Black Like Me Essay Research Paper Greg

Black Like Me Essay, Research Paper

Greg Trumbold

Black Like Me

In the Fall of 1959, John Howard Griffin set

out on a journey of discovery. A discovery of his

own nature, as well as a discovery of human nature.

With the help of a friend, Griffin transformed his

white male body into that of an African-American

male body. Through a series of medical treatments,

the transformation was complete. He spent the next

several months as an African-American traveling

through the deep South of the United States. What

he discovered changed his perspective of himself,

as well as his perspective of others.

On his journey, John Howard Griffin encountered

what could be termed the dark side of human nature.

He experienced racism in its purest form. He

experienced what it was like to live in squalor

with a sense of hopelessness. John Howard Griffin

also experienced the antagonism of those that

feared him solely because of the color of his skin.

His experiences even included witnessing acts of

racism with the African-American community. (1)

As a “white man” in “White America”, John

Howard Griffin enjoyed certain luxuries. With

those luxuries, however, is an independence of

sorts. A majority of white people pass through

life without much notice of other white people.

What he found as an African-American was that he

developed a bond with other African-Americans. The

type of bond that is shared between people in the

same situation. (2)

With this discovery came a certain amount of

hope. A hope that the human spirit will prevail

through any hardship. Through his journey, he

would step back into his true white self, and enter

back into the white world. He would then observe

the “black” world with a new sense of clarity. (3)

While in the “white” world, he encountered white

people that had a desire to change the wrongs of

white society.

It would seem that white society is comprised

of a great deal of felicity. That is to say, a

human being will naturally be drawn towards the

preservation of the self. (4) During this time

period, the white man viewed the black man as a

threat to the white lifestyle. As experienced

through the eyes of John Howard Griffin as a black

man, the white man would have many questions as to

the nature of the black man. (5)

Through Griffin’s experience, he learned that

there is no fundamental difference in the nature of

the white man as compared to the nature of the

black man. There seems to be a desire to survive.

The white man attempted to survive by making the

black man a “second citizen”, which is to say

“lesser citizen”. The black man attempted to

survive by banding together as a race. This helped

the race survive through a feeling of empathy. If

a human feels that he is not alone, it tends to

give a more powerful sense of strength.

Another interesting finding from John Howard

Griffin was that white children did not necessarily

share their parents racial beliefs. This offers

proof that racism is not a part of human nature,

but rather a by-product of the human nature of the

fear of the unknown. Since the white person was

unfamiliar with the black man, there was a sense of

fear of the black man. Racism is merely a defense

mechanism passed down from parent to child. The

white men in “Black Like Me” would teach their

children to use racial slurs like “nigger” in

reference to a black man. (6)

This theory is supported by the great thinker

Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes theorized that man is

dictated by a “psychological egoism”. That

basically is to say that people are selfish. They

put their own needs in front of the needs of

others. (7)

It is in this manner that the white man “saved”

himself from the black man. The white man saw only

his own need for self-preservation. He feared the

black man because of the white man’s ignorance of

the black man. The white man feared that the black

man was different than the white man, and therefore

dangerous. It is from this fear that racism

springs. By keeping the black man “down” in

society, the white man can fulfill his need to

survive. This is the manner in which Hobbes’ views

of psychological egoism are supported by John

Howard Griffin’s experience as a black man in the

Deep South.

John Howard Griffin’s experiences also helped

to point out many of the known African-American

stereotypes held by many white people. One scene

in particular involves Griffin hitchhiking in

Biloxi, Mississippi.(5)

It was November 19, and Griffin had just

arrived by bus in Biloxi. He proceeded to seek

transportation to his next resting spot, Mobile,

Alabama. He found that transportation by

hitch-hiking with several anonymous drivers.

Griffin encountered a great deal of curiosity

from the people that stopped to give him

transportation. Most were white males, and they

all bombarded Griffin with questions. Questions

ranging from the size of his genitalia to his

sexual prowess. Most of the questions dealt with

the stereotypes dealing with the black male’s


Griffin describes an almost perverse pleasure

that was achieved by the white males in asking such

sexual questions during these episodes; questions

about his past sexual experience with white women.

One such driver even asked Griffin to exit the car

after Griffin refused to answer one such question.

This would seem to support the theory that

humans are curious, and maybe even a little

frightened, of the unknown. The constant craving

for answers to apparently perverse questions showed

a fear of inadequacy on the part of the white male

drivers. By achieving the answers to these

questions the white males were possibly hoping to

allay their fear that the black man was sexually


Were this to be found true, this in turn would

lead to further racism. If the black male was in

fact found to be sexually superior to the white

male, the white male would in turn continue to

“keep the black male down”, if Hobbes’ theories of

psychological egoism are to be believed. By

“keeping the black male down”, the white male could

indeed maintain their superior position in society,

thereby allowing them to take care of their own

selfish needs.

Towards the end of John Howard Griffin’s

journey, he ended up in the city of Atlanta. In

Atlanta, he found a different sort of spirit among

the black community. It was a spirit of social

change. Griffin had arrived in Atlanta feeling

that the black condition in America was one without

hope. It was in Atlanta that he found a glimmer of

hope within the black community. (7)

While in Atlanta, John Howard Griffin met with

several black community leaders. Civic leaders,

men of the cloth, and various black business owners

throughout the city were among his audience.

Through these conversations, Griffin discovered

that Atlanta had found a way to deal with the white

person’s suppression of the black person.

Griffin found that three main ingredients were

responsible for the improved racial conditions in

Atlanta. First, blacks in the community were

united in their purpose. Secondly, Atlanta had at

the time a fair and just mayor. And finally, the

city newspaper was known for taking a stand on

racial injustices. (7)

These findings helped Griffin to understand

another facet of human nature: the survival

instincts of the oppressed. Griffin found that

although the Southern African-American was

suppressed in society, the Southern

African-Americans came together as a people as a

means of survival.

The black civic leaders that John Howard

Griffin had encountered in Atlanta organized the

black community in such a was as to give the black

people a better chance at education, health care,

and employment. This in turn changed the black

person’s outlook on life in the city. This is what

gave the black person in Atlanta hope, which is

necessary for survival, which in turn is a basic

element of human nature.

During this entire event, John Howard Griffin

had been keeping a journal of his experiences. He

was a reporter of sorts, and this was his story.

He enlisted the help of other affluent white people

from the North, as well as an internationally

distributed black magazine. The trip was paid for

by the magazine “Sepia”, and in return for the

trip, Griffin was to supply the magazine with the

tales of his journey.

While John Howard Griffin and Thomas Hobbes are

from different eras, their concepts of basic human

nature were in most cases very similar. Hobbes

theorized that man is consumed by psychological

egoism, which is the need to attend to one’s own

needs over that of another human being. Griffin

found the same line of thinking in the white man

while living as a black man in the Deep South.

However, Griffin also stumbled upon the

resilience of the human spirit in times of duress.

The black people that Griffin encountered in

Atlanta were determined to improve their condition.

The difference between the white people and the

black people in this instance was that the black

people held into account the needs of other black

people. The white’s seemed only concerned with

their own personal well being.

It would appear as though both thinkers share

similar ideas in regards to this form of human

nature. It would be interesting to determine

whether race makes a difference in the outcome.

That is to say, what would happen if the roles were

reversed? What would happen if the black person

were in a position of power and the white person

were supressed?

If these are truly examples of human nature,

one could theorize that the outcome would remain

the same. As John Howard Griffin discovered from

his experiences, the only difference between white

and black is the color of our skin.


(1) “Black Like Me” John Howard Griffin Pg. 55-59

(2) “Black Like Me” Pg. 116-117

(3) “Black Like Me” Pg. 118-121

(4)&(7) “The Battle For Human Nature” Barry Shwartz Pg. 41

(5) “Black Like Me” Pg. 85-96

(6) “Black Like Me” Pg. 156

(7)”Black Like Me” Pg. 133-139


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