Black Like Me was first published in November of 1961. It was originally written as an article describing the rise in suicide tendency among Southern Negroes. John Howard Griffin assumed that "it would be an obscure work, of interest primarily to sociologists." Historically, Griffin was the first white person to experience certain issues known only to black people. By simply darkening his pigment, he encountered a complex reality formerly unknown to him or any other white person.
Black Like Me was written as a journal, a portrayal of Griffin's life as he experienced it as a black man. It was not meant to have symbolism or themes, however, it is important to evaluate the book as a fiction novel. This allows the reader to determine its symbolism and recognize its themes. It was assumed that if this book was intended to be read as a story, isolation would be the symbolic theme.
In the following quote, Griffin has completed the process of darkening his skin and sees himself in the mirror for the first time as a black man.
"The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw nothing of the white John Griffin's past." (pgs.15-16)
The theme of isolation is first discovered in this quote. Griffin feels imprisoned in a body other than his own. He does not like the person he sees before him and feels that the figure he sees in the mirror has no relationship with the mind and soul inside.
The next quote describes the separation Griffin feels from his own body. He feels that he is sharing his body with a stranger, someone he feels no connection with.
"The completeness of this transformation appalled me. It was unlike anything I had imagined. I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even to the depths of my entrails.
I felt the beginnings of great loneliness, not because I was a Negro but because the man I had been, the self I knew, was hidden in the flesh of another." (pg. 16)
Not only does Griffin feel isolated from his black body, but when he returns to his original skin tone, he feels separated from that body and life also. After he had experienced such
prejudice and bigotry, he found it hard to return to his original self.
"I felt strangely sad to leave the world of the Negro after having shared it so long--almost as though I were fleeing my share of his pain and heartache." (pg. 143)
In the next quote, Griffin asks how people can be so cruel when there are so many things to love and care about in the world.
"I felt their arms around my neck, their hugs and the marvelous jubilation of reunion. And in the midst of it, the picture of the prejudice and bigotry from which I had just come flashed into my mind, and I heard myself mutter: 'My God, how can men do it when there are things like this in the world?' " (pg.144)
Griffin was a white man with a good job, a family, and a home. Nevertheless, he still felt isolated after his experience as a black man and in some ways he still felt connected to the black John Griffin. He had experienced something never before experienced by any white person. It was something he could only share with himself. Only he knew what it was like "when a so-called first-class citizen is cast on to the junk heap of second-class citizenship."