Black Like Me


In John Howard Griffin's novel Black Like Me, Griffin
travels through many Southern American states, including
Mississippi. While in Mississippi Griffin experiences
racial tension to a degree that he did not expect. It is in
Mississippi that he encounters racial stereotypical views
directed towards him, which causes him to realize the
extent of the racial prejudices that exist. Mississippi is
where he is finally able to understand the fellowship
shared by many of the Negroes of the 50's, because of their
shared experiences. Although Griffin travels throughout the
Southern States, the state of Mississippi serves as a
catalyst for the realization of what it is truly like to be
a Negro in 1959. Once in the state of Mississippi, Griffin
witnesses extreme racial tension, that he does not fully
expect. It is on the bus ride into Mississippi that Griffin
first experiences true racial cruelty from a resident of
It was late dusk when the bus pulled into some little town
outside of Hatteisburg for a stop. "We get about ten
minutes here," Bill said "let's get off here and stretch
our legs" The driver stood up and announced "Ten minute
rest stop,". The whites rose and ambled off. Bill and I led
the Negroes toward the door. As soon as he saw us, the
driver blocked our way. Bill slipped under his arm and
walked away. "Hey boy where are you going?" the driver
shouted at Bill while he stretched his arms across the
opening to prevent myself from stepping down. I stood
waiting. "Where do you think your going?" he asked, his
heavy cheeks quivering with each word. "I'd like to go to
the rest room." I smiled and moved to step down. He
tightened his grip on the door. "Does your ticket say for
you to get off here?" he asked. "No sir, but the others..."
"Then you just sit your ass down." We turned like a small
herd of cattle and drifted back to our seats. The large
woman was apologetic, as though it embarrassed her for a
stranger to see Mississippi's dirty linen.1(pg 63) Up to
this point in the novel Griffin experiences exactly what he
expects to experience. He is taunted with typical racial
slurs, and other forms of hostility, which he is able to
brush off as meaningless ignorance. This bus driver is
denying the black customers the most basic of human needs.
The bus driver attempts to not only humiliate them by
forcing them to defecate and urinate in public on the bus,
but the bus driver is also attempting to show all of the
white customers what savages that the blacks are. Griffin
never expects to receive anger and hate to this degree.
Everywhere that he goes in Mississippi is full of hatred,
and spite.
As I walked down Mobile Street, a car full of white men and
boys sped past. They yelled obscenities at me. A satsuma
flew past my head and broke against a building. The street
was loud and raw, with tension as thick as fog. I felt the
insane terror of it. When I entered the store of my second
contact, we talked in low voices. Another car roared down
the street, and the street was suddenly deserted of
Negroes, but then we appeared shortly.2(Page 67) For the
first time while in Mississippi Griffin realizes that there
are many individuals, who, if given the chance, would kill
him simply because he is black. It is in Mississippi that
he begins to identify with the blacks and begins to fully
see himself as a black. Had he stayed in the more Northern
states he probably would never have progressed to this
state of mind. Griffin begins to understand that part of
the reason for the hatred of blacks by many whites is
because of the stereotypical image of the Negro in the 50's.
In Mississippi he confronts racial stereotypes directed
towards him that prompt him to realize how deeply rooted
society's prejudices are. While trying to hitchhike through
Mississippi he encounters white men willing to pick him up
only because of their preconceived notions of Negroes.
I must have had a dozen rides that evening. They blear into
a nightmare, the one scarcely distinguishable from the
other. It quickly became obvious why they picked me up. All
but two picked me up the way they would pick up a
pornographic photograph or book-except that this was verbal
pornography. With a Negro, they assumed they need give no
semblance of self respect or respectability. The visual
element entered into it. All of the men showed morbid
curiosity about the sexual life of the Negro, and all had,
at base, the same stereotyped image of the Negro as an
inexhaustible sex-machine with over-sized genitals and vast
store of experiences, immensely varied. They appeared to
think that the Negro has done all of those "special" things
they themselves have never dared to do.3(pg.85) Griffin
finds that hitchhiking at night through Mississippi is the
best way to experience the underlying stereotypes found
throughout Mississippi. A man will open up at night because
it gives him an illusion of anonymity. Griffin can't
conceive of how these men can have such distorted concepts
of another human being. It becomes obvious that the reason
these men have such little respect for the Negroes is
because they have absolutely no understanding of them.
Griffin realizes that before his travels as a Negro in
Mississippi he too knew very little about them. The Negroes
cope with this hate based upon ignorance by relying on each
Griffin is able to conceive the strong bond between many
Negroes, because of experiences that some Negroes share,
while he is in Mississippi. While on the bus heading for
Mississippi he notices how black strangers become instant
As we drove more deeply into Mississippi, I noted that the
Negro comforted and sought comfort from his own. In
Mississippi everyone who boarded the bus at the various
little towns had a smile and a greeting for everyone else.
We felt strongly the need to establish friendship as a
buffer against the invisible threat. Like shipwrecked
people, we huddled together in a warmth and courtesy that
was pure and pathetic.4(pg.63) Griffin speaks of his
experience on the bus as though it is a battle zone because
that is exactly what it is. The blacks realize that the key
to surviving is unity and finding something positive in
their situation. They each try to provide the others with
something to be happy about and something to be grateful
for. The blacks try to counter the hate and hostility that
they encounter with warmth and kindness toward one another.
Griffin can not understand this bond until he is in a
situation where he is looking for kindness as much as the
Negroes around him. Mississippi is where Griffin learns to
not only act as a black, but also feel their pain as only a
black can do.
Griffin travels throughout the Southern States but his
experience as a black in Mississippi serves as an awakening
for him to the understanding of what being a black man in
1959 entails. While in Mississippi he witnesses extreme
racial tension, which he had no idea existed until his
visit to Mississippi. It is in Mississippi that he is the
victim of racial stereotypes causing him to realize the
extent of the racial prejudices towards Negroes. Griffin is
finally able to understand the bond shared between many of
the Negroes of the time, while traveling through
Mississippi. Until the novel Black Like Me, the state of
Mississippi adamantly denied that it had any racial
problems, after the novel was released Mississippi and the
world had to come to the realization that their were
serious problems in the way that blacks were being treated.
This novel is just as horrific to readers in the 90's as it
was in the 50's, but while the 90's audience is convinced
that they have escaped the problem of racism, this
Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. Sepia Publishing
Company. New York. 1960. *All subsequent entries are from
this source*
1. John Howard Griffin. Black Like Me. Sepia Publishing
Company. New York. 1960. *All subsequent entries are from
this source*


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