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Black Like Me | Themes

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Skin Color

When a white man changes the color of his skin and pretends to be black, the man within is still the one that has grown up with all the privileges and rights of a white man. In the case of John Howard Griffin, this is a man who traveled the world and enjoyed access to a fine education. This is a man who received critical acclaim in the literary world and lived a comfortable life with his family in a friendly, rural Texas town. While Griffin has no illusion of himself as a man formed by African American culture and experience, becoming so was never his goal. He is, ironically, keenly aware of the limitations of his knowledge about what it is to be a black man.

In many ways, his transformation is purely superficial and only skin deep. Still, what Griffin shows in the pages of his memoir is that that superficial transformation is enough. It is all that is needed to make the white cashier and a host of other racist white people glance up and dismiss him in an instant. Their immediate shift in demeanor once they see the color of his skin conveys, repeatedly, the message, "You are less. You are not worthy. I wish you didn't exist." Griffin is prepared for this in some ways, but the project became "such a profound personal experience, it haunted even [his] dreams." The emotional impact of this project after just six weeks allows Griffin to imagine how much more intense the stress would be for African Americans who have been immersed in this world since birth.

After a month undercover, Griffin begins to notice more profound changes in his appearance: "My face had lost all animation. In repose, it had taken on the strained, disconsolate expression" that characterizes so many Southern black people. Griffin's time living as a black man did not earn him a new racial identity, even though he was discriminated against, threatened, and relegated to the seediest parts of every city he visited. It was, however, a committed quest for empathy that made Griffin more aware of the factors contributing to the plummeting morale in Southern black communities.

Blindness and Invisibility

In addition to Griffin's mention of his loss of eyesight for a prolonged period, there is also a more figurative blindness explored through the pages of Black Like Me. It is the willful blindness of white racists to the humanity and individuality of the black people in their towns. It is also their unwillingness to see the restricted, impoverished life to which they have relegated African Americans out of convenience to themselves. Griffin publishes his story in order to knock the blinders off white Americans. He wants to force them to look at a devastating situation that they created and that has been allowed to persist for far too long.

The parting words of Griffin's dermatologist are prophetic: "Now you go into oblivion." "Oblivion" can mean both "forgetfulness" and "nothingness." In Griffin's case, the two definitions can be taken together to describe the world he enters for his project. John Howard Griffin, the white writer from Texas, is forgotten and ceases to exist to the people around him the moment he darkens his skin. Most of the white people he will encounter on the other side of the door will no longer see or care about him as an individual. Griffin is struck by his invisibility to white customers when he works alongside Sterling Williams at the shoeshine stand. They look at him as though he "had no human existence whatsoever ... They looked and saw nothing."

Hospitality

The willingness of African Americans to open their doors to Griffin, a stranger, even when what they have to offer is sometimes no more than a floor to sleep on, is one of the most encouraging aspects of Griffin's journey. It also serves as a marked point of contrast with the inhospitable white people he encounters. Again and again Griffin finds black people who will go out of their way to show him to a safe haven or invite him to share their quarters. This determination to acknowledge each other's humanity in the face of the hostile elements around them is one of many coping strategies he witnesses among African Americans. On a Mississippi bus, for example, Griffin describes the ways African American passengers would greet each black newcomer to the bus with a greeting and a smile: they "felt strongly the need to establish friendship as a buffer against the invisible threat" that surrounded them.

One of the most poignant examples of hospitality extended to Griffin comes from a poor sawmill worker. He lives in a two-room shanty in the Alabama swamplands with his wife and six children. Seeing that Griffin is stranded in this desolate area, he offers him the only thing he can: a meal to share and a place to sleep on his floor. The feeling of family connectedness and the bright energy of this man's children fill Griffin with complex emotions. He describes his reaction as an oxymoron: "the intimate and subtle joys of misery." He thinks about their generosity toward a man they have never met before and about all that this couple is doing to bring up their children respectably. It overwhelms him.

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