Black Like Me


John Howard Griffin was a journalist and a specialist on
race issues. After publication, he became a leading
advocate in the Civil Rights Movement and did much to
promote awareness of the racial situations and pass
legislature. He was middle aged and living in Mansfield,
Texas at the time of publication in 1960. His desire to
know if Southern whites were racist against the Negro
population of the Deep South, or if they really judged
people based on the individual's personality as they said
they prompted him to cross the color line and write Black
Like Me. Since communication between the white and African
American races did not exist, neither race really knew what
it was like for the other. Due to this, Griffin felt the
only way to know the truth was to become a black man and
travel through the South. His trip was financed by the
internationally distributed Negro magazine Sepia in
exchange for the right to print excerpts from the finished
product. After three weeks in the Deep South as a black man
John Howard Griffin produced a 188-page journal covering
his transition into the black race, his travels and
experiences in the South, the shift back into white
society, and the reaction of those he knew prior his
experonce the book was published and released.
John Howard Griffin began this novel as a white man on
October 28, 1959 and became a black man (with the help of a
noted dermatologist) on November 7. He entered black
society in New Orleans through his contact Sterling, a shoe
shine boy that he had met in the days prior to the
medication taking full effect. Griffin stayed with Sterling
at the shine stand for a few days to become assimilated
into the society and to learn more about the attitude and
mindset of the common black man. After one week of trying
to find work other than menial labor, he left to travel
throughout the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and
November 14, the day he decided to leave, was the day after
the Mississippi jury refused to indict or consider the
evidence in the Mack Parker kidnap-lynch murder case. He
decided to go into the heart of Mississippi, the Southern
state most feared by blacks of that time, just to see if it
really did have the "wonderful relationship" with their
Negroes that they said they did. What he found in
Hattiesburg was tension in the state so apparent and thick
that it scared him to death. One of the reasons for this
could be attributed to the Parker case decision because the
trial took place not far from Hattiesburg. He knew it was a
threat to his life if he remained because he was not a true
Negro and did not know the proper way to conduct himself in
the present situation. Griffin requested that one of his
friends help him leave the state as soon as possible. P.D.
East, Griffin's friend, was more than willing to help his
friend out of the dangerous situation that he had gotten
himself into and back to New Orleans.
From New Orleans, traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi and began
hitch hiking toward Mobile, Alabama. Griffin found that men
would not pick him up in the day nearly as often as they
would at night. One of the reasons being that the darkness
of night is a protection of sorts and the white men would
let their defenses down. Also, they would not have to be
afraid of someone they knew seeing them with a Negro in
their car. But the main reason was of the stereotypes many
of these men had of Negroes, that they were more sexually
active, knew more about sex, had larger genitalia, and
fewer morals and therefore would discuss these things with
them. Many of the whites that offered Griffin rides would
become angry and let him out when he would not discuss his
sex life with them. One man was amazed to find a Negro who
spoke intelligently and tried to explain the fallacies
behind the stereotypes and what the problem with Negro
society was.
Many Negroes he encountered on his journey through the Deep
South were very kind and opened their hearts and homes to
him. One example of this is when Griffin asked an elderly
Negro where he might find lodging, the man offered to share
his own bed with him. Another instance was when Griffin was
stranded somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery and a
black man offered him lodging at his home. The man's home
was a two-room shack that housed six members of his family,
but he accepted John into his home and refused any money
for the trouble saying that "he'd brought more than he'd
In Montgomery, Alabama, Griffin decided it was time for him
to reenter white society, but he also wanted to gain a
knowledge of the area as a black man. So, he devised the
technique of covering an area as a black and then returning
the following day as a white. What he found was, as a black
he would receive the "hate stare" from whites and be
treated with every courtesy by the black community. As a
white, it would be the exact opposite, he would get the
"hate stare" from blacks and be treated wonderfully by the
same people who despised him the previous day.
After a few days of zigzagging across the color line,
Griffin decided that he had enough material from his
journal to create a book and enough experience as a black
man so he reverted permanently into white society. Crossing
over into the white world was unsettling to Griffin, if
only because of the way he was treated by the same people
who despised him previously due to his pigmentation. The
sudden ability to walk into any establishment and not be
refused service was also a shock after having to search for
common conveniences days before.
After returning to his hometown of Mansfield, Texas Griffin
was not widely accepted back into the community he once
knew. Many of the residents of the city were racists,
therefore they considered him one of the 'niggers.' The
racists even went as far as to hang Griffin in effigy from
the town's stop light one morning. This prompted him and
his family to leave the area until the situation
considerably calmed down.
Griffin was interviewed by various television and radio
hosts as well as magazine and newspapermen after the book
was made public. His main objective was to educate the
public of the situation in the South and people couldn't
help but hear about it. Wether or not they accepted the
information was not up to Griffin, but he did his best to
make the knowledge available.
This book relates to American history because it takes the
reader into the Deep South before the Civil Rights
Movements took hold and shows what it was like to be black.
In the Preface, the author states "I could have been a Jew
in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of
any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed.
The story would be the same." The details he mentioned were
he being black and in the South, and the story is of hatred
and racism directed toward him and others like him on
account of those details. The account he related showed
America and the world that race relations in the South was
not the pretty picture it was painted as. Instead, he
showed the daily struggle of the blacks to survive.
Griffin's bias is that white Southern Americans of that
period were racist toward the African American population.
The only thing altered from before he entered New Orleans
to after was his appearance. He dyed his skin a very dark
brown and shaved his head, his clothing, speech patterns,
and references had not changed and every question was
answered truthfully. If people did judge others by their
qualities and qualifications, his time in the Deep South
should have been fairly uneventful. Instead, there were
daily quests to find rest-room facilities, restaurants,
stores, and various other 'conveniences' that he took
advantage of before he crossed the color line. During his
stay in New Orleans, blacks were forced to use specific
facilities designated for them and they were usually few
and far between. Other than the Greyhound station or other
public buildings that blacks were allowed to enter, there
were no facilities that were at par with the ones the
whites had access to. His now black skin also prevented him
from entering any store and purchasing something to drink,
instead he would have to find a Negro Cafe. These Cafes
were not nearly as numerous as the many places the lowliest
white could acquire a drink. The color of his skin also
prevented him from gaining anything other than menial labor
job, although his qualifications could easily get him any
number of positions if he were white.
". . . I walked toward Brennan's, one of New Orleans' famed
restaurants . . . I stopped to study the menu . . .
realizing that a few days earlier I could have gone in an
ordered anything on the menu. But now, though I was the
same person with the same appetite . . . appreciation . . .
and wallet, no power on earth could get me inside this
place for a meal. I recalled hearing some Negro say, 'You
can live here all your life, but you'll never get inside
one of the great restaurants except as a kitchen boy.'"
The above passage represents just one of many instances
where he was barred from entering an establishment solely
based on his pigmentation. As stated before, Negroes were
not permitted to enter many restaurants, but libraries,
museums, concert halls, and other culturally enhancing
places were also barred to him even though there was no
formal law against them entering. The many stereotypes of
blacks being intellectually inferior just made it easier to
deny them access because they did not have the mental
capacities to appreciate it. It became apparent to Griffin
that because the black population was widely uneducated,
they would never be able to succeed in life. One of the
things inhibiting their education was the inferior quality
of schools and the inability to enter establishments such
as libraries and museums. The whites, usually knew this and
used it to their advantage to keep the black population


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