Summary of Deep South Journey, November 19–24, 1959
November 19, Mississippi-Alabama
Arriving too late in Biloxi to find any black friends to help him, Griffin spends the night freezing in a shed. In the morning he begins hitchhiking, heading for his eventual destination of Mobile, Alabama. He takes his time, enjoying the oceanfront view. When he stops for lunch, he learns from a local black man that blacks are not allowed on the beaches, even though the upkeep of the beaches comes from a gasoline tax that both blacks and whites are required to pay.
A young, redheaded white man picks Griffin up and gives him a ride. Griffin is pleasantly surprised by the man’s kindness until he learns that the young man is actually from Massachusetts.
After walking ten or fifteen miles, Griffin is exhausted and stops for an ice cream. The white man who owns the stand serves him with a friendly manner, but will not allow him to use the outhouse, even though the nearest black restroom is thirteen or fourteen blocks away.
In the evening, more white men pick Griffin up for rides. Each time, their talk quickly turns to sex. They all assume that a black man is a sex machine and that he would have experience with exotic sex acts that decent whites do not dare to try. Griffin feels degraded by their questions. One man goads Griffin, asking whether he’s ever slept with a white woman or wants to. A young man goes farther and asks to see Griffin’s genitals. Griffin tries hard to explain that there is no difference between black and white sexual attitudes. “Our ministers preach sin and hell just as much as yours. We’ve got the same puritanical background.” If blacks have more illegitimate children, earlier loss of virginity, or more crime, it’s not a result of their race but of their position in society. Deprived of culture and educational opportunities, and condemned to live a life in poverty and despair, a man’s sense of virtue is dulled, Griffin explains.
Griffin’s final ride of the night comes from a kind young white man who seems free of prejudice. His attitude seems to stem from an overwhelming love for his young child, which spills over into the rest of his life.
The young man drops Griffin off in front of the bus station in Mobile, Alabama. An elderly black man offers Griffin a place to sleep for the night. They share a double bed and stay up in the night talking about the miracles of the Bible and the problem of racism. The old man tells Griffin that the answer is not to hate whites. “When we stop loving them, that’s when they win. Then they’ll have ruined our race for sure.”
November 21, Mobile
Griffin spends the next three days in Mobile searching for jobs and staying with the elderly man. Each day, he must go out of his way to find a place to eat or drink or to use the restroom, and nobody will hire him for a job. One man, the foreman at a plant, tells him “we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that? We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.” Griffin realizes to his shock that this is the Alabama he never saw as a white man. As a white man, he met gracious, kind, and wise Southerners. But as a black man, the atmosphere is entirely different.
Griffin hitchhikes up to the swamp country between Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama. He is picked up by a hunter who seems friendly at first, but soon turns crude and vulgar, asking if Griffin’s wife has ever had sex with a white man. The hunter says that white men do black women a favor by raping them, because it improves the black race by getting white blood into their kids. He then warns Griffin if he’s in Alabama to stir up trouble, he may end up dead and tossed into the swamp. Griffin says very little, but he’s stunned. This man looks like the typical, respectable American family man, but he is sick with the disease of racism.
When the hunter drops Griffin off on the side of the road, Griffin realizes how hungry and thirsty he is. Reaching a service station, he asks if he can buy something to eat and drink. The old white woman views him with suspicion and disgust. She tries to shut the door in Griffin’s face, but reluctantly agrees to let him buy something when he pleads with her.
Next, Griffin is picked up by a young black man, a sawmill worker who never makes quite enough to pay off his debts. Griffin reflects that his situation is typical for many blacks. Part of the Southern whites’ strategy is to get black people in debt and keep them there. Despite the young man’s poverty, he offers Griffin a meal and a place to stay the night. Griffin enjoys dinner with the man, his wife, and their six young children, who are excited to have a visitor and delighted when he shares his chocolate bars with them. Griffin is touched by the children’s innocence and saddened when he thinks of how much more privileged his own children are. After dropping off to sleep, he suffers a recurring nightmare that he is being surrounded by hostile white people. He wakes up screaming.
The next day, Griffin buys a bus ticket to Montgomery, Alabama. He stops in a restroom and looks at himself in a mirror; he has been black now for over three weeks and is no longer surprised by his reflection. Griffin notices that his dark face has the same melancholy expression he has seen on the faces of so many black people in the South. He feels unhappy and longs for simple joys that are lacking in his life now.
He goes to a pay phone and calls his wife and children. He feels happy just hearing their voices, but at the same time, he feels like a stranger to them.
Analysis of Deep South Journey, November 19–24, 1959
The world looks different when you are black, Griffin realizes; whites reveal their ugly side that they don’t even show to their own families and friends. Three shocking encounters are highlighted in these entries: Griffin’s encounter with a young white man who asks him about sex and wants to see Griffin naked, his interview with a racist factory boss, and his chilling conversation with a white hunter.
Griffin’s encounter with the young white man is similar to many conversations he has with white men about sex. They all assume that as a black man, he has a free and easy attitude about sexuality and has experienced many sex acts that are taboo for whites. Griffin uses this conversation as an opportunity to educate the young man, as well as readers, about this false stereotype. The truth is, he maintains, that black and white attitudes toward sex are not all that different. Both races have been taught Puritan morality; both are capable of feeling self-conscious and guilty about sex. If blacks have more illegitimate children, earlier loss of virginity, and more crime, it’s because of their circumstances. “Deprive a man of any contact with the pleasures of the spirit and he’ll fall completely into those of the flesh.”
Griffin’s interview with the white factory boss lays bare the policy of economic injustice for readers who might still doubt it. Thus far, Griffin has been politely turned away wherever he applied for a job, but this time, he is told the truth: blacks are not wanted. It is a deliberate attempt on the part of white bosses to drive black people out of their communities and their entire state. Later, in his discussion with the black sawmill worker, Griffin realizes that black workers do not even have the recourse of striking. Should they begin a workers’ strike, the businesses in the community will simply refuse to serve them, and they’ll be starved out that way.
The final chilling interview with the white hunter serves to show readers the physical danger a black man in Mississippi faces, and the danger from rape a black woman faces. As Griffin rides in the truck, he is aware of the man’s gun and the threat it poses. The man voices his fears when he says menacingly, “You can kill a nigger and toss him into that swamp and no one’ll ever know what happened to him.” The white hunter also brags that he routinely rapes black women who come to him for work in his household or his business. If they don’t put out, they don’t get the job. The white hunter even considers that he’s doing the blacks a favor by improving the race. Griffin is struck by the hypocrisy of the man’s attitude. Newspapers sensationalize a black man’s attempt to rape a white woman, but fail to report white rapes of black women. Meanwhile, whites speak out against mixing of the races, but feel they are doing a black woman a favor by giving her a racially mixed child.
Griffin’s encounters with loving and understanding white and black people offset the bad experiences. A parallel can be drawn between the kind young white man who gives Griffin a ride on November 19 and the kind young black sawmill worker who picks him up on November 24 and gives him a place to stay in his humble shack. Both young men exemplify generosity of spirit and family values. The elderly black preacher in Mobile also provides a beacon of hope and a moral of Griffin’s story: “When we stop loving them, that’s when they win.”
Griffin uses powerful imagery to describe the home life of the sawmill worker in the Alabama swamps. He shows a poignant scene of the children delightedly eating small slivers of candy bars. They enjoy this little sweetness in their lives now, unaware that the world has prepared for them a meal of bitterness. Griffin also employs the technique of contrast, comparing his own relatively privileged children, who have birthday parties, nice clothes, and clean beds, to these poor young ones sleeping in a mosquito-ridden shack.
Having been black now for three weeks, Griffin is transformed. When he looks at his face in the mirror, it now reflects the melancholy expression he has seen on the faces of African-Americans, their spirits trampled by racism. It has not been possible for Griffin to be a passive observer in this experiment; he has been psychologically affected to a degree he did not quite anticipate.