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Black Like Me: a Book About the Life of African Americans During Segregation

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“For so long as we condone injustice by a small but powerful group, we condone the destruction of all social stability, all real peace, all trust in man’s good intentions toward his fellow man.” John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me. People have always expressed their hardships in conversation with the Phrase: “If you were only in my shoes, you’d understand”, and the sad truth is some people could never be in the situation of others because of their racial backgrounds and upbringings. That is except for the outside of the box thinking of John Howard Griffin. Griffin went to great lengths to experience everyday life as a black man in some of the most predominantly racist parts of America during the height of segregation. His purpose was to inform average white Americans what it is like to be black. Griffin documented his experiences and collectively put them into a newspaper and book titled Black Like Me.

“For many years the idea haunted me, and it returned more insistently than ever. If a white man became a negro in the deep south what adjustments would he have to make’ John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me. John Howard Griffin was a white male who grew up and lived in Mansfield, Texas a southern state that upheld the Jim Crowe laws. Considering being surrounded by segregation his whole life Griffin still despised racial tension and sought to achieve racial justice for all people. His inability to experience life as a black man left him with many unanswered questions. Which is why he decided to take an extreme step and undergo a skin treatment that would turn his skin dark. Once Griffin’s operation was complete, he began the second phase of understanding the day to day struggles of a black man in the deep south. Considering that America was at the turn of The Civil Rights Movement, many southerners at the time were still treating African American’s with racism and hate, that many powerful people of the south tried to hide from the world. This inspired Griffin to expose what was happening in the African American community at the hands of white southerners. Griffin wanted to show the other parts of the world what it is like from a first-hand point of view what actual black men and women did inside their own communities. Racism between lighter skinned African Americans and those with darker skin also took place within the black community.

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Griffin’s main point throughout the book Black Like Me is that the hatred of white southerners is worse than most people throughout the country and world know. He provides his experiences to the magazine Sepia so that people across the country will understand and put an eventual end to racial oppression in the deep southern American states. Griffin chose to sacrifice his social status as a white man who could freely do anything in any part of the country, to live the life for a few months as a black drifter bumming rides and taking bus rides to cities with an extreme racial edge. Black Like Me has had a lasting impact for generations.

There are many positive aspects in the book Black Like Me it gave the world a glance at the southern oppression of black Americans living in the late 50s and early 60s. It also made an impact on the Civil Rights Movement, which at that time was just starting. It convinced many whites in un-segregated states to support the Civil Rights Movement after hearing of the wrong doings of racist southern whites. It gave many African Americans a voice telling events they may have experienced even with a white man writing them. Another extremely positive aspect is that Griffin could back to restaurants, shops, and other public places at night without taking darkening skin medication in order to see how the employees and other customers treated him after visiting the stores earlier as a black man. Seeing both sides of the racial line helps Griffin understand that even being the same person people were treated differently based on skin color. The aspect of Griffins ability to change back to a white man could also be viewed as a negative seeing that he could take breaks from ridicule and hatred even if for a few hours, whereas a black man had to endure this type of punishment throughout his entire life. Another negative aspect is the fact that Griffin reacted to some situations in different ways where a black man would react completely different. Throughout the book Griffin is very thorough and clear as he vividly describes his trip to ever minor detail. He described the multiple cities surrounding him throughout his journey such as this excerpt from his time in New Orleans at an all-black university “A green spacious campus with white buildings, and great trees streaming with Spanish moss”. This quote is just one of many extremely descriptive aspects in Black Like Me. Black Like Me is extremely relevant even today to express the true story of African American treatment in the deep south in the late 1950s. It reminds many of us how far America has come in its short 200 years. From Africans first coming over to the country as slaves, then as freed men that were still treated as less than white people, then finally becoming equals to all races in all aspects of life in all parts of the country. Today’s generations have not had to deal with the same level of oppression that had been put unto those who lived in the time of Jim Crowe laws, which in turn makes us take little things such as racial equality for granted.

Griffin used his own first-hand accounts in order to express the effect of segregation on himself, and the emotions he experienced while being treated as a black man and whenever he did not take his medicine, as a white man. He used both his points of view to see contrary to what many southern politicians of the time were saying, segregation was more evil than anyone in other parts of the country could ever know.

I would recommend the classic book Black Like Me to anyone who is interested about the treatment of African Americans during the era of segregation, it would benefit anyone studying the history of the civil rights movement as well. John Howard Griffins outside the box thinking and curiosity on the harsh treatment of southern blacks had a lasting impact on the culture of America and the world.


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