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Black Like Me | Study Guide

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me | Symbols



The night John Howard Griffin prepares to leave his friend's house and begin life as a black man, he pauses to look in a mirror. The face of a stranger stares back at him, and it makes him uncomfortable. It was "the face ... of a stranger—a fierce, bald, very dark Negro ... The transformation was total and shocking." Later, he sees himself again in the mirror of a rented room where "the sense of shock returned." This disorienting experience is intensified by the many hostilities Griffin encounters in public now that the color of his skin is no longer white.

Human beings rely on other humans to reflect their impressions of each other so that they have a sense of how they fit into the fabric of society. Over time, they come to have a sense of self based on how they see themselves as reflected in the demeanors of others and how they behave toward them. In Black Like Me, Griffin talks about having visited the South as a young man and finding Southern whites he met to be "kind and wise." In Mobile, Alabama, however, disguised as a black man, he remarks that that kind of Southerner was nowhere to be found. And yet Griffin knows that "if I were white, I would find him easily." The kind, Southern face he once knew, however, "is not a false face: it is simply different from the one the Negro sees." Griffin realizes that the faces the racist whites reflect back daily to an African American man in the South is an image of a hated, feared, and rejected creature, if they even acknowledge his existence at all.

White Women

In paternalistic Southern society, the white woman has an elevated status from a combination of religious belief, colonial ties, and pastoral memories of her role as mistress of a slave plantation. A symbol of dependent femininity, she represents a moral sanctuary for white men. The white woman is publicly idolized and protected through this paternalism, but she is not granted true autonomy or power. This exaggerated chivalric attitude toward Southern white women results in men's exaggerated and misguided stereotype of black men as hypersexual brutes and sits at the heart of their crusade to protect white women from any unnecessary contact with them. With fears of violation planted, unwarranted insecurities escalate so that even a black man's courteous greeting to a white woman can be misconstrued as flirtation and risk retaliation from anyone who witnessed it.

John Howard Griffin receives several warnings from African American men never to look at a white woman, not even if she is depicted on a movie poster. He knows that black men in the South had been beaten and lynched for showing attention to white women. Griffin experiences a sharp reminder of this himself in the stream of derogatory epithets a white woman spews out at him after he has made eye contact with her on a New Orleans bus.

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