Black like Me

John Howard Griffin begins this novel as a white man on October 28th, 1959 and becomes a black man (with the help of a noted dermatologist) on November 7th. He enters black society in New Orleans through his contact Sterling, a shoe shine boy that he met in the days before starting the experiment. Griffin stays 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 labour, he leaves to travel throughout the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.
November 14th, the day he decides to leave, is the day after the Mississippi jury refused to indict or consider the evidence in a kidnap - lynch murder case. He decides to go into the heart of Mississippi, the Southern state most feared by blacks of that time, just to see if it really have the "wonderful relationship" with their Negroes that they say they do. He knows it is a threat to his life if he remains in Hattiesburg because he is not a true Negro and does not know the proper way to conduct himself in the present situation. Griffin requests that one of his friends helps him leave the state as soon as possible. P.D. East, Griffin's friend, is more than willing to help his friend out of the dangerous situation that he rots himself into and back to New Orleans.
From New Orleans, he travels to Biloxi, Mississippi and begins hitch hiking toward Mobile, Alabama. Griffin finds 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 defences 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 is of the stereotypes many of these men have of Negroes, that they are more sexually active, know more about sex, have fewer morals and therefore would discuss these things with them. One man who offers Griffin a lift is amazed to find a Negro who speaks intelligently and tries to explain the fallacies behind the stereotypes and what the problem with Negro society is.
Many Negroes he encounters on his journey through the Deep South are very kind and open their hearts and homes to him. One example of this is when Griffin asks an elderly Negro where he might find lodging, the man offers to share his own bed with him. Another instance is when Griffin is stranded somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery and a black man offers him lodging at his home. The man's home is a two - room shack that housed six members of his family, but he accepts John into his home and refuses any money for the trouble saying that "he'd brought more than he'd taken."
In Montgomery, Alabama, Griffin decides it is time for him to reenter white society, but he also wants to gain a knowledge of the area as a black man. So, he devises the technique of covering an area as a black and then returning the following day as a white. What he finds is, as a black he receives the "hate stare" from whites and is treated with every courtesy by the black community. As a white, it is the exact opposite, he gets the "hate stare" from blacks and is treated wonderfully by the same people who despised him the previous day.
After a few days of zigzagging across the colour line, Griffin decides that he has enough material from his journal to create a book and enough experience as a black man so he reverts permanently into white society. Crossing over into the white world is unsettling to Griffin, if only because of the way he is treated by the same people who despise him previously due to his pigmentation. The sudden ability to walk into any establishment and not be refused service is also a shock after having to search for common conveniences days before.
After returning to his hometown of Mansfield, Texas Griffin is not widely accepted back into the community he once knew. Many of the residents of the city are racists, therefore they consider him one of the 'niggers.' The racists even go as far as to hang Griffin in effigy from the town's stop light one morning. This prompts him and his family to leave the area until the situation considerably calmed down.
Griffin is interviewed by various television and radio hosts as well as magazine and newspapermen after the book is made public. His main objective is to educate the public of the situation in the South and people couldn't help but hear about it. Whether or not they accepted the information is not up to Griffin, but he did his best to make the knowledge available.
If a white man became a negro in the deep South. what adjustments would he have to make? What changes would occur to the heart, body, and intelligence when a so - called first - class citizen is cast in the junk heap of second and third class citizenship?
These we the underlying questions that were the driving force behind the experimental exploration taken by John Howard Griffin.
His main thought was that the communication between the two dominant races in the South had stopped. He believed that once there was some information exchanged the understanding would increase. People would change their ways when they saw what was really happening. He risked his life and the life of those who were close to him for the good of mankind. He jeopardised his wife, 5 year old daughter, and all he met along the way, so that we, as a society, could learn from our mistakes.

It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested.
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.

Although some of the things that Griffin faced as a "black" man have changed (in America they do not have any longer separate drinking fountains or different laboratories for blacks and whites), the subtleties of racism still pervade their culture, so Griffin's book remains pertinent.
I was fascinated, among other many things, to see Griffin changing shades of skin colour to flip back and forth from the "white man" to "black man" appearances, recording the marked differences in the way apparently polite people displayed their true feelings when they suddenly saw him as a member of the "other" race.
This is an easy book to recommend, and I only wish Griffin was still alive to update his comments and give his observations of how America appears now compared to four decades ago.

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