John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me Analysis

Table of Content

In the Autumn of 1959, John Howard Griffin embarked on a voyage of exploration, which served as a revelation of his own identity and an unveiling of human nature. Assisted by a companion, Griffin underwent a metamorphosis by transforming his Caucasian physique into that of an African-American.

Throughout a sequence of medical procedures, the metamorphosis was successfully achieved. Subsequently, he embarked on a journey as an African-American throughout the American deep South, lasting several months. This experience altered his perception of both himself and others. Along his expedition, John Howard Griffin encountered what could be described as the negative aspects of human behavior.

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John Howard Griffin encountered racism in its purest form and also gained firsthand understanding of living in squalor with a profound sense of hopelessness. Additionally, he personally faced hostility from individuals who feared him solely due to his skin color. Griffin’s experiences further included witnessing acts of racism within the African-American community.

(1) In “White America,” John Howard Griffin, who identified as a white man, experienced privileges and luxuries. These privileges often lead to a sense of autonomy and detachment for many white individuals. However, Griffin discovered that as an African-American, he formed connections and bonds with fellow African-Americans that were previously unseen.

In the face of similar circumstances, individuals form a shared bond that instills hope in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Throughout his journey, he would rediscover his true identity and reintegrate into the white world.

Having gained a fresh perspective, he would carefully observe the “black” world, where he encountered white individuals who were determined to address the injustices within white society. This implies that happiness thrives within white society, which indicates that humans instinctively prioritize self-preservation.

(4) During that era, the white man saw the black man as a danger to their lifestyle. John Howard Griffin, a black man himself, observed that the white man had many questions about black people. (5) Griffin’s experience demonstrated that there is no inherent difference in the nature of white and black individuals. Both possess a shared instinct for survival.

The white man’s attempt to ensure his survival was by reducing the black man to a “second citizen,” that is, a diminished citizen. On the other hand, the black man strived for survival through racial unity, which contributed to their collective resilience. This sense of empathy among the race fostered a heightened feeling of strength, as it alleviated the sense of isolation that often accompanies hardships.

John Howard Griffin’s fascinating discovery unveiled that white children do not consistently adopt the racial beliefs of their parents, suggesting that racism is not inherent in humans but rather originates from fear and uncertainty when confronted with the unknown. The unfamiliarity with individuals of black race frequently induces anxiety and defensiveness among white individuals. Consequently, racism can be viewed as an inherited protective mechanism.

According to “Black Like Me”, white men would teach their children to use racial slurs like “nigger” when talking about black individuals (6). Philosopher Thomas Hobbes supports this idea by introducing the concept of “psychological egoism”, suggesting that humans are naturally self-centered.

The white man prioritized his own needs over the black man due to fear and ignorance, ultimately “saving” himself.

The white man’s fear and perception of danger associated with the differences of the black man is the origin of racism. In order to ensure their own survival, the white man oppresses the black man within society. This aligns with Hobbes’ theory of psychological egoism, which is exemplified in John Howard Griffin’s firsthand experience as a black man in the Deep South.

John Howard Griffin’s experiences helped point out African-American stereotypes held by many white people, as seen in one scene where he hitchhiked in Biloxi, Mississippi on November 19 after arriving by bus. He was trying to find a ride to his next destination, Mobile, Alabama.

While hitch-hiking with various unidentified drivers, Griffin experienced a significant amount of curiosity from the individuals who offered him rides. The majority of these people were white males, and they inundated Griffin with inquiries spanning from the size of his genitalia to his sexual abilities.

During the episodes, most of the questions focused on stereotypes about the black male’s libido. Griffin explains that white males derived a strange enjoyment from asking sexual questions of this nature, particularly concerning his previous encounters with white women. In fact, one driver went as far as to ask Griffin to leave the car after he declined to answer one of these questions. This incident seems to validate the notion that humans are naturally inquisitive about and somewhat intimidated by unfamiliar subjects.

The constant desire to find answers to seemingly perverse questions indicates that white male drivers are afraid of their own shortcomings. By seeking these answers, they may hope to alleviate their fear that black men are sexually superior. If this were proven true, it would contribute to further racism. According to Hobbes’ theories of psychological egoism, if black men were indeed found to be sexually superior, white men would continue to oppress them.

By maintaining the black male’s oppression, the white male can preserve their societal dominance, ensuring their own selfish desires are met. During his journey, John Howard Griffin arrived in Atlanta where he encountered a unique spirit within the black community – a spirit fueled by a desire for social change.

Griffin had a bleak perception of the black condition in America upon arriving in Atlanta. However, he discovered a ray of hope within the black community in this city. During his time in Atlanta, Griffin met with numerous black community leaders, including civic leaders, religious figures, and various black business owners across the city.

During his conversations, Griffin learned that Atlanta had successfully addressed the oppression faced by black individuals caused by white individuals. He discovered that there were three key factors contributing to the improved racial climate in Atlanta. Firstly, the black community was united in their purpose. Secondly, Atlanta had a mayor who was fair and just during that period.

The city newspaper was known for its stance against racial injustices. These findings helped Griffin understand the survival instincts of the oppressed, despite their suppression in Southern society. In Atlanta, black civic leaders organized the community to improve education, healthcare, and employment opportunities for African-Americans.

The black person in Atlanta had their outlook on life in the city transformed. This transformation provided them with hope, an essential component for survival and a fundamental aspect of human nature. Throughout the entire event, John Howard Griffin, who acted as a reporter, documented his experiences in a journal, sharing his story.

John Howard Griffin enlisted the help of other affluent white people from the North and an internationally distributed black magazine for his journey. The magazine “Sepia” paid for the trip, and in exchange, Griffin was to provide the magazine with the stories of his journey. Although they are from different eras, Griffin and Thomas Hobbes shared similar ideas about basic human nature. Hobbes believed that man is primarily driven by psychological egoism, which prioritizes one’s own needs over those of others.

While living as a black man in the Deep South, Griffin discovered that the white man shared the same line of thinking. However, he also witnessed the strength of the human spirit during difficult times. In Atlanta, the black people he encountered were determined to better their circumstances. The distinction in this case was that the black people considered the needs of other black people.

The common characteristic of prioritizing their own self-interest appears to be prevalent among white individuals, as both thinkers share similar perspectives on this aspect of human nature. It would be intriguing to examine whether race influences the outcome. For example, if the roles were reversed and a black individual held authority while a white person faced oppression, how would events unfold? If these scenarios truly depict human nature, one could speculate that the result would remain unchanged.

According to John Howard Griffin’s experiences, the sole distinction between white and black individuals lies in the color of their skin.

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John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me Analysis. (2018, Apr 13). Retrieved from

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