Black Like Me: Character Profiles

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T. M. Alexander

A founder of Southeastern Fidelity Life Insurance, Alexander is one of the black civic leaders interviewed by Griffin for his story about Atlanta, along with A. T. Walden, the Reverend Samuel Williams, and Dr. Benjamin Mays.

Christophe

Christophe is an elegant-looking light-skinned black man whom Griffin meets on the bus to Mississippi. Christophe, an apparently educated man who boasts that he has white and Indian blood, treats the whites fawningly and sneers at the black passengers, thinking himself above them. Christophe is an example of the internalized racism common among black people. Griffin feels sorry for the man, as he is so obviously consumed by hatred for his own race.

The Reverend A. L. Davis

Davis, an African-American community leader in New Orleans, is one of the men gathered at the YMCA coffee shop when Griffin visits there. He tells Griffin that New Orleans is less racist than anywhere else in the South because it is more cosmopolitan and has a strong Catholic influence.

P. D. East

P. D. East is a white newspaper editor in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who is bravely outspoken about racial issues in a series of bitingly satirical articles in his newspaper, The Petal Paper. Griffin stays with the Easts while visiting Mississippi and notes how the family is ostracized by the community because of East’s refusal to compromise his beliefs. East wrote about his experiences in his autobiography The Magnolia Jungle (1960).

Mr. Gayle

Mr. Gayle is a New Orleans civic leader and bookstore owner whom Griffin meets at the YMCA coffee shop.

John Howard Griffin

The author and narrator of this book, Griffin was a white American journalist who, for several months in 1959, explored the state of race relations in the southern United States through an unusual experiment. With the help of a doctor, Griffin dyed his skin dark and went under a sunlamp so he would appear to be an African-American. In the book, Griffin chronicles his journey through the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in this disguise, and tells of the prejudice, hatred, and random acts of kindness he experienced along the way. Griffin displays a deeply felt sympathy for the African-Americans he encountered who had to endure racism not just as a journalistic experiment, but for their entire lives.

Mrs. Griffin

Mrs. Griffin is Griffin’s wife. She is at first astonished, then fully supportive of his project, and is willing to care for their three young children alone while her husband is away.

Mr. and Mrs. Griffin

Mr. and Mrs. Griffin are Griffin’s parents, who live on a farm outside of Mansfield, Texas. After Griffin’s story breaks, they sell their property and move to Mexico in order to escape the hostility in their hometown.

J. P. Guillory

J. P. Guillory is a black insurance agent whom Griffin meets in the YMCA café in New Orleans. In the course of their conversation, Griffin tells Guillory he is an author. Guillory recognizes Griffin’s name and says that he is actually reading one of Griffin’s books. Confused, he seems to think Griffin is a fraud because he knows the book’s author is really white. Griffin promises that he is not a fraud and that Guillory will learn his true identity by reading the book and an article in Reader’s Digest.

Adele Jackson

Adele Jackson is the editorial director of Sepia magazine. Griffin admires this African-American woman, noting that she rose from the position of secretary to become one of the country’s distinguished editors. Jackson warns Griffin that his project and eventual book will make him a target of hate groups and that he will be resented by many whites for “stirring things up.”

Joe

Joe is Sterling Williams’s partner in the shoeshine business. He is described as slender, middle-aged, sharp and easygoing. Each day, Joe cooks his lunch in a tin can on the street and shares some of it with a wino beggar.

George Levitan

George Levitan is the white owner of the African-American magazine Sepia. Despite his worries for Griffin’s safety, Levitan agrees to sponsor Griffin’s project and publish his articles about it.

Mack Parker

Mack Parker is a young black man who was lynched by a mob in Petal, Mississippi, while awaiting trial for the rape of a white woman. He was brutally killed and his body left in the river. The lynching took place in February of 1959, before Griffin’s journey began. Soon after the news breaks that the lynch mob will not be punished, Griffin visits the area where Parker was killed and finds an atmosphere of anger and despair.

Don Rutledge

Don Rutledge is a photographer who works with Griffin on a story about Atlanta and takes photographs of Griffin as a black man.

Decherd and Margaret Turner

Decherd and Margaret Turner are friends of the Griffins. After Griffin’s story breaks in the news, the Griffins stay with the Turner family in Dallas to escape the hostility in their hometown of Mansfield.  

Sawmill Worker

A young black sawmill worker in Alabama offers Griffin a place to sleep on the floor of his small shack, which he shares with his wife and six young children. Griffin notes that this man lives in squalor and insurmountable debt because the mill won’t pay him a decent wage. He is saddened to think of the contrast between his own children’s prospects in life as compared to the dismal future that awaits the sawmill worker’s young brood.

Bill Williams

Bill Williams is a young black man who befriends Griffin on the bus to Mississippi. He gives Griffin advice about how to handle himself, pointing out that he should not even look at a poster of a white woman. Bill becomes a hero of the bus when he gets off at a rest stop, ignoring the driver’s yell of “Hey, boy, where you going?” Later, he points out to Griffin, from the bus window, the jail where the lynching of Mack Parker took place.

Sterling Williams

Sterling Williams is an elderly black shoeshine man in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Griffin meets and has his shoes shined by Williams while staying in the city as a white man. Later when Griffin visits Williams again as a black man, Williams is unable to recognize him—but he does recognize the shoes. Griffin then works for Williams during the first week of his experiment, and Williams lends his friendship, support, and advice to help Griffin enter the African-American world.

Wino beggar

Sterling Williams and his partner Joe, the shoeshine men in New Orleans, share their food with this pitiable man every day. The wino’s plight helps the shoeshine men feel elevated and magnanimous.

YMCA Café Owner

The YMCA café becomes an important gathering place for black civic leaders in New Orleans. The elderly café owner participates in their discussions about how to combat racism. He notes that blacks are prejudiced against dark-skinned men like himself and that to be respected in the black community, one has to be light-skinned and have artificially straightened hair. He also laments the “economic injustice” that leaves educated young blacks unable to find work.

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