The Evil of Racism
The main theme in Griffin’s book is the evil of racism. Griffin exposes how painful it is to be exposed to discrimination based on the color of one’s skin. He also shows the ugliness of racists, their personalities distorted by hatred. Readers sympathize with Griffin as he endures “hate stares,” threats, harassment, and humiliation throughout the book. He is unable to find a job and, in accordance with social segregation of the time, is unable to use restrooms or enter cafés on the basis of his skin color. Griffin shows that even well-meaning whites reveal their racism through their patronizing words and deeds—for instance, a white man in the book speaks kindly, but calls a black man “Boy.” Racism even exists among blacks themselves, who value lighter skin over dark skin. This internalized racism on the part of African-Americans is even more sinister in some ways, as it makes blacks despise their own skin. A final evil that Griffin warns against is black racism against whites. If blacks begin to hate whites or to preach black superiority over whites, they will only worsen the problem of racial hatred. There are good-hearted people on both sides, and it is only by open and loving communication, and not more hatred, that the evil of racism will eventually be overcome.
The Power of Unity and Solidarity
When asked by black leaders in New Orleans what he thinks is the biggest problem facing black people, Griffin answers, “Lack of unity.” The others agree with him, one noting, “Until we as a race can learn to rise together, we’ll never get anywhere. That’s our trouble. We work against one another instead of together.” For instance, he notes, lighter-skinned black people, flattered by whites, believe themselves superior to their darker-skinned counterparts. Griffin observes in Atlanta how unified effort and consolidated financial power improves the community. “There is no ‘big Me’ and ‘little you,’” says Atlanta businessman T. M. Alexander. “We must pool all of our resources, material and mental, to gain the respect that will enable all of us to walk the streets with the dignity of American citizens.” While Griffin is black, he notes how black people unite and comfort one another in tense moments. For instance, on the bus, when the white driver refuses to let them off for a rest stop, the black passengers band together. Unity, he suggests, helps them get through the tough times.
Religion as a Refuge
Throughout the book, Christianity is shown as a refuge against the poison of racism. In New Orleans, Griffin walks past a Catholic Church. The soft, warm light and faint fragrance of incense give an impression of peace and calm. Inside, blacks and whites are equally welcome. The church seems so welcoming that Griffin is tempted to go inside and sleep in one of the pews. Later, a black Reverend tells him that New Orleans is less racist than other Southern cities because of the Catholic influence. At the end of his journey, his heart saddened by his experience with racism, Griffin finds refuge in a Trappist monastery. The Trappists, a sect of Catholic monks, welcome both black and white. The message Griffin conveys is that religion, if properly practiced, is a refuge from, and weapon against, racial hatred. Griffin, who was himself a Christian, acknowledges that there are those people who attempt to distort the messages of Christianity to fit their hateful ideology, but this is not the true message of the religion.
The Vital Role of Journalism
One of the messages of Griffin’s book is that journalists have a duty to tell the truth, even at great personal cost to themselves. He looks up to courageous journalists such as P. D. East in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Ralph McGill of Atlanta who use their newspapers to take a public stand for right and justice. Change can never come, Griffin asserts, while the public is misinformed by racist propaganda and when newspapers print only what they think readers want. Griffin himself took a great personal risk by pursuing the project chronicled in Black Like Me. Ultimately, he was ostracized by his own community for telling the truth about the racism he experienced in the South. He was threatened and even suffered a brutal beating by the Ku Klux Klan in 1975. However, as Griffin’s book has been translated into fourteen languages and has sold over 11 million copies worldwide, Griffin’s brave choice undoubtedly made a positive difference in the world.
Black Like Me: Theme Analysis