The title of Black Like Me is an allusion to a line in the poem “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes, who was the leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. In the poem, Hughes writes of his desire, at the end of a long “white day,” to “Rest at pale evening… / A tall slim tree… / Night coming tenderly / Black like me.” The poem expresses the theme of escape from racism. It is only at night, Hughes suggests, that black people can find rest from the constant daily burden of racial prejudice. John Howard Griffin, a specialist in race issues, realized that for a white man to truly understand how wearing and damaging this racial prejudice can be, he would have to actually become black himself. While in disguise as a black man, Griffin comes to understand the meaning of Hughes’s poem. He writes: “The night was a comfort. Most of the whites were in their homes. The threat was less. A Negro blended inconspicuously into the darkness. At such a time, the Negro can look at the starlit skies and find that he has, after all, a place in the universal order of things. The stars, the black skies affirm his humanity, his validity as a human being. He knows that his belly, his lungs, his tired legs, his appetites, his prayers and his mind are cherished in some profound involvement with nature and God. The night is his consolation. It does not despise him.”
Imagery and Mood
Although the book Black Like Me is nonfiction, author Griffin does not simply “stick to the facts.” Rather, he makes use of literary techniques, such as vivid imagery and sensory detail, that make his story come alive for readers. For instance, in his barn office shortly after he makes the decision to become black, Griffin writes: “Outside my open window, frogs and crickets made the silence more profound. A chill breeze rustled dead leaves in the woods. It carried an odor of fresh-turned dirt… I sensed the radiance of it in the stillness…. I felt the beginning loneliness, the terrible dread of what I had decided to do.” In this passage, the imagery helps create a distinct mood, or atmosphere, of loneliness and isolation. Later in the narrative, Griffin uses vivid imagery to describe the ghetto of New Orleans: “Here it was pennies and clutter and spittle on the curb. Here people walked fast to juggle the dimes, to make a deal, to find cheap liver or a tomato that was overripe. Here was the indefinable stink of despair…. Here at noon, jazz blared from jukeboxes and dark holes issued forth the cool odors of beer, wine and flesh into the sunlight.” The imagery in this passage about the ghetto creates a mood of chaos and desperation.
Throughout the book, Griffin employs the technique of contrasts, constantly comparing life as a black man to that as a white. For instance, while he stays in the shack of the poor sawmill worker in rural Alabama, Griffin plays with the sawmill worker’s children and compares their life to that of his own children: “I thought of my daughter, Susie, and her fifth birthday today, the candles, the cake and party dress; and of my sons in their best suits. They slept now in clean beds in a warm house while their father, a bald-headed old Negro, sat in the swamps and wept, holding it in so he would not awaken the Negro children.” As Griffin see-saws between black and white, he notes a stark contrast in the way a black person and a white person are treated and in the way each views the world. As a black man, he is subjected to hate stares; the world seems hostile. However, the black people are friendly to him. As a white man, he is treated kindly by whites and viewed with suspicion in black neighborhoods.
Black Like Me: Metaphor Analysis