Summary of Deep South Journey, November 7–8, 1959
Griffin has his last visit to the doctor. The treatment has not worked completely, but he can touch up his face with stain. He will continue taking the medication and become darker over time. Griffin decides to shave his head to complete the illusion.
Griffin announces to his friend and host in New Orleans that he will be leaving sometime that night. The host still doesn’t know what is going on, but he is worried. Griffin says it is better that his friend doesn’t know the details. He doesn’t want to get anyone involved.
That night, while his friend is gone, Griffin shaves his head and applies a coat of dark stain to his skin. In the mirror, he is shocked to see someone who looks nothing like himself—a total stranger. He feels not like a disguised man, but completely black. His wife, friends, and children would not know Griffin now. He doesn’t even like himself.
Feeling self-conscious, Griffin leaves the house and steps out into the night, taking a trolley to the center of town. He feels glad when a white man sees him and asks no questions. Black people on the streetcar treat him as one of them, and recommend a good hotel. Griffin passes the same girlie bars, but this time, nobody beckons him inside. He buys a pack of cigarettes from the same girl who has sold them to him all week, and she doesn’t recognize him at all. He realizes that now he is black, he can’t even get a limeade at the soda fountain in the drug store.
A friendly black man comments on Griffin’s shaved head, saying it makes him look slick and the ladies will like it. He directs Griffin to a hotel. The room is clean but tiny, desolate, and windowless. Griffin feels boxed in. Outside, he hears a dog barking and the blare of a jukebox. In the bathroom down the hall, Griffin meets two other men and has his first prolonged contact as a black man with other blacks. They talk of local politics. One of the men tells him the mayor is popular among blacks and they hope he’ll be elected governor. It feels good to Griffin to have a genuine, friendly conversation.
Griffin wakes up late since the room is so dark. Not sure what to do, he takes his bags and wanders on the streets. He’s in the ghetto. White shop owners call to him in falsely sweet tones. A man and woman shout obscenities, and a man staggers out of a bar and vomits on the curb. People flirt openly; sex is an escape.
Griffin goes to a Creole restaurant for breakfast. He chats with the counterman, saying he’s new in town. The counterman jokes that he’ll have a hard time finding a place to use the toilet in this town, since blacks are not permitted to use the same toilets as whites.
Later, Griffin experiences racism on the city bus. A middle-aged white woman gets on, but decides to stand rather than sit in the empty seat next to him. Griffin half-rises to offer his seat, but the blacks around him disapprove of his giving in. He glances at the woman as if to offer the place next to him, but she snaps, “What you looking at me like that for?” and comments loudly that blacks are getting sassier every day. Griffin is deeply embarrassed, and other blacks on the bus resent him for the situation he created. Later, he notices a poster on the streets with advice to blacks about how to help desegregate the buses. One of the points is “Overcome evil with good.”
Griffin goes to the shoeshine stand to see Sterling Williams. Williams does not recognize him as a black man, but he does recognize Griffin’s shoes. When he realizes what Griffin is doing, Williams is delighted. He promises to help Griffin and to keep the secret. They decide that Griffin will stay and shine shoes for a few days while Williams helps him learn how to act. The first thing Griffin must do, Williams says, is to shave the blond hair off the backs of his hands so no customers will see and become suspicious. Griffin finds a blacks-only restroom and shaves his hands. Now, Williams says, he looks perfect.
After a short time, Williams treats Griffin as a fellow black man. He gives Griffin advice, reminding he can’t walk in just anyplace and get a drink or use a restroom unless it’s a black facility.
While he works at the stand, Griffin attracts the interest of a young widow who comes to find out who he is. Williams finds this funny, but Griffin says to tell her he is married. White customers come, many asking where they can find black girls to sleep with. These whites seem to have the attitude that nothing will offend black people, as they have such low morality. Still, they are friendly. Other whites ignore the blacks completely, freezing them out, which Griffin says is even worse.
Sterling Williams’s partner in the shoeshine business, Joe, returns to the stand. Griffin finds him sharp but easygoing. Joe cooks lunch on the sidewalk over a tin can. While they eat, a wino sits and silently begs for food. The men give him some of their food every day. Helping this man elevates the shoe shiners somehow; they feel magnanimous.
On Williams’s advice, Griffin goes to stay at the Negro YMCA rather than at the depressing hotel. On the way, he passes by a Catholic Church. It seems so warm and welcoming that he is tempted to stay there, but keeps going. Since the Y is full, he gets a room at a friendly boarding-house next door.
Griffin finds to his delight that the Y coffee shop is a gathering-place for important black men of the city. Among those gathered are the Reverend A. L. Davis and a man named Mr. Gayle, a civic leader and bookstore owner. Griffin introduces himself as a writer coming to the South to make a study of conditions there. Davis tells him that New Orleans is less racist than anywhere else in the South because it is more cosmopolitan and has a strong Catholic influence. All the men agree that the biggest problem blacks face is their own lack of unity. Blacks themselves are prejudiced against one another. Light-skinned blacks look down on darker-skinned blacks, and in order for a man to be a respected leader in the black community, he has to be as light as a mulatto and straighten his hair.
At the end of the evening, Griffin is left alone with one man, J. P. Guillory, an insurance agent. As they talk, Guillory recognizes Griffin’s name and realizes that he’s just started reading one of Griffin’s books. He is confused and seems to suspect Griffin is a liar and fraud for claiming authorship of a white man’s book. Griffin assures him that he did write the book. “I can’t tell you more, but read the book, and the piece in last September’s Reader’s Digest, and you’ll know who I really am.”
Later that evening, Griffin goes out for something to eat and is harassed and threatened by a heavyset, muscular young white man who wants to beat him up. When he tries to get away, the man follows him. Finally, a terrified Griffin ducks into a dark alley and calls out a bluff: “You follow me boy, ’cause I’m just aching to feed you a fistful of brass knucks right in that big mouth of yours.” He then mutters a silent prayer to St. Jude for protection. Much to Griffin’s relief, the white man loses his courage and goes away.
Griffin stops at the Catholic Church to settle his nerves. It’s closed, but he sits on the steps and tries to calm himself down. As the church bell sounds, he imagines hearing the words ring out, “Hey nigger, you can’t go in there. Hey, nigger, you can’t drink here. We don’t serve niggers.”
After a meal of beans and rice at a black café, Griffin goes back to the boarding house for bed, feeling miles apart from the white world. It’s not only physical distance; it’s the distance of unknowing, of ignorance. He wonders if the distance can ever be bridged.
Analysis of Deep South Journey, November 7–8, 1959
Griffin’s entries for November 7–8 describe his experience of entering society as a black man. One of the most dramatic moments in this portion of the diary is the moment Griffin first sees himself in disguise. Strikingly, Griffin confesses that when he looks in the mirror, he does not recognize or like what he sees—“a fierce, bald, very dark Negro.” His reaction shows that Griffin himself harbors negative stereotypes about black people and associates a black face with a very particular history: “the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness.” As this passage suggests, Griffin will eventually become totally subsumed by his identity as a black man. He is unable to see himself as merely a “white man in disguise,” but becomes the role and feels it personally when he is cruelly treated by racist whites. In his conversations with Sterling Williams, we already see him being accepted as a black man and talking as if he were actually black.
A theme of religion as a refuge comes through in this part of the journal, as Griffin passes the church in New Orleans and later returns to it after being chased and threatened by a young white man. Griffin is told by the Reverend Davis that New Orleans is less racist because of its Catholic population. White people are more apt to treat blacks kindly because it is the “Christian” thing to do. Griffin himself was a Christian, having with Benedictine monks and eventually converting to Catholicism in 1951. He portrays Catholicism as a refuge from racist beliefs, although he also discusses, at a later point in the book, how people often manipulate and pervert Christian teachings to fit a racist agenda.
Another theme in this part of the journal and throughout the book is the necessity for unity. In his conversations with the black civic leaders at the New Orleans YMCA, Griffin and the others agree that blacks need to unify and protect one another, not indulge in racism among themselves. Light-skinned blacks with artificially straightened hair are more likely to be viewed with respect among the black community, the black café owner at the YMCA observes. This is an example of how racism is internalized in blacks themselves and then divides them against each other.
Griffin points out some of the ironies of racism. For instance, whites often accuse black people as lacking morals, especially sexual morals. However, Griffin also observes how white men frequently come to the ghetto looking to have sex with black women. Griffin also offers some explanation as to why sexuality is more pronounced in the ghetto: as he sees it, sex is an escape from the ugliness of their surroundings and the hopelessness many feel. Later, Griffin talks in more detail about how blacks’ apparent low morality is a reaction to their surroundings, and not something intrinsic to black people as a race.
Another irony comes in the way whites behave on the bus. A woman accuses Griffin of being rude and “sassy” when he simply is offering her a place to sit. In fact, she is the one who is rude, not Griffin. Griffin realizes that in order to overcome whites’ rudeness on the bus, black people cannot respond with rudeness but instead have to behave even more politely, so as to “overcome evil with good.”
Because Griffin uses the first person diary form, readers strongly identify with Griffin throughout the narrative, and feel sympathy for him as he undergoes senselessly cruel treatment. Toward the end of the second day as a black man, after being chased like a frightened animal into a dark alley, Griffin appears near a breaking point.
The friend whom Griffin stayed with in New Orleans was musician Harold Levy. He chose not to mention Levy by name in his book in order to protect him; however, much to Griffin’s chagrin, the press did report Levy’s name after the story came out.