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Free Study Guide for Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin BookNotes

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The book is a real life account of the experiences of a white author, John Howard Griffin, who temporarily transforms himself into a black man for six long and intense weeks. This is so that he can personally experience black oppression and exploitation.

It begins on October 28, 1959, with the authorís dramatic decision to undergo medical treatment to change the color of his skin -- an historic act for a white man at a time of rabid white racism. The book then develops as an autobiographical diary, recounting almost on a day to day basis, till August 17, 1960, the authorís multiple experiences as a Negro; the good, the bad and the ugly that he personally encounters. How he is denied the very basics of life like food, water, rest, shelter, toilet. How even his mind is destroyed through hate and fear. How his only identity is as a consumer or laborer, or for the leisure or pleasure of the whites.

But the book also describes and depicts other men and matters. The author encounters innumerable common black men and women, who show him much courtesy and generosity even though they are total strangers. One such person is the black shoeshine man Sterling Williams, the authorís first black friend. Then he also meets a few uncommon Negro men in Atlanta, who reveal to him the heights to which they have climbed in spite of all odds and obstacles and their contribution to the black cause and their black brethren.

He also meets a few common sensible and sensitive whites, who help him pull through his moments of agony. And then there are also the uncommon white media men, not only with name and fame, but also with a conscience, who are ready to stand up for the truth whatever the cost. One such person is his friend, the journalist P. D. East, who is paying the price together with his wife and child. Others are ready to tell his story, as it is uncut and uncensored.

Finally, when the authorís experiment in truth ends, he returns home once again as a white, to bouquets from moderate and liberal whites, brickbats from traditional and conservative whites, but barbarism from racist and reactionary whites, especially in his hometown. And he is most dismayed and disillusioned when his effigy is hanged in public on the main street and a cross is burnt at a Negro school near his house and he is threatened with castration, but without any public outrage or outcry. Thus at the end of his experiment in truth, the author is forced to leave America and migrate to Mexico with his family, for peace and security. But before leaving he hopes against hope that white racism will not engender black racism, for then there will be a holocaust that will destroy even the good and the innocent.


Major Themes

Theme of White Racism
The main theme of the book is the white authorís experience of white racism, when he temporarily transforms himself into a black man. The author describes this theme of white racism as the story of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men and in the process destroy themselves. In other words, racism cruelly and completely corrupts the heart, body and intelligence not only of the blacks, the oppressed, but it dehumanizes and brutalizes even the whites, their oppressors.

Minor Themes

Theme of Black Strength
A minor theme of the book is the bittersweet simplicity and innocence of the blacks that is truly inspiring. In spite of their alienation and marginalisation, because of the policy of racial segregation and discrimination, they do not become mean or demeaning, even to their white oppressor. While to other blacks, they show deep warmth and courtesy, even if total strangers.

Theme of White Sensitivity

Another minor theme of the book is that of white sensitivity and sensibility even amidst all the white savagery. There are many whites, who do not aid or abet the racists, but show sympathy and solidarity with the blacks, even at the risk of their lives and livelihood. Amidst all the barbarism, they are a great source of faith, hope and courage. P. D. East is one such brilliant example.


The mood of the book is very startling and shocking. It is not an arid account filled with generalizations and statistics on the black problem, or an abstract scientific research study with careful compilation of data for analysis. Instead it is a stinging and scathing indictment of white society. It is grim and vehement, blunt and bitter on the theme of white racism. But it is also very inspiring and eloquent. It is an eye-opener on not only how the blacks suffer and sacrifice silently and stoically, but it also gives insights into their support and solidarity towards one another, even to strangers. It is lively, yet poignant, tragic, but even comic at times. The climax is stark and dark, hateful and hopeless. But the final outcome is hopeful.


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