Literature Study GuidesBlack Like MeOctober 28 1959 November 6 1959 Summary

Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | October 28, 1959–November 6, 1959 | Summary

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Summary

Griffin's journal entries begin in Texas on the last three days of October 1959, after he reads a troubling report about increasing suicide tendencies among African Americans in the South. The report makes him question whether the relationship between blacks and whites in the South is as agreeable as Southern white lawmakers seem to claim. He suspects there has been a total communication breakdown between these two groups. Therefore, it is impossible for white people to know the truth about African Americans' lives of oppression and humiliation. He concludes that the only way for him to get the real story is to "become" a black man and visit some of the Southern states himself.

Griffin makes a trip to Fort Worth to ask his friend George Levitan, the owner of Sepia magazine, to fund the project. In exchange, he offers to provide articles to Sepia about his experience once he returns. He gets the go-ahead from Adelle Jackson, Sepia's editorial director. Griffin then meets with three FBI agents from the Dallas office to get tips on how to develop his cover successfully and also to make them aware of his project. Griffin makes a key decision at this point to maintain his name and identity and only to change the color of his skin.

With his wife's blessing, Griffin heads to New Orleans on November 1, where he spends his first night enjoying some of the places he visited years earlier when he was blind. He stays at the home of a friend who is out of town, and contacts a dermatologist to discuss how to proceed with his idea. Griffin begins taking oral medication used to treat the skin-pigmentation disorder vitiligo, and he spends time under sun lamps to accelerate the darkening of his skin. He also obtains a stain that he can rub into his skin as needed.

Before altering his skin color, Griffin makes regular visits to a shoeshine stand in the French Quarter. He enjoys talking with a man who works there, a black World War I veteran named Sterling Williams. As he gets to know Williams, Griffin thinks that he might confide in him about his project with hopes that Williams can facilitate Griffin's entry into the African American community.

Analysis

Griffin had long been troubled by thoughts of what it must be like to suffer discrimination because of something beyond one's control. He had watched the Gestapo round up Jews in German-occupied France. He had seen black soldiers return home from World War II after years of dedicated service only to be demeaned and marginalized the moment they set foot back on American soil. And he had lived in the Solomon Islands among natives who were treated differently because of their supposedly backward status. What spurs Griffin to action is reading that African Americans in the South "had reached a stage where they simply no longer cared whether they lived or died." This thought alarms Griffin. What upsets him even more, though, is that he has heard white Southerners publicly downplaying the gravity of the situation for years. Thus, his decision to become a black man is not a whim of curiosity. It is the quest of a deeply concerned citizen seeking a truth that he believes must be told for the sake of the whole country.

Griffin mentions his period of blindness casually in these entries. He writes about the last time he was in New Orleans and the sounds and smells he had relied on to get his bearings in the city streets. However, it is impossible to ignore that he is back in New Orleans with his sight restored and about to embark on a study wholly focused on the way people are treated because of their skin color. A decade of blindness and a number of formative years lived outside of the United States have given Griffin an appreciation for the limitations of using visual assessment as a means of truly knowing any person.

Griffin's decision to change only his skin color and not his identity for this project is important. It will simplify his cover, eliminating the need to keep track of details about an invented persona. It will also allow him to test the degree to which white racists are able to ignore the character traits and accomplishments of a man with dark skin. He will use his qualifications as a white man as the control in this experiment. Griffin will be able to see clearly what changes occur in how he is received by others after he alters nothing about himself but his skin pigmentation.

However, this decision also raises serious questions about the credibility of his results. Griffin's overall results are undeniable, in particular, the physical and emotional toll that segregation takes on a person and the psychological desolation of the "hate stare." However, some of Griffin's more prolonged and intimate reactions with both whites and blacks appear strained, even forced. Some have theorized that his subjects suspected he was not what he appeared to be and behaved with caution or suspicion in his presence, thereby tainting his impressions.

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