Black Like Me: Nov 14 - Nov 16, 1959

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Summary of Deep South Journey, November 14–16, 1959

 

November 14, Mississippi

After a week of being rejected for jobs, Griffin is weary. The whites of New Orleans are mostly polite to him, but it’s only superficial. Day to day, he realizes, black people are reminded of their inferior status. They are referred to by racist names; they can’t go to the same bathrooms or eating facilities as whites. Even though the racism is not personal, it burns and they do feel it personally. Although some individual whites may be kind to black people, this doesn’t help the fact that the entire white race has arranged life so that black people are degraded.

 

It’s no wonder, Griffin points out, that blacks lose themselves in drink, dope, gluttony, or lies. Sometimes they lose themselves in art, literature, or music, but this too can cause pain because it deepens perceptions of the injustice of the world.

 

At the shoeshine stand, Williams tells Griffin some bad news. A young black man named Mack Parker was kidnapped and murdered by a lynch mob in Mississippi, and although there was more than enough evidence to show who did it, the jury refused to return any indictments. The incident kills black people’s hope and breaks their morale.

 “This is what we can expect from the white man’s justice,” Williams says bitterly. “What hope is there when a white jury won’t even look at the evidence against a lynch mob?” To the astonishment of his shoe shining friends, Griffin decides he will go into Mississippi for himself.

 

In preparing for his trip, Griffin needs to cash a traveler’s check, but none of the shopkeepers will accept it. He realizes they would readily have cashed it for a white man. Finally, a kind woman in a Catholic bookstore cashes the check for him.

 

At the bus station, Griffin buys a one-way ticket to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The ticket seller is rude and gives him a “hate stare.” She refuses to give him change, and then finally hurls it at him. A white man in the waiting area gives him another “hate stare” until a sympathetic black porter directs him to the black waiting room. Whites are allowed to board the bus first, then blacks. Only one white, an army officer, refuses to discriminate and gets in line behind the blacks.

 

On the bus, the blacks sit in the back. Even though segregation is officially not permitted on interstate buses, they know the unspoken rule. A tall, slender, light-skinned black man, elegantly dressed, treats the whites fawningly and sneers at the black passengers. The man, whose name is Christophe, speaks snippets of French, Spanish, and Japanese and claims proudly that he is not “pure Negro”—his father was Indian and his mother French or Portuguese. He takes an interest in Griffin, whom he mistakenly thinks is a priest, and says Griffin must have some “Florida Navaho” blood. Griffin allows him to believe what he likes. Finally, Christophe breaks down in tears and asks Griffin to pray for him. Griffin feels sorry for the man, who is so obviously consumed by hatred for his own race.

 

After Christophe gets off the bus, Griffin sits near a friendly black man named Bill Williams, who warns him that he’d better watch himself in Mississippi. He cannot be seen looking at a white woman or even at a poster of one outside a movie theater, and he should be cautious when walking around in the streets, as he looks well-dressed and may be robbed.

 

The bus stops, and while many white people get off to stretch their legs and use the toilet, the bus driver refuses to let the blacks off. One man relieves himself on the floor in protest, but the others decide not to do this, as it will only give whites another reason to complain about them. Griffin is angry, but he appreciates how all the blacks band together and use their friendship as a buffer against the racist white world.

 

The distance between black and white seems to increase the further the bus goes into Mississippi. As the bus passes through Poplarville, Mississippi, Bill Williams points out the location of the lynching. The blacks on the bus are silent.

 

Upon their arrival in Hattiesburg at 8:30 p.m., Bill Williams helps Griffin get a cab to a hotel. The city seems wild, and the white cab driver warns Griffin to get inside as soon as possible. As he walks along the street, a carful of white men speeds by, yelling obscenities and hurling a tangerine at him. He is warned by black people that a boy was beat up recently by a mob of white men like that. Up in his hotel at last, Griffin sobs quietly, saying to himself what he has heard black people say many times, “It’s not right. It’s just not right.” He tries to write to his wife, but finds he cannot do it. He is a black man now, with no right to love a white woman.

 

Out getting barbecue, Griffin hears the loud music and joyous hoots and shouts and realizes that whites might mistakenly see this and think that black people are happy. He realizes now that although they may appear jubilant, the black people are simply trying hard to avoid despair. He thinks of the state song of Mississippi and how it presents the state as glad and happy. As he recalls the myths of the South, with its fragrant magnolias and “darkies, happy and contented” in the cotton fields, it all seems like a lie now.

 

Realizing he can’t face a night in the hotel, Griffin calls his friend P. D. East, a white newspaper reporter who lives in the city. East has been persecuted for seeking racial justice, and Griffin is afraid of causing the family even more trouble, but he’s desperate. To his relief, P. D. comes without hesitation to pick him up. Griffin feels awkward around his friend, however; he has internalized his identity as a black man and feels it’s “wrong” to ride in a car or sit in a house with a white man. 

 

That evening, Griffin reads a manuscript East has written, an autobiography called The Magnolia Jungle. In the book, East describes how, when he began writing against racial injustice in his newspaper, he was threatened and hounded by anonymous callers and lost subscribers and ads. Even his friends turned against him, and he feared for his life so much that he had begun carrying a gun. Absorbed by the story, Griffin stays up until dawn reading.

 

November 15

The next day, Griffin spends the day with East, discussing the manuscript and going through East’s files of research material—hate pamphlets, news clippings, letters, and other evidence of the rampant racism in the South. He meets East’s wife and daughter, who lead a lonely, nearly friendless life. Because of P. D.’s outspokenness, the family is ostracized by everyone except two Jewish families in Hattiesburg. Griffin stays up late examining the material in East’s collection. He realizes that the most dangerous racists are not the loud and ignorant ones, but the intelligent ones who quietly create all the racist laws and propaganda, all the while pretending to be patriotic Americans.

 

November 16, New Orleans

The next day, East drives Griffin back to New Orleans. Together, they visit Dillard University and speak with the dean, Sam Gandy. Griffin explains his project to an intrigued Gandy. Their conversation turns to voting rights, and East tells a joke about a man who goes to register to vote. In order to test his reading, he is shown a newspaper in Chinese. “I can read the headline,” the man says, “It says this is one Negro in Mississippi who’s not going to vote this year.”

 

East drops Griffin off, and he buys a ticket back to Mississippi, this time to the coastal town of Biloxi. In the rest room at the station, he finds an ad posted by a white man looking for sex with black girls.

         

Analysis of Deep South Journey, November 14–16, 1959

Griffin has given us a clear picture of the many forms of racism faced by black people in the South. In this section, Griffin introduces one of the most insidious and frightening instances of injustice—lynch mobs. The story of Mack Parker indicates that blacks were denied not only limeades at the whites-only soda fountain and jobs that earned a decent wage, but even more frighteningly, they were denied their basic Constitutional right to a trial in a court of law. Of all the injustices, this one most seems to demoralize black people most and make them lose hope.

 

Mack Parker was a twenty-three-year-old black man from Petal, Mississippi, who was in jail awaiting trial for raping a white woman, a crime he allegedly committed in February 1959. Before he could stand trial, a mob took the law into their own hands. They kidnapped Parker from jail, and his body was found later floating in the Petal River.  While Griffin was in New Orleans, a federal grand jury refused to indict any of the men who had committed the lynching, even though ample evidence was available to tell who had done the crime. It was the equivalent of the federal government agreeing that blacks did not have the right to a fair trial.

 

On hearing the latest news about the Mack Parker trial, Griffin decides to go right into the thick of the conflict. He goes to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, passing right by the location of the lynching. Suspense builds as he is warned by his friends, Sterling Williams and Joe, not to go into Mississippi. Griffin describes how the tension on the bus seems to increase the deeper they go into the state. The tension reaches a high point as Griffin enters Hattiesburg and is harassed by a carful of white men. Back in his hotel room, Griffin breaks down crying. He finds he cannot even write to his wife, so psychologically broken down is he by his experiences. This is the climax of Griffin’s story.

 

Griffin’s crisis points to another theme, that of the self-hatred some blacks feel toward their own race. The character of Christophe, the handsome mulatto who despises black people, is symbolic of this phenomenon. An obviously well-educated man, he looks down on his black fellows and is quick to brag that he is not full-blooded African-American. At the end of the encounter, Christophe cries and asks Griffin to pray for him. Griffin feels sorry for the man, who has obviously internalized society’s racism to the point where he despises his own blackness. Griffin himself internalizes his own feelings of blackness to the point where he cannot write to his wife and feels awkward riding with a white man—his friend P. D. East—in a car.

 

East is a good example of a white man who works for justice no matter what the personal cost. As Griffin noted in 1976, the bravery of civil rights advocates at that time could not be understated. Such people were ostracized, persecuted, and threatened with death. For this reason, many good-hearted white people were afraid to speak out against the racism they saw. 

 

East’s book, The Magnolia Jungle, provides Griffin with the insight that the most dangerous racists are those who create racist laws and propaganda. These powerful, intelligent figures, more so than the loud, ignorant bigots, are the ones who allow racism to remain an institution of society. The joke told by East provides some comic relief in the narrative, while pointing to another reality of the racist South—the denial of voting rights to African-Americans. It was also common for black people to be fired from their jobs after registering to vote. 

 

The November 16 entry closes with another note about the relative morality of whites and blacks, as Griffin sees a notice posted by a white man looking for sex with underage girls. Griffin reflects bitterly that white people try to present themselves as morally superior, but such claims ring hollow. It is ironic that white men feel themselves free to perform sex acts with fourteen-year-old black girls, but if a black man even looks at a white woman in a movie poster, he may be beaten for it.

 

 

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