Black Like Me shows the strained relationship in the 1950s Deep South

Susannah Bennett, Staff Writer

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As I skimmed the list of AP US History extra credit books, I stumbled upon the Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Usually, I would have simply written it off as just another boring history book, but desperate for a better grade in the class, I decided to read it. I found that once I finally cracked open the cover of the book, I was unable to put it down. The powerful inspiration and perspective of the book took me by surprise, provoking a realization of what black lives were like in the 1950s. Though that may seem like an average plot with already uncovered truths, one of the most impactful and intriguing parts was that the experiences told in the book were true accounts of what the author went through when he disguised himself as a black man.

The book starts off with Griffin animatedly talking to both his family and a specialist about his plans to temporarily darken his skin tone to fully understand how black people were treated in the Deep South. His excitement later turns to weariness, confusion, and discomfort as he experiences the pure hatred and resentment radiating off of most white people he meets throughout the course of the book. The treatment that Griffin receives during his time as a “black man” spans on a scale from kind, black strangers to hateful and antagonizing white folk. Interestingly enough, he constantly wonders how each person he meets would treat him if they knew his true skin color. Would the resentful bus driver have closed the doors right in his face if he knew that Griffin was a white man? Would the many welcoming black people have shown him such generosity if they knew that he wasn’t a fellow black person?

They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms…”

— John Howard Griffin

With each twist and turn of the story, my heart hurt for all people that actually experienced the trials described in the story. I think what is most moving about Black Like Me is the idea that a white man finally faced the burdens of being a black man and was astounded by what he found. With every Southern city Griffin visits, he experiences first-hand the tension between black and white people. His heartfelt emotion practically springs off the page as he is slowly worn down more and more, and even the smallest of tasks were unnecessarily complicated by racist white people.

As a surprisingly impactful read, Black Like Me was a revolutionary yet amazingly truthful in its real-life portrayal of the relationship between different races. Although I only discovered this book out of sheer desire for a better grade, the book shone a new light on the ever present issue of the treatment of black people. The epic situation wasn’t clear till the book made both the author and the reader open their eyes and realize the complete weight of the issues. 

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