on May 7, 2000
As I write this review I have my old copy of Black Like Me in front of me. It's a Panther paperback, printed in 1964, bought by my parents, and found by my sister and myself on their shelves a few years later. I can still remember the shock when I read this, at the age of perhaps eleven, at realizing just how inhuman people could be because of something as seemingly trivial as skin colour.
Griffin spent a little over a month--parts of November and December, 1959--with his skin artificially darkened by medication. In that time he traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, finding out at first hand what it is like to be treated as a second-class citizen--or, as he says, as a tenth-class citizen. Everyone now know the story of the big injustices, the lynchings, the civil rights cases, and for most people those are now just another page in the history text book. Griffin's experiences take the daily evils of racism and thrust them in your face, just as they were thrust in his--the rudeness of the clerk when he tried to pay for a train ticket with a big bill; the difficulty he had in finding someone who would cash a traveler's check for a Negro; the bus-driver who wouldn't let any blacks off the bus to use the restrooms; the white man who followed him at night and threatened to mug him.
I've heard people worry that this is the white experience of racism: that whites can read this book and feel good because a white person felt the pain too. I'm white, so I don't know that I can judge that argument completely impartially, but I can tell you that this book profoundly shaped my views on racism, and that any book that can do what this book did for me is a book that is good to have around.
One more thing. I've said a lot about how powerful, and how influential the book is. I should add that it is also a gripping story. Though Griffin only spends a month with dark skin, by the time you finish the book it feels like an eternity.
A wonderful read, and a truly amazing story.
on October 9, 2001
John Howard Griffin offered one of the most important contributions to the Civil Rights movement when his work Black Like Me was published in 1960. Griffin approached his study on race relations in the South by asking a very poignant question: "If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make?." To answer this question, Griffin shaved his head and had his skin temporarily darkened by medical treatments and stain in order to travel through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia as a black man.
Griffin had a deep understanding of discrimination even before he began this ambitious project. As a medic in the French Resistance Army, Griffin helped evacuate Austrian Jews away from the advancing Nazis. During the Second World War, Griffin lost his sight and was forced to live with this disability for over ten years. By 1959, Griffin was a published author and a specialist on race relations. Despite such credentials Griffin "really knew nothing of the Negro's real problem." Only by becoming black did Griffin understand what it was like to live as a second class citizen in "the land of the free."
As a black man, Griffin described the variations and similarities of race relations in different areas of the South. Although some states were more "enlightened" than others, blatant acts of racism were found almost everywhere Griffin went.
In Alabama, where Martin Luther King first introduced passive resistance, Griffin endured the hate stares from whites and observed that even graduates from Tuskegee Institute would not be allowed to climb the social ladder in the South because, "whites cannot lose to a traditionally servant class." Finally, while traveling to the otherwise enlightened city of Atlanta, the simple act of a bus driver saying "Watch your step" as his passengers filed out was only reserved for whites.
Even more interesting than these experiences was the way in which Griffin was allowed to converse with blacks and whites on racial matters. Understandably, blacks were highly suspicious of whites and were often inclined to play "the stereo-typed role of the 'good Negro'" when around whites to survive in white southern society. As a "black" man, Griffin enjoyed a rare glimpse of how blacks really regarded segregation beyond the white propaganda. He also discovered the ways in which blacks assisted and supported each other against the perils of racism. In other cases, Griffin observed blacks who were ashamed of their race and who would denounce other blacks for their darker skin or shabby clothes. As a "black" man, Griffin also saw a side of whites that would otherwise be hidden if he had met them as a fellow white man. His experiences with whites while hitchhiking through Mississippi are particularly intriguing.
Despite his experiences, Griffin was surprisingly fair in his analysis. While the reader may despise the hate-filled whites in his story, Griffin did not stoop to the racist's level by denying them their humanity. Instead, Griffin made it a point to see the whites in other roles-as a parent, grandparent, church leader, and loyal neighbor. He also realized that whites who may have been sympathetic towards their African American neighbors, were pressured by southern society to continue segregation. In his epilogue, Griffin was even critical of fellow white freedom fighters who often failed to consult with black community leaders on the race issue.
Griffin's work was a landmark for his time, but weaknesses in his study were present. Griffin visited the larger cities of the South; however, a comparison of race relations between the major cities and the countryside may have created a more complete study as would a visit to other states in the South. A better explanation was needed regarding Griffin's practice of alternating his role as a black man and a white man by scrubbing the stain off his skin. At first, the reader may assume that the author could no longer handle the discrimination and longed to enter the South as a first class citizen again. Later, Griffin maintained that he was studying how the reactions of blacks and whites reversed themselves as he changed his skin color. Both reasons are valid; however, if a need to be white again was the primary explanation than an important point was made: An educated and worldly white man could barely survive in six weeks what a black person must endure every moment of his life.
on December 9, 2007
Originally published in 1961, Black Like Me is the account of how white journalist John Howard Griffin had his skin medically darkened and traveled through the Deep South as a black man in an attempt to explain the hardships black people in the South faced. It also covers the backlash against the publication of his story.
Black Like Me is a concise, fast and engaging read. The reader is often able to see things through Griffin's eyes, even as Griffin tries to see things through the eyes of others. He does an excellent job communicating the cultures of fear and despair he encountered. The entire account of his travels as a black man is riveting.
If there is any nit-picking to be done, let it be for this: at times, particularly early on, Griffin's descriptions of mundane, everyday objects and details seem forced and do not aid the narrative.
While today's racial tensions are much less overt (and much less publicized), Black Like Me still has quite a bit to say about the universal elements of human nature and the culture of racism.
on April 11, 1997
There are only a few books that have really given me a deeper understanding into the issues of the world around us. This book is one of them.
John Howard Griffin penetrates into a world that seems almost beyond belief and yet is undeniably and startlingly real. Realizations await on every page to show that the generally sheltered cultural perspective of the typical white (like myself) could not conceive the situation which confronted blacks in the south every day just a very few years ago -- as experienced by a white man who changed his skin color and dealt with the consequences.
The book is made even better by a series of stories about his experiences after returning to the world of caucausions and going on the lecture circuit about the plight of blacks in the south. He demonstrates the rationalization and close mindedness that characterizes even those who consider themselves "good people".
This book would probably be too much to accept if not for the authors remarkably unassuming and explanatory style. Rarely has such a sore subject been confronted so directly and yet so plainly.
Highly recommended. I keep having to buy new copies because people will read a few pages and want a copy.
on February 20, 1999
"Black Like Me" has to be one of the most accomplished books of all time by John Howard Griffin. This nonfictional piece of literature begins with Griffin, a Caucasian, pigmenting his skin to a darker brown, a color resembling that of an African-American, in order to feel what it's like to be an African-American. His destination proceeds throughout the South where he records his real-life experiences and encounters with other African-Americans as well as Caucasians. The transformation of his skin pigment leads him to face the discrimination and prejudice from Caucasians yet allows him to feel a sense of unity among the rest of the African-Americans. The differences of Griffins "two lives" (one being white and the other black) contrasts greatly. As a white, Griffin automatically had the opportunity of entering restaurants, shows, and other places without a problem. He remained healthy, physically, emotionally, and mentally. On the other hand, his life as a black made him lose the opportunities of a white, and therefore, Griffin became emotionally, physically, and mentally unhealthy. What does the large contrast between two lives of the same person with a different shade of skin show about human beings? Even though Griffin's experiences took place forty years ago, this book allows us to question whether society has improved and changed or not. In some ways, I believe it has, but in others, the traditional ways have dominated improvement. Unless you are a victim of prejudice today, one can finally perceive how brutal and painful prejudice and discrimination are through the mind of a white man battling the everlasting war of racism within society. -A.H., 16, IL
on July 1, 2001
I read Black Like Me because the picture on the cover intrigued me. I think now I am a better person for having read it. Just like Mr. Griffin confronted his own prejudice when looking at his reflection in the mirror, I realized too that I might be harboring baseless stereotypes. The fact that a white man darkening his skin color meant that he had to walk miles to eat or drink just forty years ago is astounding and sickening at the same time. People that are easily angered by acts of segregation or intolerance may not want to read this book because there are several instances of blind hatred. White truckers would offer John rides at night only to ask inappropriate questions about his sex life. A bus driver refused to let the black passengers off to use the restroom on a trip. I am not sure I would want to experience what life must have been like for a black person in those times. However, I am glad that John Howard Griffin did. The fact that the author happened to be extremely talented at his practice makes the reading that much better. I think everyone should read this book at some point in their lives...black, white, brown, old, or young. There are few books that can alter your day to day living, and this is one of them.
on March 31, 1998
Although it was written nearly forty years ago, this book points squarely and unflinchingly at unpleasant racial realities that are still too much with us. Taking to heart the axiom about "walking a mile" in the other guy's shoes, the caucasian Griffin altered his appearance in the late 1950's by the use of skin dye and hair treatment, so that he could spend a few weeks on the other side of the curtain of segregation that was an undisputed fact of life in the South. What he learned was not only profoundly eye-opening for him, but can be so as well for anyone who reads him sensitively today.
As a light-skinned African-American who has spent much of my life among whites, I have often observed that perhaps only their becoming black could convince most whites of the reality, the pervasiveness and the persistence of racism in America. Short of that, I would heartily recommend this venerable classic by Griffin.
Especially valuable is the Epilogue, in which the author recounts the experiences he had following the book's initial publication, when he was invited numerous places to expound his insights into America's "race problem." Time and again, he is exasperated to find that those seeking solutions to racial unrest and animosity ignore the perspective of knowledgable blacks, preferring the views of a white man who has briefly experienced blackness over those derived from decades of such experience. In this section of the book, Griffin also offers a superb brief for the value of the perspectives presented in black newspapers and other black-controlled media. His own brief sojourn into blackness had shown him that such perspectives on events are no less valid or "objective" than those coming through the mainstream (white) media, and often provide a healthy and necessary corrective to the latter. It remains true that no American can consider him/herself fully informed on the issues of the day without exposure to a variety of viewpoints, and Griffin's admonitions on the dangers of ignoring black perspectives are as true in 1998 as they were in 1958.
A sobering read, highly recommended to anyone seeking insight into the still-troubled world of American race relations. It would be a grave mistake to assume that the realities Griffin describes in this book ended with the Jim Crow laws. The only reason I would not rate it a "10" is that Griffin is no longer alive to give it a proper updating.
on April 30, 2001
This was a compelling novel that showed the true struggle African Americans in the Deep South went through against racism. It was commendably written. At times, I felt as though I could smell, feel and taste the events that Griffin described. With each new experience every detail was given. Black Like Me is a true story of a man, John Howard Griffin, who used medication and dye to change the pigment of his skin from Caucasian to African American. He went to the southern United States to find out if African Americans were actually treated differently. He then wrote an article revealing how differently he was treated when his skin was dark. This novel depicts what it was like for a black person living in the south in the 1950's. It shows the hatred, and disgust that was directed towards them for no other reason than the colour of their skin. It discusses the obstacles that they had to overcome as a race and the problems that they had within their race. Black Like Me tears at your heart. It shows how far we've come since then but also how much farther we need to go. The book ends with a fairly long epilogue explaining what has gone on since he wrote his article. It talks of great men such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what they did for the black movement. A book like this is a must read if we will ever as a human race fully judge people by who they truly are and not by the colour of their skin.
on April 3, 2005
Scooter Jones' (age 13) Review of Black Like Me
"Rest at pale evening...
A tall slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me."
In 1959, John Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, used ultraviolet rays and stain to make his white skin darker. He shaved his head, took some traveler's checks, bade his wife and children goodbye, left his Texas farm, and boarded the nearest bus to Mississippi. Griffin wanted to learn whether African-Americans really had a "'wonderfully harmonious relationship (p.7)'" (as the Southern legislators put it) with the white people of the Southern states. He visited Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia. Griffin was amazed at the things he discovered. He traveled as an African-American man for about half a year before returning home and writing Black Like Me.
When I read this book in 2005, I was blown away. I had always assumed our country is one of the world's most advanced in treating all citizens equally-and I had believed that it had been this way for a long, long time. You know, there had been slaves and everything, but we'd taken care of that, like, 150 years ago. But John Griffin showed me that I was dead, dead wrong. It was like he took me by the hand and we both plunged into an alien world, quite unlike the one I know now. He led me into the segregated South. Along with him, I felt the "hate stares" on my back. I felt the discrimination. I felt the loathing faced by African-Americans just 45 years ago. People in America today need to read this book so that they can understand a shameful, but educational, piece of our nation's history.
I really liked Black Like Me. I experienced powerfully how segregation made so much of our society off limits to to the African-American Griffin. I analyzed people's true natures based on how they treated Griffin first as white, then as black. I learned how young children had their hopes for the future robbed from them, just because of their skin color.
As a white upper middle class man, Griffin never had to worry about finding simple public things such as a bathroom, a water fountain, or a park bench. After darkening his skin, Griffin asks a black man about where to find a bathroom and a church. The man says, "'Well, man, now just what do you want to do-[pee] or pray?....Lordy, Lordy...if you stick around this town, you'll find out you're going to end up doing most of your praying for a place to [pee]...you can go in some of the stores around here, but you've almost got to buy something before you can ask them to let you use the toilet (p.24).'" At one point, Griffin has been walking all over town and needs to rest: "My legs gave out. At Jackson Square, a public park, I found a long, curving bench and sat down to rest for a moment...I looked to see a middle-aged white man across the park...get to his feet and amble toward me...With perfect courtesy he said,'You'd better find yourself someplace else to rest. (p. 45)'" At this moment, Griffin and I are both amazed at how white people feel that black individuals are lower class, and forbid them to do something as simple as sit in the same park as themselves.
As a black man, Griffin quickly learns that people will not give him the same courtesy he has taken for granted before. People he had always interacted pleasantly with when he was white now refuse to speak a civil word to him, and sometimes even try to hinder him. When Griffin tries to cash one of his traveler's checks, he becomes painfully aware of the discrimination. "I took the bus to Dryades and walked down it, stopping at the dime store where I'd made most of my purchases. The young white girl came forward to wait on me. `I need to cash a traveler's check,' I said smiling. `We don't cash any checks of any kind,' she said firmly...I went into one store after the other along Dryades and Rampart Streets...It was not their refusal-I could understand that; it was the bad manners they displayed...they would have cashed a traveler's check without hesitation for a white man. (p. 51)" Griffin feels upset that these people will treat the exact same person differently just because of his skin color. As a reader, I feel the same sense of outrage, and though painful, this remains my favorite part of the book--because it show the "double face" of racism so acutely.
Growing up, Griffin had always assumed his right to hope for a bright future. If he was smart enough, he could get into a good college, earn his degree, get a good job, and make a lot of money. He hadn't realized that African-American children could not do the same. One black man says that the crème de la crème of the African-Americans become postman or pastors, and that is only if the family can raise enough money for the child to go to college. Today's generation needs to understand the hopelessness faced by African-Americans just one generation ago.
After reading Black Like Me, I see why it is a classic. I recommend it for people ages 13 and up, because this book showed the injustices from an insider's perspective. In 2005, when our society hasn't left racism as far behind as many of us would like to think, people need to learn how it feels to face segregation, discrimination and hopelessness. John Griffin was a brave man; he could have been killed by hate groups for writing this controversial book. Americans everywhere should honor his efforts by having this book in their bookcases. It will remind us of the shameful irony in the statement: "all men are created equal."
on June 14, 2001
I grew up in the south (Atlanta and Athens, GA) in the 60's and 70's, went to public schools in which we had serious racial tension, and I've only now just read John Howard Griffin's outstanding book of investigative reporting, Black Like Me. I honestly don't understand why this book was not required reading in my junior high school; in fact, it would be a service to America even today to make it required reading for everyone. Living in the suburbs and going to newly integrated schools, black rage was inexplicable, unavoidable, and terrifying to my friends and I, but this book would have helped us by giving us a real context. There will always be minds closed to the truths presented here, but if a more vital call for compassion toward those who seem different to us but are united in humanity exists, I don't know what it might be. And herein lies the true worth of this book--not only that it documents the constant oppression of blacks in the South under segregation, but also that it documents the distances that build up between any oppressor and oppressed. Black Like Me makes completely clear that the oppressed of any class, race, ethnicity, religious orientation, sexual orientation, etc., cannot "rise above the problem" without a lessening of that oppression; and that even the best willed of the oppressors are scarcely able to even recognize the extent of the problem. The mythologizing of the "other" so overwhelms our commonalties that they are almost completely obscured. Although many whites in the deepest South spoke of blacks as "subhuman" (or at best did not speak out against such grotesque characterizations) Griffin documents the fact that many blacks in the segregated South were astonishingly and universally civil toward one another, sharing what little they had with complete strangers. This generosity of spirit was practically unknown to most whites who had no real point of contact with the black community, as black relationships with one another were decidedly different than black-white relationships.
Although the story of Griffin's changing his skin color to live as a black man in the south is totally compelling, ultimately I regretted that it wasn't longer or more detailed. Griffin was an absolutely extraordinary man, yet entirely human himself, and occasionally when situations turned too extreme he felt it necessary to retreat. At one point Griffin decides that he must go to Mississippi and so he gets to Hattiesburg immediately after a Mississippi county court rules against indicting anyone for the kidnapping from jail and lynching of a black man accused of a crime in spite of evidence gathered by the FBI. Once there, Griffin immediately finds the tension intolerable, the constant threat of violence overwhelming, and the degradation absolute. Rather than sticking with the story he calls a white friend and stays with him for a few days, then leaves. I can't fault him personally for this decision, and it certainly speaks to the horrifying environment in which he found himself, but a chance for some important journalism was missed. Similarly, the book feels truncated--after visiting Atlanta (which came off rather well at least in comparison, I'm pleased to say) Griffin winds up the project rather abruptly. He continues to suffer the consequences of his project for some time, facing threats and ostracism from his white neighbors to the point that he and his parents move elsewhere.
Griffin rather casually dropped in some shocking autobiographical statements without any follow-up: "when I was blind"--he was blinded in a bombardment and his impairment lasted for 10 years; and "It reminded me of the nagging, focusless terror we felt in Europe when Hitler began his marches, the terror of talking with Jews (and our deep shame of it)."--he's not writing in the abstract. as he worked in Resistance France helping rescue Jews. Perhaps Griffin's humility causes him to omit some of these details, but I would have liked to have understood Griffin himself a bit more, to have known how he came to the decision to live as a black man. Regardless of its minor faults, Black Like Me, a veritable cry for compassion toward one another, is a true "must-read"--it has my very highest recommendation.