46 pages 1 hour read

John Howard Griffin

Black Like Me

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide


Black Like Me is a sociological memoir written by John Howard Griffin in 1960. It takes place in 1959 in the deep South of the United States during the end of the segregation era. Griffin, a white man, assumes the appearance and life of a Black man and records his experiences in an attempt to create understanding and bridge gaps between Black and white Americans. Black Like Me was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction in 1962, and Griffin’s account received worldwide attention at the time. The memoir explores The Psychological Effects of Discrimination, The Illusion of Racial Differences, and The Nature of Human Identity as it relates to race and social relationships. Griffin also examines The Relationship Between Justice and Morality in the fight for desegregation, dignity, and equality.

This guide references the 1961 New American Library edition.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide contain detailed discussions of racism and violence motivated by racism, including references to lynching and suicide. The source material includes outdated and offensive racial terms and slurs, which are reproduced in this guide only via quotations.


John Howard Griffin begins his account by noting that it is as accurate as he was able to make it and that his experiences are, to the best of his knowledge, indicative of what the average Black person experienced during the era of segregation in the southern United States.

At his parents’ farm in Mansfield, Texas, Griffin considers how he might help to bridge the gap between Black and white people in the United States. He concludes that he should impersonate and live as a Black man in the South to find out what it is like. A friend at a local Black magazine agrees to fund Griffin’s trip in exchange for the rights to publish Griffin’s experiences.

Griffin says goodbye to his family and makes his way to the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he consults a dermatologist to help him change his skin tone. The dermatologist agrees to give Griffin a medication used to treat vitiligo and suggests that he tan under an ultraviolet (UV) light but advises Griffin that his decision to live as a Black man will only bring him harm. After four days of UV and pigmentation treatment, Griffin doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror. He feels uncomfortable and knows that his entire life is about to change.

Griffin finds a modest room for the night, conversing with two friendly Black men in the communal bathroom. The next day, he comes across a creole restaurant where a man points him to the nearby Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the man warns him that bathrooms available to Black people are sparse in the area. On the trolley, Griffin notices that white passengers refuse to sit beside Black passengers, and when he invites a white woman to sit beside him, she looks at him accusingly and complains to another passenger. Black passengers look at Griffin scornfully, as though he is doing them no favors by succumbing to the authority of white people.

Griffin finds Sterling, a shoe shiner that he met a few days prior, and reveals his disguise. Sterling is thrilled about the experiment and more than willing to help Griffin. Griffin works as a shoe shiner for the day, observing how customers treat him and eating lunch with Sterling and his coworker. While out for a walk, Griffin is stalked by a white teenager who insults and threatens him. Griffin is moved by the generosity of local Black people and he speaks with a man who laments the state of education and violence within Black communities, noting that Black people have become desperate and hopeless. On his way home that night, the bus driver refuses to let Griffin off the bus until eight blocks past his stop.

Griffin spends a week looking for work and walking miles to meet basic needs like drinking water or using a washroom, endeavors that become harder as time goes on. He notices anger and resentment in the air around him, and when a Black man in Mississippi is lynched before his trial, the entire community reacts with anger and hurt. Griffin decides to go to Mississippi to observe the situation firsthand. The bus driver does not allow the Black passengers to get off to use the washroom, which is torturous, but they eventually arrive in Hattiesburg.

Griffin is directed to a safe place to stay and feels like he has landed in hell on earth. Griffin contacts a friend and journalist, P. D. East (“P.D.” in the text), who takes him home for the night. P.D. encourages Griffin to read his autobiography, which details P.D.’s gradual moral transformation and drive to spread the truth about racial discrimination. Two days later, Griffin returns to New Orleans, where he and P.D. meet with the dean at Dillard University. Griffin then goes to Biloxi, Mississippi. He hitchhikes along the coast and finds that each white man who picks him up stereotypes and degrades him, wanting to discuss his sexual habits and even his genitalia. In Alabama, a Black man takes Griffin to his small home, where they share a bed for the night. Griffin is moved by the man’s disposition, as he believes that loving white people is the only way to gain their respect. In Mobile, Alabama, Griffin notices there are even fewer places willing to serve Black customers and that every washroom and glass of water is further away than the last. He is rejected while looking for work, as companies are actively trying to weed out their Black workers.

Griffin hitchhikes through the swamps. A white man turns the topic of conversation to the Black women he has paid for sexual favors, adding that Black people who step out of line face consequences in Alabama. Griffin is picked up by a friendly Black man next, who brings Griffin to his home. The man lives in a dilapidated, two-room home on the swamp with six children and his wife, all of whom greet Griffin like family. Griffin is moved by the experience but, thinking of his own children, is saddened that the man’s children have such struggles ahead of them simply because of their skin color.

The next day, Griffin decides to gradually transition back to his original skin tone. In Montgomery, Griffin witnesses Black resistance and less passivity than in other cities, which gives him hope but also bewilders him. As he reenters society as a white man for the first time in weeks, he notes tense stares from Black people and the casual friendliness of white people. However, Griffin finds no joy in his renewed freedom of movement and privilege and that most white people only want to complain about Black people’s resistance. Griffin passes through several areas under the guise of a Black man and as a white man, noting how he is treated in the opposite manner depending on which skin tone he presents.

Griffin then visits a monastery to heal and rest from the tension of the past few weeks, before making his way to Atlanta to meet with a photographer and compile interviews of Black community leaders. Griffin finds Atlanta to be comparatively progressive, a place where Black people are finally achieving positions of respect and power.

After completing the project, Griffin and the photographer return to New Orleans to photograph Griffin in disguise in the areas he frequented before. After returning to Mansfield, some of Griffin’s writings are published in the magazine, attracting international attention. He is interviewed by several media outlets and publishes his memoir. Griffin and his parents begin receiving threats from locals in Mansfield, and an effigy of Griffin is hung on Main Street. His parents leave the country for their own safety, and Griffin eventually leaves with his family as well. He looks to the future with the hope that the goals of Black civil rights activists can be achieved without the need for violence or revenge.

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