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Black Like Me | Quotes

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1.

The real story is ... of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men.


John Howard Griffin, Preface

Griffin asserts in the Preface that the systematic dehumanization of Southern blacks by institutionalized racism is a version of a story that has played out repeatedly through all of human history, on every continent. His message to perpetrators of discrimination and segregation is that whatever fine human qualities they believe themselves to possess, such qualities are severely compromised by their participation in this oppression.

2.

"Do you suppose they'll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color — or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?" I asked.


John Howard Griffin, October 30, 1959

This is the theme that inspired Griffin to take on his new role and to explore the South. He posed the question early as he planned his project. He was talking to Adelle Jackson, George Levitan, and three FBI agents. One of them responded, "As soon as they see you, you'll be a Negro" and they won't want to know anything more.

3.

I had tampered with the mystery of existence and ... lost the sense of my own being.


John Howard Griffin, November 7, 1959

Griffin experiences a sense of fractured identity and detachment from himself during his experiment. It begins the moment he first sees his black self in the mirror. In this quote, Griffin seems aware that he may be trespassing in God's territory by altering the way he was born. The realization is disorienting to him. This is a more profound transformation than that of an actor playing a role in a costume and makeup. Griffin will no longer be seen as the man he has been all his life. He will live with that for the next six weeks.

4.

We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him.


John Howard Griffin, November 8, 1959

Griffin's use of the first person plural pronoun here echoes the "we" that Sterling Williams uses almost immediately to include Griffin in the inner circle of black conversation and experience. Williams is the one person who actually knows that Griffin is a white man. However, he is able to embrace the illusion of Griffin's blackness and the worthiness of his project. Knowing how quickly Griffin will need to learn a new code of behavior, Williams's protective attention is critical as Griffin takes his first steps into the world as a black man.

5.

If the Negro is part of the black mass, the white is always the individual.


John Howard Griffin, November 14, 1959: Mississippi

As he contemplates the differences in identity between blacks and white, one of the distinctions Griffin notes is the inability for the black man to attain individuality, a quality highly prized by Americans. When whites view all blacks with the same withering scorn and disdain, they ignore any individual personality traits, characteristics, or accomplishments a person may possess or have attained. Thereby, they deny the person the opportunity to advance in society, while insisting on their own right to do so.

6.

You feel ... sick at heart before such unmasked hatred ... because it shows humans in ... an inhuman light.


John Howard Griffin, November 14, 1959: Mississippi

Griffin sees white supremacists engage in unprovoked racist taunts, venomous humiliation, and "hate stares." In the process, he watches them physically transform from average citizens into unrecognizable and monstrous creatures. He wonders if they would be embarrassed to see how truly insane they look in these moments, and he wrestles with mixed feelings of grief and revulsion.

7.

To sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair.


John Howard Griffin, November 14, 1959: Mississippi

A point of new understanding for Griffin comes at the end of a particularly cruel day in Mississippi. He listens to the night sounds of the Hattiesburg ghetto, and he hears something new in the exaggerated laughter and loud music and drunken shouts of the people around him. Rather than an expression of "jubilant living," it feels to him more like a desperate attempt to escape the oppressive melancholy of life in the quarter. By keeping their sobs at bay with wine, music, sex, and comedy, they stay one step away from devastation and despair.

8.

It reminded me of the ... terror we felt in Europe when Hitler began his marches.


John Howard Griffin, November 14, 1959: Mississippi

When Griffin's friend P.D. East sneaks a brown-skinned Griffin into the Easts' house under cover of night, Griffin is struck by the similarities between their furtive actions and those he engaged in as part of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. It sobers him to think that in the United States, where personal freedoms are deemed so precious, people seeing a black man in a white man's house could provoke acts of violence upon either or both of them.

9.

Fear dims even the sunlight.


John Howard Griffin, November 21, 1959: Mobile

Even a bright, sunny environment looks different when a people live in constant fear and uncertainty. One of Griffin's revelations is that the state of being at ease and at leisure is a luxury out of reach for most African American Southerners. Griffin often finds himself tired and in search of a place to rest for a few moments. But for a black man, sitting idle in public, even momentarily, would invite suspicion and harassment. This constant feeling of being monitored and judged casts a looming shadow that diminishes the potential for joy.

10.

No one, not even a saint, can live without a sense of personal value.


John Howard Griffin, November 24, 1959

As a Catholic, Griffin is deeply concerned with personal standards of morality and decency. The erosion of human dignity by a racist social structure becomes to him of great concern. In large part, this is because he realizes that without "a sense of personal value," no person can be expected to live morally, with a conscience that takes others into consideration. Whites, by degrading blacks, are actually creating an immoral, potentially violent population that may, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, attack and destroy them.

11.

The white racist is bewildered ... because the dignity of the Negro's course of action emphasizes the indignity of his own.


John Howard Griffin, November 25, 1959: Montgomery

Griffin sees a different atmosphere in Montgomery, Alabama, than he does in other Southern cities. The well-organized and dignified civil rights activism in Montgomery, with its roots in Christian scripture and passive resistance, makes it impossible for white racists to claim moral superiority. Their hate-filled and often violent discrimination against black citizens appears, in fact, distinctly un-Christian. Losing their control of the narrative that has given them total power for so long in the South is both confusing and enraging.

12.

The Negro ... learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is.


John Howard Griffin, November 29, 1959

Griffin went undercover as a black man for precisely this reason: as a white man he knew that he would only learn part of the story about racial discrimination in the South. The white Southerners he knew often glossed over the topic with the fiction of harmony and "an understanding" between the races. Rather than risk the possibility of negative repercussions for not playing along, many African Americans appeared complicit with this white account of race relations. Even when they did tell the truth, they were often not heard, a realization that many were forced to face after Griffin's book was published.

13.

The great danger ... comes precisely from the fact that the public is not informed.


John Howard Griffin, December 7, 1959

In addition to exerting control over the law enforcement and justice systems, the white power structure in the South also dictates the narrative by threatening journalists who seek to expose the reprehensible conditions under which African Americans live. P.D. East, Griffin's journalist friend in Hattiesburg, is a good example. After he prints stories in his independent newspaper that question Southern justice, his readership plummets and he receives threatening phone calls.

14.

By keeping 'peaceful' ... we end up consenting to the destruction of all peace.


John Howard Griffin, April 11, 1960

Griffin is criticized by many people in his Texas town because he "stirred things up" when they would have preferred to "keep things peaceful." What Griffin tries to demonstrate in Black Like Me is that turning a blind eye to oppression in one's midst makes a truly peaceful society impossible. Controlling a community's underclass through violence, fear, and enforced misery tarnishes the whole community because the powerful in the community necessarily become perpetrators of that violence and intimidation.

15.

The average Southern white ... is more afraid of his fellow white racist than ... of the Negro.


John Howard Griffin, June 19, 1960: Father's Day

Griffin sees the complicity of decent white Southerners who disapprove of the racial injustice in their towns. However, they fear retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils too much to challenge it. Griffin's willingness to cross the color line himself and to publicly announce his findings opens the door for other concerned white people who have been silently uncomfortable for too long, even though he does so at great personal cost.

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