In the Fall of 1959, John Howard Griffin set out on a journey of discovery. A discovery of his own nature, as well as a discovery of human nature. With the help of a friend, Griffin transformed his white male body into that of an African-American male body. Through a series of medical treatments, the transformation was complete. He spent the next several months as an African-American traveling through the deep South of the United States. What he discovered changed his perspective of himself, as well as his perspective of others.
On his journey, John Howard Griffin encountered what could be termed the dark side of human nature. He experienced racism in its purest form. He experienced what it was like to live in squalor with a sense of hopelessness. John Howard Griffin also experienced the antagonism of those that feared him solely because of the color of his skin. His experiences even included witnessing acts of racism with the African-American community.
(1) As a white man in White America, John Howard Griffin enjoyed certain luxuries. With those luxuries, however, is an independence of sorts. A majority of white people pass through life without much notice of other white people. What he found as an African-American was that he developed a bond with other African-Americans. The type of bond that is shared between people in the With this discovery came a certain amount of hope. A hope that the human spirit will prevail through any hardship.
Through his journey, he would step back into his true white self, and enter back into the white world. He would then observe the black world with a new sense of clarity. (3) While in the white world, he encountered white people that had a desire to change the wrongs of It would seem that white society is comprised of a great deal of felicity. That is to say, a human being will naturally be drawn towards the preservation of the self. (4) During this time period, the white man viewed the black man as a threat to the white lifestyle.
As experienced through the eyes of John Howard Griffin as a black man, the white man would have many questions as to Through Griffins experience, he learned that there is no fundamental difference in the nature of the white man as compared to the nature of the black man. There seems to be a desire to survive. The white man attempted to survive by making the black man a second citizen, which is to say lesser citizen. The black man attempted to survive by banding together as a race.
This helped the race survive through a feeling of empathy. If a human feels that he is not alone, it tends to give a more powerful sense of strength. Another interesting finding from John Howard Griffin was that white children did not necessarily share their parents racial beliefs. This offers proof that racism is not a part of human nature, but rather a by-product of the human nature of the fear of the unknown. Since the white person was unfamiliar with the black man, there was a sense of fear of the black man.
Racism is merely a defense mechanism passed down from parent to child. The white men in Black Like Me would teach their children to use racial slurs like nigger in This theory is supported by the great thinker Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes theorized that man is dictated by a psychological egoism. That basically is to say that people are selfish. They put their own needs in front of the needs of It is in this manner that the white man saved himself from the black man.
The white man saw only his own need for self-preservation. He feared the black man because of the white mans ignorance of the black man. The white man feared that the black man was different than the white man, and therefore dangerous. It is from this fear that racism springs. By keeping the black man down in society, the white man can fulfill his need to survive. This is the manner in which Hobbes views of psychological egoism are supported by John Howard Griffins experience as a black man in the John Howard Griffins experiences also helped to point out many of the known African-American stereotypes held by many white people.
One scene in particular involves Griffin hitchhiking in It was November 19, and Griffin had just arrived by bus in Biloxi. He proceeded to seek transportation to his next resting spot, Mobile, Alabama. He found that transportation by hitch-hiking with several anonymous drivers. Griffin encountered a great deal of curiosity from the people that stopped to give him transportation. Most were white males, and they all bombarded Griffin with questions. Questions ranging from the size of his genitalia to his sexual prowess.
Most of the questions dealt with the stereotypes dealing with the black males Griffin describes an almost perverse pleasure that was achieved by the white males in asking such sexual questions during these episodes; questions about his past sexual experience with white women. One such driver even asked Griffin to exit the car after Griffin refused to answer one such question. This would seem to support the theory that humans are curious, and maybe even a little frightened, of the unknown.
The constant craving for answers to apparently perverse questions showed a fear of inadequacy on the part of the white male drivers. By achieving the answers to these questions the white males were possibly hoping to allay their fear that the black man was sexually Were this to be found true, this in turn would lead to further racism. If the black male was in fact found to be sexually superior to the white male, the white male would in turn continue to keep the black male down, if Hobbes theories of psychological egoism are to be believed.
By keeping the black male down, the white male could indeed maintain their superior position in society, thereby allowing them to take care of their own Towards the end of John Howard Griffins journey, he ended up in the city of Atlanta. In Atlanta, he found a different sort of spirit among the black community. It was a spirit of social change. Griffin had arrived in Atlanta feeling that the black condition in America was one without hope. It was in Atlanta that he found a glimmer of hope within the black community. (7) While in Atlanta, John Howard Griffin met with several black community leaders. Civic leaders, men of the cloth, and various black business owners throughout the city were among his audience.
Through these conversations, Griffin discovered that Atlanta had found a way to deal with the white persons suppression of the black person. Griffin found that three main ingredients were responsible for the improved racial conditions in Atlanta. First, blacks in the community were united in their purpose. Secondly, Atlanta had at the time a fair and just mayor. And finally, the city newspaper was known for taking a stand on These findings helped Griffin to understand another facet of human nature: the survival instincts of the oppressed.
Griffin found that although the Southern African-American was African-Americans came together as a people as a The black civic leaders that John Howard Griffin had encountered in Atlanta organized the black community in such a was as to give the black people a better chance at education, health care, and employment. This in turn changed the black persons outlook on life in the city. This is what gave the black person in Atlanta hope, which is necessary for survival, which in turn is a basic During this entire event, John Howard Griffin had been keeping a journal of his experiences.
He was a reporter of sorts, and this was his story. He enlisted the help of other affluent white people from the North, as well as an internationally distributed black magazine. The trip was paid for by the magazine Sepia, and in return for the trip, Griffin was to supply the magazine with the While John Howard Griffin and Thomas Hobbes are from different eras, their concepts of basic human nature were in most cases very similar.
Hobbes theorized that man is consumed by psychological egoism, which is the need to attend to ones own needs over that of another human being. Griffin found the same line of thinking in the white man while living as a black man in the Deep South. However, Griffin also stumbled upon the resilience of the human spirit in times of duress. The black people that Griffin encountered in Atlanta were determined to improve their condition. The difference between the white people and the black people in this instance was that the black people held into account the needs of other black people.
The whites seemed only concerned with It would appear as though both thinkers share similar ideas in regards to this form of human nature. It would be interesting to determine whether race makes a difference in the outcome. That is to say, what would happen if the roles were reversed? What would happen if the black person were in a position of power and the white person If these are truly examples of human nature, one could theorize that the outcome would remain the same.
(1) Black Like Me John Howard Griffin Pg. 55-59
(2) Black Like Me Pg. 116-117
(3) Black Like Me Pg. 118-121
(4)&(7) The Battle For Human Nature Barry Shwartz Pg. 41
(5) Black Like Me Pg. 85-96
(6) Black Like Me Pg. 156
(7)Black Like Me Pg. 133-139