. He has to remind himself on the bus to act deferentially, but then fails by acting too much so, earning the ire of his fellow blacks. And when he looks at himself in the mirror he doesn't recognize the man he sees there. Through these distinctions, he both describes the situation of the black in the South living in a segregated society and suggests that America itself is living a lie. Even as the nation prides itself on being a free and democratic society, a large proportion of its citizens experience a very different reality.

In his first week as a black man, Griffin talks about the feeling of being split into two men—one of them an observer and the other one a total stranger. This fragmentation lessens as Griffin begins to form relationships with black men and to draw comfort from their company. Griffin writes about his conversation with the men outside the hall bathroom: "Its drama lay in its lack of drama," he says, and "in the courtesies we felt impelled to extend to one another." Through the ordinariness of shared experiences like this, Griffin's self-consciousness begins to fade. He becomes more reconciled with the black man he sees in the mirror.

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