Why would suicide rates escalate among black people during the 1950s?

One could argue that suicide rates among blacks escalated during the 1950s because of a growing sense of hopelessness caused by ongoing racial prejudice and oppression. During World War II, many African Americans fought bravely or worked hard as part of the domestic war effort. It was widely expected, therefore, that there would be a major push for civil rights protection after the War. However, this did not happen, leading to frustration and despair for many.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Although the increase in suicide rates among black Americans in the 1950s is scarcely touched upon in Black Like Me, Griffin's own experiences of living the life of an African American might give us some clues. This is pure speculation, of course, but it could well be the case that despair induced by frustration at the snail's pace of civil rights protections was a factor in the disturbing rise in suicides among people of color.

Griffin's own unique odyssey takes place right at the end of a decade in which some progress had been made on the civil rights front, most notably the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v Board of Education (1954). But progress was, on the whole, painfully slow during the 1950s. It wouldn't be until the middle of the next decade that a comprehensive package of civil rights legislation was finally passed.

Many African Americans truly believed that the 1950s would be a decade of transformation in civil rights. People of color had made significant contributions to the war effort, making it much harder for policy-makers to continue treating them like second-class citizens. But systemic racism was very much alive and well during this period, especially in the South, as Griffin discovers on his travels.

To reiterate, this is pure speculation, but it may well have been the case that the frustration of such hopeful expectations of better treatment after the War was a contributory factor to an uptick in suicide rates among black people in the 1950s.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team