Black like Who? In the story “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, the author finds himself in the middle of the controversial fight of segregation in the south. Through the use of tone, Griffin experiences racism many times throughout his journey as he questions his own identity.
When Griffin first looks into the mirror and sees a black man, Griffin feels a sensation of panic, a sense that he has lost his identity and no longer recognizes himself. After a couple weeks of enduring the very constant racism, poverty, and difficulty of black society during segregation, Griffin has a new identity as a black man: “Do you suppose they’ll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?”(4). Now when he looks in the mirror, he sees a black man with a defeated look, a man who knows that his days will be difficult and his opportunities will be so few. Tone is used here to emphasize the fact that being a man of color in the south is something that people look down upon heavily, this theme of racism is very evident throughout the story.
The extraordinary personality change that Griffin undertakes as a black man is a powerful testament to the crucial importance of race as a factor of identity in a racist society, where one’s position in the world is largely predetermined by the color of one’s skin. Griffin writes about the difficulties of finding food and shelter as a black man; the humiliation of not being able to find a restroom that blacks are allowed to use; the difficulties of performing basic actions like riding a bus, cashing a check, and sitting on a park bench without being interfered with by whites; the dehumanizing white obsession with black sexuality; the stench, filth, and ugliness of life in the ghetto; and the constant threat of physical violence at the hands of racist whites. One example of racism is seen when Griffin is confronted on the bus and the woman declares, “They’re getting sassier every day” (22). Griffin is clearly humiliated as he realizes that no white person would want to sit next to a black man. The tone used by the woman in this conversation is very dismissive because she sees that white people want to be segregated from blacks and Griffin doesn’t understand that because he’s used to being seen as a white man.
Another time Griffin is witness to racism is when Christophe states ” ‘I’m not pure Negro,’ he said proudly. ‘My mother was French, my father Indian. … She was Portuguese, my mother—a lovely woman,’ Christophe sighed” (57). Christophe, a light-skinned black man Griffin meets on the bus to Mississippi, feels superior to other blacks because he has mixed white and Indian blood. He insults the black people on the bus. Griffin feels sorry for Christophe, a man obviously consumed by hatred for his own race. The tone of Christophe in this scene is sorrowful because Christophe is ignorant to his own race, he feels that because he has relations to other races because of his family that he should not be compared to the fully black people on the bus.
This Theme of racism is seen again here because Christophe, a man of multiple ethnicities, tells the others that they are lower than he is even though he is the same color as they are. This relates to Griffin because Griffin is not actually black, people only view him as black because of his skin color, Griffin feels the opposite of Christophe although because he believes that they way people view him is the way that he should be treated. This scene is very important to the story because it shows that Americans during this time period are all against each other in one way, they are all trying to make themselves believe they are better than another person of color. An important theme of the novel is that blacks and whites are forced to behave so differently in one another’s company that neither race has any real understanding of the other. As a white man, Griffin receives more respect and courtesy from other whites, and suspicion and more fear from blacks; as a black man, he always receives hatred, racism, and hostility from most whites, and warmth and generosity from blacks. Throughout the Story the tone is very demeaning towards the black man, rarely is there any scene in Griffin’s journey where blacks are glorified in any way. People of color are always told that they are worthless to society and that they are a burden to the white man. This extraordinary generosity and sense of black solidarity is one of the only positive elements of Griffin’s experience as a black man, which frequently leaves him depressed, confused, and full of self-hatred.
Nevertheless, another important theme of the story is that even in an environment defined by the evils of racism, good people can and do exist and flourish. Whites like P.D. East and the construction worker from Alabama, and blacks like Sterling Williams and the mill worker, all offer proof that even though racism can warp the human spirit, it cannot destroy the human capacity for love and kindness. In the end, Griffin explicitly argues that love and tolerance are the only catalysts capable of changing society for the better—he is especially opposed to violence and the reactionary black supremacist movement put into motion by Malcolm X, which he considers another form of racism, likely to end in more violence and more misunderstanding.