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Revisiting Black Like Me by John Griffin

Updated on March 13, 2018
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, 1959
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, 1959
John Howard Griffin,   June 16, 1920 - September 9, 1980)
John Howard Griffin, June 16, 1920 - September 9, 1980)
American Civil Rights Movement
American Civil Rights Movement
Police Profilng?
Police Profilng?
We have come a LONG way...
We have come a LONG way...

Have We Really Advanced in Race-relations?

I recently listened to the audio book, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and I am amazed by the profound effects that it has on me. I have gone through the gamut of emotions from crying and sobbing uncontrollably to laughing and shaking my head in recognition of some of the feelings and emotions he describes so well. Why did I read this book? I heard about it several years ago, but it did not stir much interest at the time. I thought that I did not want to be reminded about a past that continues to be a stain on the human condition. Jim Crow America was so dehumanizing to African Americans that many people, black and white would rather forget. Little did I know that this book would touch me so deeply as well as help me to label some of the experiences that I have occasionally encountered in the last twenty years. Experiences that have sometimes left me thinking how much worst it must have been for blacks living in North America prior to late 1960s.

I listened to the audio book in small doses as I felt that listening for long periods would become intolerable. Since starting this book, I have been constantly thinking about the experiences of diminishing humanity that Griffin so eloquently described in the pages of the book. I have realized how racism damages the psychic of both the oppressed and the oppressors. I am beginning to see how my childhood to young adulthood was very sheltered. Growing up in a country where I was not aware of the disparities of being black in the world was indeed a blessing or was it? As a matter of fact, I did not think about my race until in my late teens; it was a none issue. This has rendered me naïve to some of the harshness of racism and the inequities and inhumanity of prejudice.

Griffin's Social Experiment: Griffin, a white man, born in Texas, transformed himself to a black man using medication, sun lamps and make up. He described his six weeks experiences as a black man travelling through the segregated American South in 1959. His travels took him through Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. His social experiment was taking place prior to the beginning of the civil rights movement. During this period race relations were at it's absolute worst in America; lynching and mob-style violence was waged against blacks in the south. There was much prejudice and brutality, based on ignorance and selfishness. Griffin's descriptions of his encounters with bigotry are shocking and moving. He described the emotions of fear, hostility and downright hatred that he felt as he encountered racism and desperation as a black man in America. He experienced poverty, destitution and feelings of frustration, hopelessness and abandonment as he traverse throughout southern USA.

Juxtaposition of being white then black: The juxtaposition of Griffin's experiences as a white man then as a black man served as a most revealing confirmation that blacks were judged by the colour of their skin, not their character. Griffin pointed out in describing his transformation to black, that although he was the same person, wearing the same clothes; the only difference was the colour of his skin; as soon as he became black he was treated less than a human. His experiences were diametrically opposing; as a white person he had freedom, he was treated with respect and courtesy. He could shop, dine and visit any establishment that he desires. He would be treated like a human; people acknowledged him, smiled at him and greeted him. Once he became a black person, it was as if he became invisible, - "..they looked at me but did not see me" no one made eye contact, no one smiled at him or acknowledged him as a person. He could not enter most establishments unless they were labelled "COLOURED"

Griffin's immersed in black culture: Griffin described his initiation to become immersed in the black culture of the south. He started adapting the mannerism of the blacks; not making eye or only speaking if spoken to. He described a kind of kindred spirit and dignity among the blacks even though they were living in desolation. He also described intra-racism among the blacks themselves; as they reflected the hatred they received to themselves as well as to the whites. Griffins described some of the political, judicial, social, economical and cultural disparities among the American blacks in the segregated south. He also mentioned some of the stereotypes about blacks that are still held by whites and even some blacks even today.

Interactions of blacks and whites:Griffin's description of the interactions of blacks and whites in public spaces, such as on buses, trains, university campuses or in other public areas, such as on the streets or post offices and workplaces revealed much fear and anger. His description gave full details of the socio psychological effects of the pre- civil rights era on the psyche of both black and white Americans. There was obvious disdain for blacks, even outright hatred, as in his description of the ticket vendor who refused to sell him a bus ticket because he presented a ten dollar bill. This is very difficult to fully comprehend if you were born in a country devoid of overt racism or were born in an era when racial equality was the order of the day. However, anyone can feel the anxiety and fear that the races felt during this era in American history as described by Griffin. I still struggle to understand what the reasons for the animosity were and why was it so pervasive. Did the whites fear that the blacks would take revenge for being treated inhumanely? Or was it hatred based on resentment to share resources?

A Sense of being Invisible: Griffin's description of a sense of invisibility resonated profoundly with me. I was reminded about my own experiences, though not quite as dehumanizing as what Griffin described in his book. I was reminded of my first experiences of taking public transportation in North America. I was shocked that no-one acknowledged me as a person. It was as if they looked straight through me as if I wasn't there. I remember how excited I was and how my smile froze on my face as I eventually realized that no one cared or even acknowledged my presence. That was a rude awakening. It still bothered me when I'm addressing someone and they do not make eye contact. It is similar to what my clients with physical disabilities express; that some people do not look at them or address them directly but rather spoke with the able-body person that they are with. They sometimes feel like they are treated as if they had a mental disability, not a physical one.

Epilogue to the Book: Griffin's epilogue to the book, Black Like Me, was written in 1976. It looked back on race relations in America since he started his social experiment in 1959 to 1976. He posits that prior to the civil rights movement; most white Americans did not acknowledge that racism was a part of the American reality. They think of racism only as Nazi suppression of Jewish people, the concentration camps, and the gas chambers. Griffins argued in 1976 that if we cannot accept that racism was a reality in America, then how can the issue be addressed? Griffins argue that while the Civil Rights movement was successful in righting some of the wrongs of racism, much more was needed; the struggle continues. Equal opportunity was necessary. It was also important for blacks to speak up and tell their stories and be acknowledged for their accomplishments. His post-civil rights evaluation of black inclusion in the political, social and economical development of America was often hampered by bureaucracy as well as deliberate measures to exclude. Blacks were sometimes not invited to consultations on how to handle race relations in their communities.

Inner City Disparities: Twenty four years after Griffin's epilogue, race relation remains a challenge in America. Even though there are more opportunities for black people to advance in all areas of life, privately and publicly, there remains some embers of racism. It is often very subtly and not easily identified; police profiling is one of the more subtly form of racism. Disparities in education, Health care and job opportunities are still challenges that not only inner city low income families encounter, but also rural low income families. Blacks are disproportionately represented in this demographics. Guns and drugs are weapons of mass destruction used in the killing of our inner city youth; as kids kill each other in their strive to be somebody. They feel hopeless and invisible that killing one another is their way of gaining recognition.

The present administration in Washington attempts to create opportunities for the poor and elderly to gain access to health care. Though public health care has its challenges, it is definitely necessary for any modern economy to offer medical assistance to their elderly population, people on fixed income, the unemployed and the poor. Opponents of universal heath care play on the fears of socialism as a mean of criticizing health care reforms in America. This reminds me of the cold war era when communism was a public fear and before that was McCarthyism.

I am profoundly impacted by the novel, Black Like Me. Even though John Howard Griffin became an exile in Mexico after the release of this book, he had eloquently exposed racism and its ugliness in America. Over the last forty years, race relations have improved in North American and the world, but we still have some ways to go. God bless America! God bless us all!


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    • profile image

      brian 2 years ago


      Do you think it is possible for a white man to change their appearance to black today? I want to seriously live as a black man how do you think I should go about doing this?

      Is there a pill? or a dark chocolate spray tan? I am so curious on what it is like to be black.

      Most black guys have white girlfriends so I am not betraying my fellow whites.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 3 years ago from California

      I also wrote a hub about "Black Like Me," and I also think there's still plenty of racism in America. Another good book in this regard that should be read is "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander. Our prisons are filled with poor, ignorant people. Why is that? Anyway, watch "Black Like Me" the movie, if you haven't already seen it. It's quite dramatic. Later!

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      B-Dwag, thanks for your comment. I know a few bi-racial people and they would probably disagree about the monster truck antedote. They feel slighted by both side of their race and so for them it is serious business this race matter. Any how people should just stop being so trivial ans consider people as human beings with feelings and purpose - no worse nor better than them.

    • profile image

      B-Dawg 5 years ago


      I heard about this book. But as a biracial man half black/half white I honestly think black skin would help the white man in today's world. Black skin is like a shield or a monster truck. It is good for protection. I think the white man would be surprised at all the fine women it attracts. That is my take peace.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      alison gerro, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. It is important tha tyou know about your history because only then can you inderstand your place within the world and know how to move forward. We all have a responsibiity to teach the next generation about their history and this should not just happen during black history month.

    • profile image

      alison gerro 6 years ago

      hi my name is alisongero and i want to know about my history to tearch the youth about there history and ABOUT





    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Kosmo, thanks for your visit and for your comment. You should read the epilogue because he does make a great argument about race relations in America. It is true, we have seen some improvements, but there is still work left to be done.

      As blacks educate themselves we will be able to continue to resist the negative impact of institutionalized racism.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks very much for this comprehensive article. I'd like to read Griffin's epilogue to his book written in 1976. I read the original version, which may not have had an epilogue. Anyway, "Black Like Me" is certainly a book that should be read by all in America. Later!

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      MT Dremer, thanks for your visit and comment. I agree, John's movement between the races definitely contrast the experience of being black or white in America. I am taking a course in race relations in the US from WWII to present and I am so amazed and flabbergasted about the violence, hate and discrimination that Americans show to one another. I just hope that we have come so far and can move forward as we consider each person worthy human with more similarities than we can imagine.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      MT Dremer, thanks for your visit and comment. I agree, John's movement between the races definitely contrast the experience of being black or white in America. I am taking a course in race relations in the US from WWII to present and I am so amazed and flabbergasted about the individual and institutionalized violence, hate and discrimination that Americans show to one another. I just hope that we have come so far and can move forward as we consider each person worthy human with more similarities than we can imagine.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 7 years ago from United States

      I read this book in high school and even then I remember it having a powerful effect on me. One of the sequences that was the most jarring was after he had been living as a black man for some time and he removed the make up to walk around town. How he was treated was a stark contrast to what we had been reading for some time before it. It was a strong book back then and it is still a strong book now.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Indeed James it is a fascinating book. It should be a required reading material at our schools. I believe that many persons remain angry and resentful about racism, to clear the air, they must face the cause of their anger. I've met many of young people who continue to be angry at the world because they have not faced the source of their anger. They need to release the pain and start a fresh.

      For the next chapter of my life, my mission is to help young people move beyond hate and anger. I will acknowledge their pain and hurt and encourage them to take responsibility for their future.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      This was a fascinating book, alright. Thank you for your heart felt review.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      habee, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Indeed it is a great book from a very interesting perspective. Griffin showed much courage to take on such assignment.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Great book and great analysis!

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Chris Eddy111, thanks for your visit and your comment. Indeed, it is a unique position for Griffin to experience both worlds, so to speak. It gives meaning to the saying "to understand someone is to walk a mile in their shoes' He lived as a black person, hence was able to write from a place of knowledge and authenticity. Being an outsider makes him even more credible.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Chris Eddy111 profile image

      Chris Eddy111 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      That's quite a unique experience that J.H.G. had. He gave himself the chance to see the Black experience from the inside out. Interesting hub and well written.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      JannyC thanks for your comment. Unfortunately people of mixed races have been often left out of the racial debate. They face even more prejudice than members of a single race; reason being they are often excluded by both sides.

      The book is worth a read. Thank God we have made some progress in race relations but the book will pull on your heart string.

      Thanks for your visit.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      fastfreta, thanks for stopping by and for your comments. Wow, you are a testament that the human spirit is resilient and can transcend to unimaginable heights. You have a BEAUTIFUL spirit.

      Indeed the book, Black Like Me is definitely a hard read, but it is worth reading. If anything, it shows how far we have come as a continent and perhaps how much still need to be done.

      I could not have read this book about twenty years ago - it would have been too raw. I listened to it in my car and whenever my son was with me, I would sensor what he hears. I do not want to give him additional baggage to deal with - he'll develop his own baggage. While I will educate him about his history, I want him to be open minded.

      Good to see you.

    • JannyC profile image

      JannyC 8 years ago

      Well written Dynamic. I think I heard of this book and maybe now I will check it out being biracial in all. For me though sometimes I was rejected by both sides.

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 8 years ago from Southern California

      What a stirring and moving review. I've never read the book and when I was younger I didn't want to, because I actually lived a lot of what he wrote about. However I Think now I can handle it. This is a very beautiful hub, I'm going to come back and reread it.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      AlexK2009, thanks for your comment about a challenging part of black history. I have relatives who imigrated to England during the 50s and they have described hellish living and working conditions.

      You are right prejudice goes two ways. However, those who OWN the means of capital and labour and prevent others based on their race from sharing the benefits are deemed as racists. So that means even though black labour was used to build the New world, the blacks did not receive much of the benefits. That is racism. Maybe the Indians feel that they are not included in decision making that impact their lives??

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      nancy_30, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. It sounds like you had great parents. Thank goodness the world is made up of good people as well as those who are not.

      Racial understanding and tolerance has improved and I am glad that my children are growing up now rather than in the 1950s & 60s.

      Griffin's book is a very emotional read, but its worth the time.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 8 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      When I was a kid in the UK my recollection is that Blacks got the worst of discrimination, followed by Indians, followed by non-eEglish whites. Scots had problems from the English too. The situation had however improved compared with the 1940s. After anti black riots by white people in 1951 the blacks started fighting back. The law then finally went into action and many of the white rioters received exemplary prison sentences.

      The background was that in the 40s the white population did not want to do menial jobs like bus conductors and so companies imported West Indians to do them. There is a similar situation with Indians in the UK at present but not much violence

      Racism goes two ways. Leicester in the UK has more Indians than non Indians and on the TV I heard one Indian woman there say "If white people come here they have to learn our language and our culture"

    • nancy_30 profile image

      nancy_30 8 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you for sharing this. I was brought up to not judge a person by their skin color. My parents always told me that there were good people and there were bad people in the world. A persons skin color had nothing to do with being good or bad. Thanks for the information about the book. I haven't read it, but I would like to.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Linda, thanks for your comments. Some issues are very difficult to write about without becoming subjective in your analysis. It is because it is so personal and painful. If anyone's right is affected, then all of our rights are affected. Gay rights is the current area of challenge, but we have lessons from the civil rights movement. Persons with physical and mental disability also have their struggles.

      Reading the book Black Like Me gave me a glimse of what life was prior to the civil rights movement. It was very painful to read how black people were treated. It was like reopening an old wound which bled some.

      I listend to the audio-book in my car and I would not allow my son to hear most of it because I knew he would have questions. So I listened when I was alone in my car and on one occasion I had to pull off the road and sobbed for about 10 minutes before regaining my composure.

      I think that I had to RELEASE the pain and now I can approach life with renewed vitality. I can open my heart to LOVE and PEACE and FORGIVENESS.

    • msorensson profile image

      msorensson 8 years ago

      It seems that the hubs of the authors I follow are piercing the parts of me that I have no idea how to deal with, DynamicS.

      I have never had to deal with and think of issues such as gay marriage, black and white, cross dressing, etc..etc, very simply because I regard them as non-issues.

      However to the majority of people, they are so I have to think of them when I read about them.

      In my opinion, it is a long ways to go.

      There has to be some kind of an event that needs to happen to awaken us all that we may ALL realize that the skin is just skin, that behind that skin is a spirit that is radiant and they are all in us, none more preferred than others.

      I call it the breath of God.

      Thank you for this informative hub, DynamicS.


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