The idea upon which John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” is based had haunted him for several years until he finally started writing the book. For many years Griffin had wondered that if a white man became a black, what kind of changes in his life he would have to make. He basically wanted to get a firsthand perspective of the everyday life of the black minority. John Howard Griffin, who was born white, actually medically altered his skin tone to become black. Griffin’s book is an autobiographical account, a memoir of his personal experience during the ten months after artificially becoming a black man. In the book he talks about the positive and negative aspects of everything that he experienced after his drastic transformation.
“Black Like Me” is not a novel; it is an autobiographical memoir, so the themes of the book do not originate from Griffin’s artistic creativity but rather from his personal experiences and distinct opinions. This is why the book is quite simple. Griffin discusses a majority of the important themes in the book at length during his long, thoughtful diary entries. Of course, the question of identity and how it relates to race is the most central theme of the book. Griffin (temporarily) rids himself of his white identity and starts living as a black man in his pursuit of social justice for African-Americans in the United States.
Griffin seemingly wants to understand what it is like for blacks to be living in America by getting a firsthand experience of the troubles and hindrances they face. However, as later in the book, Griffin ends up learning a lot about himself as a result of the drastic change. Griffin panics when he sees the reflection of a black man in the mirror for the first time. He feels a sense that he is someone else and that his identity is gone. In the next couple of weeks Griffin constantly endures destitution, hardships, and the unjust treatment of the African-American society during segregation. He finally manages to recognize his new identity as a black, and he accepts the many difficulties and the fewer opportunities that his new identity will bring him.
In “Black Like Me,” Griffin writes about various difficulties that he and other blacks had to face in America during that time. He writes about how difficult it was for blacks to find food and shelter, how they had to look for specific restrooms that they could use, and how difficult it was for them to carry out daily activities. He writes about the interference of racist whites in the lives of blacks and the physical violence they constantly suffered at the hands of these whites. The difference in the behavior of blacks and whites in each other’s company as a result of which neither race understands the other is another important theme of the novel. For instance, the whites are courteous and respect Griffin when he was still a white man, while the blacks were afraid of him and mistrusted him. On the other hand, most of the whites start hating him and are hostile towards him when he becomes a black man, while the blacks treat him generously and welcomingly.
However, as a black man Griffin also experiences a remarkable personal change. Griffin’s book reveals that in a racist society, race is a critically important factor of identity, and that a person’s skin color largely determines a person’s position in the world. “Black Like Me” is not a long book, but because of the narrative structure of the book, Griffin manages to successfully convey the social message of his experience. Largely, Griffin’s book serves as a means of listing the different forms of racial oppression that the African-American minority had to suffer in the United States. The only positive experience that Griffin has while living as a black man is the remarkable generosity he receives from blacks and the sense of unity among blacks that he gains.
Nonetheless, the existence and flourishing of good people even in an environment that is full of racism is another important theme in Griffin’s book. Griffin gives examples of people like P.D. East and Sterling Williams to prove that even though a person’s spirit can get distorted by racism, the ability of a person to love and be kind cannot be demolished. As the book ends, Griffin argues that the only way society can be changed for the better is through love and kindness. Griffin is especially against violence and expresses his opposition of black supremacy, which he also regards as racism.
Griffin wrote “Black Like Me” during a very critical period of the American history. During the 40s and 50s, the Civil Rights Movement was starting to take form, and Griffin’s book is an amazing journalistic and sociological investigation of racial relations in the South during those years. In 1961 when Griffin’s book was published, not only did it prove to be unbelievably revolutionary but also resulted in significant controversy as well. In fact, his own white people persecuted him for betraying his own race. Even though Griffin wrote the book with the intention of seeking social justice, but even today when American has a black president, social justice for minorities is still lacking.
Griffin, J. H. Black Like Me. 1st ed. 1. San Antonio: Penguin Press, 1977. Print.