‘Driving While Black’: The PBS documentary tells a complex history


The two-hour movie, premiering October 13 on PBS, winds its method from slavery to Jim Crow to the appearance of the interstate freeway. Through archival footage and a sequence of interviews, the filmmakers’ argument is poignant. When Black Americans first discovered their freedom to maneuver round, White Americans pushed again fearing the place they had been going and why — and the remnants of that prejudice linger at the moment.

“There are still so many dangers of being on the road,” says Allyson Hobbs, a Stanford University affiliate professor, within the movie. “I think we’re in a time right now where African Americans are feeling a similar kind of fear as their grandparents felt in the 1930s and 40s.”

The movie is about enduring racism whereas on the highway. It threads collectively private tales of harassment from well-known Americans corresponding to Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall with video clips of individuals at the moment getting stopped, pulled over and worse. At the identical time, the movie is a celebration of how African Americans embraced their freedom to journey.

Curator and historian Gretchen Sorin spent 20 years researching Black mobility and wrote the book the film is based on. After her interviews, she would ask her topics for copies of images and residential movies. She acquired a hefty assortment that helped to entice award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns, to work along with her on a documentary.

The movie paperwork migration patterns post-Civil War after which explodes with dazzling photographs of Black Americans beginning to journey in model.

“The automobile is really good because it frees African Americans from the Jim Crow bus and the Jim Crow train,” Sorin advised CNN. “But at the same time, there are dangers on the road.”

The not-so-open highway

The filmmakers say entry to vehicles freed Black folks from the humiliation they usually confronted in segregated bus and prepare stations. When Black households drove down the brand new interstate highways they may bypass racist, all-White nation cities. Owning a automobile meant Black households might transfer to the suburbs and be happy with the Buicks and Chevrolets of their driveways.

The emergence of the auto, the superhighway and the highway journey had been exceptional developments within the US. But the movie’s historians, like MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, need everybody to do not forget that progress wasn’t at all times sort to everybody.

“Americans in particular love to celebrate their history, but they don’t like to look at it very closely,” Wilder says within the movie.

During the Jim Crow period, Black folks traveled however did not plan on stopping a lot alongside the best way. There had been no gasoline station rest room breaks or hunger-busting meals at native diners. Sandwiches and fried hen had been packed into coolers within the trunk. If eating places served “colored people” in any respect, it was out of aspect home windows or again doorways.

The segregation plaguing the nation, although, ultimately paved the best way for Black entrepreneurship.

A touring community by Black and for Black

The Rock Rest guest house advertised: "...fine home cooked food and a garden with fresh vegetables, plenty of shade trees with a relaxing atmosphere."

Black girls quickly started to hire rooms of their homes and served meals to Black vacationers all whereas offering essential details about the place they may worship, get their hair finished or cease over subsequent.

In the movie, Valerie Cunningham recalled how her aunt Hazel ran the Rock Rest visitor home in Kittery, Maine.

“She served her guests the best of everything,” Cunningham mentioned. “Sunday was lobster day, so that would be Lobster Thermidor. ‘Course everything was homemade.”

A community of secure areas started to take form, largely east of the Mississippi, and it started to incorporate jazz golf equipment and luxurious lodges. Marsalis Mansion Motel in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans, and the Rossonian in Five Points, Denver, had been among the many many companies owned or managed by Black folks.

The Rock Rest guest house is still standing but is no longer a guest house, according to filmmakers.

Numerous small journey guides listed these secure areas, however none had been as profitable or complete as New York postal employee Victor H. Green’s “Negro Motorist Greenbook.” Green discovered a White writer to print his first guides, offered copies at Black-friendly Esso gasoline stations after which continued printing editions from 1936 by way of 1967.

Sorin advised CNN that Green’s mantra echoed a quote by Mark Twain that begins, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

She mentioned Green believed if White Americans might see Black folks touring, they might discover similarities.

“I don’t know that that’s what happened,” Sorin mentioned. “But certainly, the encounter between some Black Americans and some White Americans did make a difference. And that’s what happens when people travel.”

Progress wasn’t equal

When segregation ended, lots of the companies that had been targeted solely on Black clients closed. While Black folks took the chance to patronize White-owned companies, few White Americans did the identical for Black-owned ones, in response to the movie.

Chef Leah Chase, civil rights activist and legendary 'Queen of Creole Cuisine.'

Researchers discovered solely 3% of the 1000’s of listings in Green’s guide nonetheless function at the moment. Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans is a kind of to outlive and proprietor Leah Chase spoke to the filmmakers earlier than she handed away in 2019.

Other listings are documented in a guide by historian and photographer Candacy Taylor. Taylor drove a whole lot of 1000’s of miles looking for “Green Book” listings in her image-packed history, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.
Circa 1962: On The Road To Montgomery, In Alabama.

“The ‘Green Book’ does something for us that we need,” says Wilder, the historian. “It reminds us of the world that Black people created under the regime of segregation.”

The movie is a winding experience stuffed with highs and lows. The nice highways that permit folks to crisscross the nation had been created by paving over Black communities of their path. The vehicle has grow to be extra reasonably priced, but it surely’s usually the best way Black folks encounter the police, Sorin tells CNN.

Footage of proud Black households of their shiny new vehicles offers solution to unnerving photographs of Black drivers getting harassed, crushed and worse. Sorin says that her manufacturing staff felt all of it wanted to be included.

“It’s not unpatriotic to talk about America warts and all. I think it’s very patriotic. It’s how we get better. It’s the only way we get better.”



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