Highways Through Hell

Bridgett M. Davis in The New York Times:

Viewers of the Oscar-winning film “Green Book” might assume they have a sense of what it was like to travel as an African-American in this country during the many decades that Jim Crow laws and racist practices flourished. Like the main character in the movie, a classical pianist on tour in the South, black travelers couldn’t have a meal, get a good night’s sleep or fill up their gas tank at most white-owned businesses. But two new books, “Overground Railroad,” by Candacy Taylor, and “Driving While Black,” by Gretchen Sorin, make powerfully clear the magnitude of the injustices and harrowing encounters endured by African-Americans traveling by “open” road, as well as of their quiet acts of rebellion and protest, which went far beyond having to find alternative places to eat, sleep and buy gas.

Both of these deeply researched books detail the potentially dangerous ordeals African-Americans faced just to see relatives down South, travel for work or take a family vacation. Black drivers had to worry about traffic stops that could turn violent or deadly (they still do), and avoid getting lost lest they find themselves in “sundown” towns, all-white communities from which blacks were banned after dark and where those who did enter risked confrontations with angry mobs.

Blacks often drove through the night both out of necessity (since few hotels would take them in) and to keep under cover, a practice that caused fatigue, which increased the possibility of accidents. Prompt medical care was rare, and collisions with white motorists were particularly perilous. Cars had better not break down or run out of gas too far from a black neighborhood. And even when a drive transpired without incident, African-American travelers faced intimidating and demeaning billboards and road signs. (The banner across the main street in Greenville, Texas, read, “The blackest land, the whitest people.”) Yet despite the threats that lay ahead every time African-Americans got into their cars, despite the stress and its psychological toll, they kept hitting the road, moving forward, questing for freedom.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post honored The Black History Month. I end this last post with a quote from the great James Baldwin. I had the honor of meeting him many times. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated. Until next February, Black History, Zindabad! )