Summary of Deep South Journey, November 25–December 1, 1959
November 25, Montgomery
In Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, Griffin senses a different atmosphere, a determined spirit of passive resistance. There, the influence of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. exists, and blacks are more united. A superficial calm hangs over the city, while fear and dread tense both sides. Griffin is subjected to the hate stare everywhere he goes, most often coming from white women of an older generation.
Sickened by the hatred he’s been feeling, Griffin stays in his room as much as possible. He feels ready to reenter the white world.
Griffin decides to pass back into white society, and scrubs his skin raw until it looks pink again rather than black. He takes his bags and gets as far from the hotel as possible. A feeling of liberation runs through him as he realizes that he can now eat dinner at a lunch counter and enjoy all the privileges whites take for granted. As a white man, he notices a police officer nod affably to him. A young black man becomes nervous around him; a black porter at an elegant hotel rushes to take his duffel. He can now look at women and smile at them.
Montgomery looks different to Griffin when he is a white man. People smile warmly. When he talks to whites about the race problem, they don’t seem aware of how bad it is, or spout racist platitudes about how blacks are this way or that way. Now when Griffin goes into a black neighborhood, he gets dirty looks. Racism goes both ways.
December 1, Alabama-Georgia
Griffin continues zigzagging back and forth between black and white, using dyes and creams. He goes through an area first as a black man, then as a white man, and notes the difference. When he is white, he is treated warmly by other whites but gets hate stares from blacks. When he appears black, the reverse is true.
While black, he is called “Boy” and asked to carry a white woman’s bags at the bus station. Without thinking, Griffin puts on a false grin and helps the woman, thanking her profusely when she gives him thirty cents. He takes the bus to Tuskegee Institute, a traditionally black college founded by Booker T. Washington, and encounters an atmosphere of dignity and courtesy. The black students are well-dressed and very serious. They view education as a sacred privilege, knowing that not long ago, in slavery times, their ancestors were punished for learning.
Outside the gates of the institute, a well-meaning white man doing a study on race relations tries to befriend Griffin and take him out for a drink. Griffin declines, knowing that it would be a very bad idea for a black and a white man to be seen drinking together. To ingratiate himself and prove he is not a racist, the white man then grandly offers to buy some turkeys from a black salesman. When it is pointed out that he has no place to put the turkeys, he grows irritated and bitter toward the black people he is trying to befriend: “Hell, no wonder nobody has any use for you. You don’t give a man a chance to be nice to you.” The man stalks away, alone and rejected. Griffin feels sorry for the white man, but he notes that when whites try to be paternalistic toward blacks, it is only another form of prejudice.
Next, Griffin boards a bus to Atlanta, Georgia. On the bus, he witnesses another incident of racism. Two white women board, but the only two empty seats are next to black people. The bus driver asks two black people to sit together so the whites do not have to sit next to blacks. The black people refuse to move, and tension rises. A redheaded white man threatens to slap the black men out of their seats, but the bus driver calms him down and an altercation is avoided. Later, another white man, who had been silent during the incident, confides, “I was on your side, boy.” By using the term “boy,” however, this man reveals he is racist, too.
As Griffin gets off the bus in Atlanta, an elderly white man snorts “Phew!” at him, as if he stinks. Griffin is filled with despair; this is the last straw. He is in Georgia, the land of his forefathers, a state in which there is even a town (Griffin, Georgia) named after his family—and this is what his home state has become. It’s nothing to be proud of. He goes straight to the rest room and removes the stain from his face. He leaves the bus station as a white man.
Analysis of Deep South Journey, November 25–December 1, 1959
A positive note is struck as Griffin describes the atmosphere in Montgomery, Alabama. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56 had been a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement, and at the time of Griffin’s writing, three years later, King’s influence was still felt. Griffin worked with Dr. King and admired his leadership. Although of course he did not know it, at the time of Griffin’s writing, King had fewer than ten years left to live. He would be assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
As Griffin moves back and forth between the white world and the black world, he highlights the stark contrast between life as a black and life as a white. Even he is surprised by how completely different the two worlds are. He expected to feel like himself, but with some inconveniences; instead, he has a completely different experience of life.
When he returns to life as a white, Griffin is struck by reverse racism—black people treat him either with suspicion and hostility or with feigned deference. He now recognizes the smiles as fake, the “mask” worn by blacks in front of white people. This experience reveals an important point—that blacks and whites do not really know each other because they rarely ever speak honestly or show their true face.
Another main point Griffin makes in these entries is that well-meaning white people reveal their racism by patronizing blacks. This is shown both by the white Northerner who offers to buy turkeys (an obvious act of charity, as he doesn’t want or need them) and by the man on the bus who speaks sympathetically but uses the hated word “Boy.” The answer is not paternalism or handouts, but to treat black people equally and give them their lawful rights. Again, whites do not realize how they come off as racist because there is so little honest communication between blacks and whites.