Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
Griffin’s purpose in darkening his skin was to discover what it was like to be an African American in the South. He called his experiment a “scientific research study,” and clearly his intention was to write journalistically objective articles for Sepia detailing his experiences. During his experiment, however, Griffin lost his detachment, and the book is a series of journal entries, some of them very emotionally charged. As a reporter for Sepia, he gave his audience traditional reportage; as the author of Black Like Me, he gave his audience a series of personal narratives intended to persuade his readers that segregation must be eliminated in the South.
While Black Like Me is not specifically directed at young adult readers, it has been and continues to be extremely appropriate for them for several reasons. First, the style is straightforward, unpretentious, and honest. Griffin uses fragments and simple sentences, short paragraphs, and an easy-to-follow chronological order. He keeps the entries short except for a few long, emotional narratives; these are very effective, and their length in the context of so many short entries reinforces their importance. Griffin uses enough dialogue to provide narrative variety and employs a range of informants—successful and poor African Americans, white liberals, and extreme racists—letting them speak for themselves. The book is also fast-paced: In the first eleven pages, Griffin describes his idea for the experiment, the mechanics of funding it, and the treatments that transform his skin color.
The second reason for the book’s appeal for young readers is Griffin’s habit of recording the small things that make life unbearable in a segregated society. Several lynchings are mentioned in the book, providing a valuable backdrop, but Griffin focuses on the difficulty of finding a washroom and a place to get a drink of water or something to eat. He describes the humiliation visited upon African Americans by bus drivers and the lack of access to things that whites often take for granted. Few writers focus on these details, and few are able to describe so effectively the “hate stare” that one can receive simply because of skin color or how tightly controlled one’s behavior is by skin color. Griffin’s ability to let the details generate tension is admirable: Nearly every bus ride or conversation with a white becomes a potentially explosive situation.
The third reason for the book’s appeal is Griffin’s naïveté. He is a narrator with whom young readers can easily identify—as he discovers the intricacies of segregation in the South, so does the reader. The book is ideal for young adults who have little or no sense of segregation in the South in the 1950’s. More sophisticated writers tend to assume that readers are more knowledgeable than they actually are, but Griffin never makes that mistake.
Despite the book’s many strengths, it has two related, minor flaws. The first is Griffin’s tendency to moralize. The material in the book is so effective that telling the reader what to think of his experiences is unnecessary and out of place. The second flaw is Griffin’s tendency for explanation: Short journal entries are not the best vehicle for explaining why racism exists or what must be done to eliminate it. Nevertheless, these are at most minor irritations.