Black Like Me

by John Howard Griffin

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Student Question

What motivates Christophe's actions in Black Like Me?

Quick answer:

In Black Like Me, fear motivates Christophe to act the way he does. He's probably figured out that being deferential towards white people while at the same showing contempt for African Americans is the best way to stay out of trouble. As an African American himself Christophe knows all too well that if he's in any way perceived by the white man as getting above his station, he could end up being lynched.

Expert Answers

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While riding on a segregated bus, Griffin is intensely irritated by the behavior of a young African American man called Christophe. As well as being overtly deferential towards white people, Christophe looks down with contempt on fellow African Americans.

On the face of it, Christophe's behavior is hard to justify. It's undignified in the extreme for him to fawn all over his supposed racial and social superiors. It kind of makes him look like a servant, or to use a common expression derived from the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, like an "Uncle Tom." And there appears even less justification for Christophe to look down his nose at fellow African Americans, when surely he should be expressing solidarity with them.

In all likelihood, Christophe is scared. Like most African Americans he's had to develop a coping mechanism to help him deal with the horrors of everyday life in the segregated, institutionally-racist Deep South. And acting like an Uncle Tom is his way of dealing with those horrors.

He clearly figures that if he bows and scrapes before the white man and if he subscribes to the dominant code designed to keep him and all other African Americans in their place, then he's much less likely to get into trouble. If Christophe doesn't pay the appropriate respect to the white man, he knows full well that there's every danger he could end up being lynched.

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