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

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NOVEMBER 8, 1959


Summary

Today is the authorís first day as a Negro and he experiences first hand, the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life in the ghetto. Since he is looking for a place to stay, a friendly Negro directs him to the Negro YMCA in town and so the author boards a bus to get there. In the bus he is cruelly humiliated by a white woman to whom he courteously offers an empty seat next to him -- an act resented by the other black passengers in the bus.

He meets his shoe shine friend, Sterling Williams, who does not recognize him at first, but is delighted when Griffin tells him about his experiment and even promises to keep it a secret. The author wants to shine shoes and then Williams suddenly notices the golden hair on his hands which could reveal his white identity. So he takes him to a Negro toilet to shave his hands. All day at the shoe shine stand, the author meets many customers -- whites, Latin Americans and blacks as well, and learns about them while shining their shoes. Later, while going out to have his dinner, he is stealthily stalked by a white bully, whom he fortunately manages to frighten away by calling his bluff and thus escapes unscathed. He remembers the doctorís words, "Now you go into oblivion," which sums up his varied experiences on his first day as a black man in America.


Notes

In todayís entry the author graphically describes his very first full day as a Negro in the ghetto. The description is very stark. The author, for the first time, smells the odor of despair all around, which is unbearable, even for the blacks. This is clear from the fact that a friendly black man confesses how he often escapes to the white part of town; just to get away from the ghetto to some place that is decent and get a smell of clean air. He also informs the author how, because of racial segregation, a Negro often has to walk literally halfway across town just to find a toilet that he can use, or get a glass of water to drink. At times, he might even have to enter a Church to pray that he soon find a toilet.


The next entry is a graphic description about the rabid. white racism that the author encounters from a white woman passenger in a bus. The author here also gets an insight into the black psyche. Even though the other black passengers resent his act of courtesy to the white woman, they do not "eye" him with anger, but with astonishment that any Negro could be so stupid. This is an example of their deep sensitivity and solidarity.

Another example of the sensitivity of the Negroes to one another is the character of Sterling Williams. He does not recognize the author at first, but later is very excited with his experiment and promises to keep it a secret. He even gives Griffin a job of letting him shine shoes with him. He even saves Griffin from falling into trouble when he warns him about the "golden hair" on his hands that could reveal his white identity, and asks him to go a Negro toilet to shave his hands. Here one will also notice how Griffinís skin color has affected Sterlingís language towards him. When referring to himself and the author, Sterling often uses the phrase "we Negroes." The feelings of brotherhood among the blacks is also evident in the way in which Sterling and his friend Joe, let Griffin become a part of their lives and share their meals with him.

The next part of the entry is the authorís very vivid description of his experiences as a Negro shoe shine man, when he begins talking and thinking like any other black. However the most dramatic description is especially of the whitesí hypocritical, double-faced morality. The whites have no hesitation or shame asking where they can find Negro girls. And yet, all of them conveniently believe that the Negroes are people of such low morality that nothing can offend them. Hypocrisy personified!

Then there is an example of the authorís very powerful description of his environment; the sharp contrast between the squalor and clutter of the street in the black ghetto and the deep silence and soft warm light from the magnificent stained glass windows of a Church. The peace and quiet also nostalgically remind him of his home, full of light and talk, in grim and dim contrast to his loneliness here and now, as a Negro.

The next part of todayís entry is the authorís education by other educated and influential blacks, about the deep crisis and contradictions within the blacks as a whole. He notices how some blacks actually work against one another instead of together and how others work hard, not to boost one another, but only to please and flatter the whites and thus get their attention.

The final part of this dayís entry is a chilling description of racist terror. On his way out alone to have dinner, a strong muscular, young white bully stalks behind the author on a deserted street. For the first time the author tastes fear and despair during the pursuit, which is deadly, nightmarish and diabolic. But fortunately, as he had been trained in judo, he decides to challenge the bully, who then disappears. The author is left wondering if this would have happened to him if he were a white man?

Thus, the authorís first day as a black man is a day full of momentous happenings; good, bad and ugly, his fate now as a "nigger."

 


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