Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Signet; 35th anniversary edition (November 1, 1996)
“This may not be all of it. It may not cover all the questions, but it is what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.”
This is the story of a curious white man who disguises himself as a black man in 1959 and enters the Deep South. It is a true story written in the form of a journal, which automatically drags the reader in and forces the reader to experience the events recounted in each entry. One of the best, and most interesting, books I’ve ever read, Black Like Me is a revealing account of the life of an African American living in the South after segregation and racism has supposedly disappeared.
When I first saw this book, it really appealed to me because I myself am white and have always wondered what it’s like to be of a different color in a white-dominated world. As I read Black Like Me, I became more and more concerned about the direction the world has gone and where it is headed. Things that happen to Griffin still happen today, even though we claim that we are no longer racist and that everyone is equal. And it’s not just Caucasians versus African Americans, it’s people of all races with my-race-is-better-than-yours notions and stereotypical thinking. Heck, there are even religious sects battling each other in the name of their god, even though they have the same nationality and race. But that’s another matter altogether.
Like me, Griffin was curious about what it would be like to be African American living in the South. He went to New Orleans as a white man, and, while there, visited a dermatologist and got pills to help darken his skin. They work slowly, though, so he stained his skin to achieve a dark chocolate color. He then shaved his head, and his transformation was complete.
He experienced New Orleans the same man he had always been, with the same clothes, the same demeanor, the same education, the same language. The only change was his skin, yet he was treated completely differently. The Caucasians now ignored him and treated him as though he didn’t exist. The African Americans now treated him like a brother.
Despite having the same education he had before, Griffin could not get a good job, all that was available to him were menial jobs the white man would never want to do. He is forced to go to “black cafes” and “black restrooms”, sometimes forced to travel long distances just to reach one of these. And this is just in New Orleans, one of the most tolerant cities in the South at that time.
He experiences countless examples of open hostility from the whites and feelings of brotherhood from the blacks. He learns to accept the oppression his fellow white men have forced upon him, and even develops the feelings and reactions of African Americans, finding it easier to just smile and obey and pretend to not even exist.
After six months, Griffin returns to his old life and writes a controversial article about his experiences. Again, he is confronted with open hostility from Caucasians and brotherly sentiments from African Americans, this time as a white man in the North.
This book is excellently written. It draws the reader in like a rose draws a nose, and then bites back like a bumblebee hidden within the petals. The accounts of the horrors of racism make the reader really think about the current situation in the world, and make them question exactly how far we’ve really come.