John Griffin was born in 1920 in Texas. It was when he travelled to France as a high school student that he became aware that discrimination against the blacks was not common in Europe. This realization about the prejudices that he carried within himself as a result of growing up in the southern states of America make him a life-long opponent of racial discrimination. Black Like Me was born of that conviction that all people are the same it is the color of the skin that makes people behave in a particular way.
Relevance of the Title
The words “black like me” were taken from Langston Hughes poem, Dream variations. The words as used here are ironic as Griffin was not black. He was a white man who had turned temporarily black with the use of medications as he wanted to experience life first hand as a black man in the Deep South. The prevalent mentality was that blacks and whites were intrinsically different. This is the attitude he wanted to challenge.
The main theme is identity. Here, identity is linked to color. The author is able to take on a new identity by merely darkening his skin. He does not change his name but even those who know him well do not recognize him as all whites go by the color of his skin.
Racism takes on many faces in the book. It can be the white man who does not want blacks to use the same bathroom as they do, it can be whites who want blacks to give up their seats in buses or it can be whites who don’t want them to exist in their world.
The main character is Griffin himself who as a middle aged man embarks on a project to darken his skin and pass off as black man. His commitment to the idea that people judge the blacks only by the color of their skin made him go to the extent of darkening his skin. Only by living the life of a colored person could a white one understand the dehumanizing experience of being castigated for the color of their skin.
- D. East
Like Griffin, East was also a passionate advocate of racial equality. East was the inspiration behind the experiment to live as a black man in the South and experience discrimination at first hand.
John Griffin passionately believes in racial equality. At the same he believes that to truly understand the experience of a black in a white majority country, one has to be black. He embarks of a project to turn himself dark. With the help of a dermatologist, he starts on a regimen that employs ultraviolet light, dyes and anti-vitiligo medication that helps to darken his skin. His wife supports him in the venture and he is funded by a magazine named Sepia that supports black issues. When his darkens sufficiently for him to pass off as a black man, he looks at the mirror and is hit by a moment of panic at what seems the loss of his true identity.
Griffin expects to face oppression, abuse and prejudice during his experience but is shocked to see how deeply entrenched these feelings are. Even when he does not pose a threat to anyone, he is met with threatening stances and discrimination. On the other side the blacks whom he encounters, treat him with warmth even though he is a complete stranger to them.
- I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible.
When Griffin looks into the mirror after the treatment, the person who looks back at him is a total stranger. The John Griffin who had white ancestors had disappeared altogether. Griffin had not quite expected to see a transformation that was so complete.
- “Do you suppose they’ll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?” I asked. “You’re not serious,” one of them said. “They’re not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you’ll be a Negro and that’s all they’ll ever want to know about you.”
Before the experiment, Griffin naively believed that the blacks were treated badly because they were partly responsible it. Friends cautioned him; whites ill-treated blacks just for their color and Griffin would be treated like any other black.
- I wanted to discover what sort of work an educated Negro, nicely dressed, could find. I met no rebuffs, only gentleness when they informed me they could not use my services as typist, bookkeeper, etc
Griffin does not hide his identity in any way. He is a qualified person who is eligible for a good job but what he is offered are only lowly paid jobs that bring in little money and less dignity. Discrimination against blacks was insidious and subtle. It was not always the violent lynch mob mentality that he encountered but the polite brush off.
- She offered, as her part of the project, her willingness to lead, with our three children, the unsatisfactory family life of a household deprived of husband and father.
Griffin’s wife supported him in the venture to live the life of a black man in the south for a period. She had to support the family that was temporarily deprived of the main breadwinner. Managing the family was the best way in which she could support him.
- I read recently where one of them said that equality of education and job opportunity would be an even greater tragedy for us. He said it would quickly prove to us that we can’t measure up— disillusion us by showing us that we are, in fact, inferior. “I wish those kind souls wouldn’t be so protective. I know plenty who’d be willing to take the chance of being “disillusioned,” the proprietor laughed.
It was the opinion of the white writer that equal opportunities would disillusion the blacks because discrimination and not inferiority would ensure that blacks would be kept out of jobs though they had equal opportunities on paper. But many blacks would be happy to take the chance says the proprietor of the newspaper which had sponsored the project.