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

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The entire novel is in the form of a diary - the authorís experiences during the period when he had temporarily transformed himself into a Negro. The autobiography can be divided into five sections structurally.

As the book begins, Griffin decides to do something really historic and unique -- temporarily become a Negro. In spite of all the warnings of his friends and well wishers, the author is adamant to cross the color line, become a Negro, go into "oblivion," and discover through his own personal experiment in truth, the effects of white racism.

The second part of the autobiography, vividly and movingly describes the three long weeks the author travels through the four Southern States of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. He discovers, how deep and widespread, white racism against the Negro is. The author here gives a very detailed description of his personal experiences as a Negro,

The third part of the autobiography describes the author going back and forth between a Negro and a white. The entries of these three weeks are short and sharp, like the authorís rapid and quick skin color changes and his acutely contrasting experiences as Negro and white.

The fourth part of the autobiography shows the author preparing his materials for publication and then going public with his story in the press, the radio and on TV.

The fifth and final part of the diary is the climax of the book, when all hell breaks loose in Griffinís hometown as his effigy is hung from the center of the main street. Griffin is also threatened with castration. For the security of his family, Griffin is forced to flee from America and go to Mexico.


Major Themes

Theme of White Racism

The book traces, with dark horror and stark brutality, the theme of white racism as it is practiced on the Southern Negroes. It describes, through the eyes of a white journalist, who temporarily transforms himself into a Negro, the blood, sweat and tears of millions of Negroes who are held in slavery and savagery by the policy and practice of segregation. Because of this inhuman, even sub-human racism, the Negroes are denied the very basics of life that the whites happily provide, even for their pets. The Negroes are forced to lead a dogís life for no other reason than the fact that the color of their skin is black. They are nameless and addressed only as "nigger" or "boy,í whatever their age or image. They are considered impure and inferior by the whites, however educated or talented they are. They are threatened and terrorized, however right or polite, courteous or generous they are.

But most crude and cruel of all is the treatment of the white racists of Negro girls and women. For the racists, the Negro female is a mere object for their leisure and pleasure, for sex and sensuality. On the other hand, if a Negro dares to even glance at a white woman, even casually, he is haunted and hounded by the white racists.

Finally, the rabid racists from among the local whites of the authorís hometown cannot even bear the sight, let alone the insights of the author after he tells the public about his experiment. Therefore they hang his effigy in public and burn a cross at a nearby Negro school and even threaten to castrate him as a warning to all. This white racism is most unbearable not just for the author, but also his wife, children and parents, and they are forced to flee the country for peace and security.

But the author hopes at the end that white racism will not breed black racism. Then together both will create a Holocaust that will destroy and devastate not just the bad and the ugly, but also the good and the innocent of the two races, Negro and white.

Theme of Negro Solidarity

A minor theme of the book is the theme of Negro strength and solidarity, even amidst all their hunger and squalor. In spite of their animal like conditions the Negroes do not become like rats or a part of the dog-eat-dog world around them. Even though they are denied education and culture, they do not stoop to the level of becoming savages or barbarians. Even when they are down and out they are never down in the dumps. Many Negroes not only offer the author food and shelter free of charge and for as long as he wishes, but also kindness and courtesy, without asking. Many of the blacks that the author meets, especially in Atlanta, have risen from the ashes to acquire name and fame, but are still very committed to their less fortunate brethren. Thus the strength of the Negroes lies in the fact that they rarely ever lose their sanity or humanity.

Theme of White Sensitivity

Another minor theme in the book is the theme of white sensitivity. The author meets quite a few whites, who are not rabid racists but are in fact very opposed to them. Some, like the journalist East, are even paying a heavy price for this. East and his family are ostracized from society and have to lead a lonely existence. The authorís wife and parents are also examples of such heroism. They stand by him steadfastly amidst all the hate and hostility. There are other public figures, like famous journalists and media men, who tell their story to the world in all its rawness. Finally, there are also thousands of other nameless and faceless whites, who shower the author with adulation and congratulations at his historic experiment in truth. All of them help to sustain the authorís faith in humanity. The book therefore ends with the hope that white racism will not result in black racism.


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