Black Like Me is a non-fiction book written by John Howard Griffin about what a black, middle-aged man has to go through every day in the Deep South. To find out what it is like to be a Negro, Griffin changes his skin color to that of a black. During his experiences, Griffin keeps a journal and that is what this book is. Black Like Me is a journal of Griffin’s feelings, experiences, pains, and friends.
The setting of Black Like Me is intensely important. The setting starts out on October 28, 1959 in Mansfield, Texas. The setting in Black Like Me is so important because if the setting is any other place than the Southern United States then the plot is completely different. If the setting is in the north, then the issue of racism is not known. It is the south that is dealing with problems of racism.
The setting changes a few times due to Griffins moving so much. The setting later moves to New Orleans, Louisiana and then on to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Griffin then travels to Mobile, Alabama and from Mobile to Montgomery, Alabama. From there, Griffin moves to Tuskegee, Alabama and then on to Auburn, Alabama which leads Griffin to Atlanta, Georgia. Griffin travels to New Orleans, Louisiana and finally, to the hometown of Mansfield, Texas.
With each different city which Griffin travels to there are different problems, which Griffin must face. In the first city, Griffin’s problems are mild but as time goes on and Griffin travels deeper and deeper into the south, the problems become more in-depth. The problems in the cities range from as small as having colored/white bathrooms to a white mob nearly killing a Negro. At one point in Black Like Me, a problem on a bus traveling to Hattiesburg, Alabama arises.
At a rest stop on the way to Hattiesburg, the bus driver lets all of the whites off but refuses to let the Negroes off. Here is a quote from the scene: ‘I stood on the bottom step, waiting. The driver turned back to me. \”Where do you think you’re going?\” he asked, his heavy cheeks quivering with each word. \”I’d like to go to the restroom.\” I smiled and moved to step down. He tightened his grip on the door facings and shouldered in close to block me. \”Does your ticket say for you to get off here?\” he asked. \”No sir, but the others—–\” \”Then you get your ass back in your seat and don’t you move till we get to Hattiesburg,\” he commanded’.
The most essential character in Black Like Me is John Howard Griffin. Griffin looks different as a Negro than he does as a white. Griffin as a white is muscular with light hair and fairly tall but Griffin as a Negro is ‘fierce, bald, and very dark’ and is also dresses well. Griffin is a gentle, kind man who will do almost anything to stop racism. In Black Like Me, Griffin goes to the limit.
Griffin has a wife and three children. Griffin is most curious about how his friends and other white men would treat him as a Negro as opposed to a white man. His inner most thought is this: ‘If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?’ When Griffin is a Negro, he must overcome the temptation to get angry or to lash out at another man.
This is necessary because the reactions of white men will be different if the man is angry or not. Griffin faces many problems while he is a Negro in the Deep South. One of the problems that Griffin faces is walking blocks and blocks to find a restroom. Also, Griffin must walk nearly the same distance to get to a place where Negroes can eat and all that the small caf’s serve to Negroes is rice and beans. No job is available for Griffin, which is yet another problem.
One more problem is that at one point Griffin cannot find a place to cash a travelers check. This instance is: ‘Finally, after I gave up hope and decided I must remain in New Orleans without funds until the banks opened on Monday, I walked toward town. Small gold-lettering on a the window of a store caught my attention: CATHOLIC BOOK STORE. Knowing the Catholic stand on racism, I wondered if this shop might cash a Negro’s check. With some hesitation, I opened the door and entered. I was prepared to be disappointed. \”Would you cash a twenty-dollar travelers check for me?\” I asked the proprietress. \”Of course,\” she said without hesitation, as though nothing could be more natural. She did not even study me’. These are just a few of the problems Griffin faces in Black Like Me. Many more are to come.
John Howard Griffin uses description as much and perhaps more than dialogue. An example is’ Long talk with the Reverend Samuel Williams in his living room. Forceful man, but quiet, of fine intellect. Professor of Philosophy. \”I spent years,\” he told me, \”studying the phenomenon of love.\” Most of the language in Black Like Me consists of long uncommon words such as in the following sentences: ‘The grotesque hypocrisy slapped me as it does all Negroes’. ‘They yelled obscenities at me.
A satsuma (tangerine) hurled past my head and exploded on a building’. I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom any man could deprive another of anything basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room’. John Howard Griffin’s sentences are long and at times run on for entire paragraphs but on the other hand, Griffin has sentences short enough to be fragments. In Black Like Me, the reader is immediately thrown into wondering what will happen to Griffin from the catchy phrases used: ‘For years the idea haunted me, and that night it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?’ In Black Like Me, there is a short preface (about one page long) which summarizes the plot of the book. The plot of Black Like Me is not out-dated and occurs even today.
Setting, plot and character detail are all absolutely important details of Black Like Me, and could not survive without these aspects. Setting changes quite a bit as compared to other books setting almost never changes. Griffin was, in a way, sketzophrenic in which he possesses two separate personalities and two separate bodies. Racism is still a problem in today’s society and people like Griffin continue to try to end racism. Hopefully someday racism will end forever