Black Like Me

black_like_meIn 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white reporter for Sepia Magazine, took medication that darkened his skin to a deep brown. Starting in New Orleans, he traveled for a month through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, passing as a black man. Black Like Me, whose title comes from the last lines of a poem by Langston Hughes, is the story, almost the diary, of those experiences. His goal, in a society with an almost complete lack of communication between the races, was to see whether white racist stereotypes about black people were true: were they really racially inferior, sexually promiscuous, morally irredeemable? Living among them, as one of them, Griffin intended to find out.

Initially, I was extremely skeptical of the book’s premise. In fact, I remain so. Why do we need a white man to tell us what it’s like to be a black man in the South? Weren’t there plenty of black men with voices of their own, and experiences far deeper, more complex, and more intrinsically valuable than that of a white man entering a culture for a mere few weeks? 

As I read, however, I began to understand. 1959 was a year in which no African-American voice could be heard above the racist noise, perhaps especially in the South. Even well-intentioned white liberals were far more likely to ask a white man’s opinion than a black man’s, even about the black man’s own life. Dr. Martin Luther King was just beginning to be a nationally known figure, with the headlines about the Montgomery bus boycott. Despite slavery’s being abolished for a hundred years, no black American, no matter how highly educated, honored, or dignified, could use a white man’s restroom or drink from his water glass. Yes, says Griffin: a black voice would tell this story better. But mine will at least be heard.

Toward the beginning of this book, Griffin moves through his new element with confidence. He has a certain sense of grim glee, as if he were saying, “Would you treat me this way if you knew I was really white?” Later, though, he loses some of his inner sense of whiteness. His reactions — to avoid confrontation with whites, to be courteous to his fellow black people, to stay out of libraries, restaurants, and cafés normally available to him — become more automatic. He begins to feel the sad and terrible burden of poverty without an escape route (as much as he can feel it in three weeks’ time.) And finally, most poignantly, he sees the matter not as a white man or a black man, but more simply: staying with a Mississippi couple with six children, he asks himself how he would feel if a stranger came to his door and told him that from then on, for no reason, his own children would live in poverty, with no education, their future mutilated.

Griffin worked for justice and civil rights issues the rest of his life. Black Like Me is eye-opening and heartbreaking, perhaps particularly the epilogue, which tells some of the details about the civil rights era that get left out when we’re told about this in school. Whose voices are heard today? Who shouts aloud, and who is silenced? Reading this book is one way of improving our hearing.

Rest at pale evening…

A tall slim tree…

Night coming tenderly

Black like me.

–Langston Hughes

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4 Responses to Black Like Me

  1. Teresa says:

    I read this one ages and ages ago–maybe when I was in college or shortly after. I don’t remember any of the details except that I liked it quite a bit. I’m glad to see that you did too.

  2. Matthew says:

    This was an intense read for me in college. From the entire experience, Griffin discovers that when people (in the book’s case, black people) are mistreated or deprived of rights they in turn do mischievous and bad things in order to manage their lives or to ease off the pain which they receive from their abuses, such as killing, drinking, drugs, etc. What has changed since 40 years ago?

  3. Jenny says:

    Teresa — It’s funny, almost everyone I’ve met (including sales clerks and cafeteria workers) has read this at one time or another. It seems to be kind of a sleeper. I did like it, though I remain iffy on the premise.

    Matthew — It was intense, I agree. I hope some things have changed, but others will take longer. The problem as I see it is that too many people believe that racism of this institutional kind has already been “fixed” and so we can “move on.” Sadly not.

  4. Zoe D says:

    One of my favorite books. Thanks for the review. I haven’t read the book in probably 10 years.

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