notes on john howard griffin's black like me

2021-02-20

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~4 min read

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789 words

Selected passages from John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me that resonated.

I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible.

On the primary concern

We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him; how to hold our own and raise ourselves in his esteem without for one moment letting him think he had any God-given rights that we did not also have.

Understanding that they are equal, but living in an unequal world meant that Black people needed to dedicate time and attention to problems that were simply not issues for whites.

On physical barriers and dreams

The Negro often dreams of things separated from him only by a door, knowing that he is forever cut off from experiencing them.

[P.D. East] asked for ethical and virtuous social conduct. He said that before we can have justice, we must first have truth, and he insisted on his right and duty to print the truth. Significantly, this was considered high treason. Pg. 74

On the identity of the real villains

It shows that the most obscene figures are not the ignorant ranting racists, but the legal minds who front for them, who “invent” for them the legislative proposals and the propaganda bulletins. They deliberately choose to foster distortions, always under the guise of patriotism, upon a people who have no means of checking the facts. Their appeals are to regional interest, showing complete contempt for privacy of conscience, and a willingness to destroy and subvert values that have traditionally been held supreme in this land. Pg. 78

On opportunity and parenthood

I saw again their large eyes, guileless, not yet aware that doors into wonderlands of security, opportunity and hope were closed to them.

It was thrown in my face. I saw it not as a white man and not as a Negro, but as a human parent. Their children resembled mine in all ways except the superficial one of skin color, as indeed they resembled all children of all humans. Yet this accident, this least important of all qualities, the skin pigment, marked them for inferior status. It became fully terrifying when I realized that if my skin were permanently black, they would unhesitatingly consing my own children to this bean future. Pg. 110

On equality and paternalism

We must return to them their lawful rights, assure equality of justice—and then everybody leave everybody else to hell alone. Paternalistic—we show our prejudice in our paternalism—we downgrade their dignity. Pg. 125

On using scripture as evidence

The monk laughed. “Didn’t Shakespeare say something about ‘every fool in error can find a passage of Scripture to back him up’? He knew his religious bigots.” Pg. 131

On journalism’s role

McGill and his colleagues gamble their fortunes and their reputations on the proposition that it is journalism’s sacred trust to find and publish the truth and that the majority, if properly informed, will act for the good of the community and the country. The great danger in the South comes precisely from the fact that the public is not informed. Pg. 134

A glorified (and idealistic), albeit not unique, view of journalism. While it’s a vision I appreciate, I wonder if it’s true, which of course, is the ultimate irony as it’s commonly printed by journalists.

On balancing power with virtue

As Alexander stated: “If we know anything ,it is that if virtues do not equal powers, the powers will be misused.” Pg. 135

On education

In the matter of education, Atlanta has long bee eminent. […][dr. moreland], like her students, despises the idea that in America any man has to “earn” his rights to first-class citizenship. But she and her colleagues believe, on the other hand, that every citizen has to live up to his duties of citizenship. Pg. 136

On peace and moderation

Our townspeople wanted to “keep things peaceful” at all costs. They said I had “stirred things up.” This is laudable and tragic. I, too, say let us be peaceful; but the only way to do this is first to assure justice. By keeping “peaceful” in this instance, we end up consenting to the destruction of all peace—for so long as we condone injustice by a small but powerful group, we condone the destruction of all social stability, all real peace, all trust in man’s good intentions toward his fellow man. Pg. 153


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