Black Like Me – A Book To Revisit if You Want to Understand the Meaning of “Nobodiness”

John Howard Griffin - after the darkening skin treatment
John Howard Griffin – after the darkening skin treatment

• The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro.
John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

“…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., The Letter from Birmingham Jail


In addition to my work preparing and delivering synopses of business books, I read books on social justice and poverty in order to present synopses to the participants of the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare.  I think, if I may be so bold, that we all should occasionally read an book dealing with such themes/issues…

black_like_me200Sometimes, we look at an older book.  This past week, we looked at the classic Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.  If you do not know the book…   well, you really should.  Mr. Griffin, a white man from the Fort Worth, Texas area, decided that the only way for white people to grasp what the life of the “negro” was truly like was for one of their own, a white man, to become a negro.  (Note:  the word “negro” was the word used in that era, and throughout his book — first published in 1960).

So, he went to a dermatologist, successfully darkened his skin so that he could “pass” as a black man, shaved his head (his hair would not have “passed”), and set out on a journey as a black man throughout the south.

New Orleans was “bad;” Mississippi was much worse.  Dr. King’s famous phrase on “nobodiness” (see above) is almost incomprehensible to a white person, especially a younger white person, without reading Black Like Me.

My ten page handout is filled with revealing excerpts from the book.  Here are just a few:

  • What is it like to be the Other?  …what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.
  • …if black men did not, in those days, play the stereotyped role of the “good Negro,” if he did not do his yessing and grinning and act out the stereotyped image, then he was immediately considered a “bad Negro,” called “uppity, smart-alecky, arrogant,” and he could lose his job, be attacked, driven away.
  • There are thousands of kinds of injustice but there is only one kind of justice – equal justice for all. To call for a little more justice, or a moderately gradual sort of justice, is to call for no justice. That is a simple truth.
John Howard Griffin - as he normally looked
John Howard Griffin – as he normally looked

If you were to read (hopefully, it would be a “re-read”) this book, you would marvel at and be disgusted by the way white people treated black people.  The stories in the book are just…  well, disgusting.  For example:  on one cross state bus trip, Mr. Griffin and the black passengers were not allowed off at a rest stop – though all the white passengers were.  Imagine, riding hours on a bus, with no bathroom on the bus, and no rest stop allowed for you, while other passengers on the same bus were allowed off at the rest stop…  This is only one of many stories such stories chronicled by Mr. Griffin in his book…

And such stories are universal, in place after place, and sadly, across the centuries.  From the book:

The Negro. The South. These are the details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and the detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any “inferior” group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same.

Really, I encourage you to read this book.  And then, think about the ongoing struggle of people and groups who are seen as, and treated as, the “other,” just as Mr. Griffin experienced as a black man in the American South of 1959-1960.

Here are my takeaways, which I included in my synopsis handout.

1.  I’m not sure the white person/teacher/speaker can ever quite be a spokesperson on American racism with any credibility at all.

2.  The black person really does face a different set of injustices/challenges than anyone else in this country.  The white person is to blame for this!

3.  Things are much less bad today.  But it (the problem) is not fixed!

If you read the book, you would add your own takeaways.  But I think you would grasp more deeply just how much the deck was stacked against an entire group of people.  And, then I also suspect you would come to realize that there is still so much work to be done.


Here is the trailer for the 1964 movie, Black Like Me.  Mr. Griffin is played by actor James Whitmore.  The trailer includes the bus rest stop scene.

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