‘Driving Whereas Black’: The PBS documentary tells a fancy historical past
The two-hour film, which premieres on October 13th on PBS, meanders from slavery to Jim Crow to the advent of the freeway. With archive footage and a series of interviews, the filmmakers’ argument is poignant. When black Americans first found their freedom of movement, white Americans pushed back, fearful of where they were going and why – and the remnants of that prejudice remain today.
“There are still so many dangers of being out and about,” says Allyson Hobbs, an associate professor at Stanford University, in the film. “I think we’re at a time when African Americans are just as afraid as their grandparents were in the 1930s and 40s.”
The film is about persistent racism on the street. It rounds up personal harassment stories from famous Americans like Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall with video clips of people who are stopped, run over, and get worse today. At the same time, the film is a celebration of how African Americans have embraced their freedom to travel.
Curator and historian Gretchen Sorin has spent 20 years researching and writing about black mobility The book the film is based on. After her interviews, she asked her subjects for copies of photos and home videos. She acquired an extensive collection that helped persuade award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns, to work with her on a documentary.
The film documents Migration patterns after the Civil War and then explode with dazzling images of black Americans starting to travel in style.
“The car is really good because it frees African Americans from the Jim Crow bus and Jim Crow train,” Sorin told CNN. “But at the same time there are dangers on the road.”
The not so open street
The filmmakers say that access to cars has freed blacks from the humiliation they often faced in separate bus and train stations. When black families drove down the new highways, they could bypass racist, all-white country towns. Owning a car meant black families could move to the suburbs and be proud of the Buicks and Chevrolets in their driveways.
The advent of the automobile, the freeway, and the road trip were notable developments in the United States. But the film’s historians, like MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, want everyone to remember that progress has not always been kind to everyone.
“Americans especially love to celebrate their story, but they don’t like to look closely,” says Wilder in the film.
During the Jim Crow era, blacks traveled but had no plans to stop much along the way. There were no gas station bathroom breaks or hungry meals from local guests. Sandwiches and fried chicken were packed in refrigerators in the trunk. If restaurants served “colored people” at all, it was from side windows or back doors.
The segregation that plagued the country eventually paved the way for black entrepreneurship.
A traveling network by Black and for Black
Black women soon rented rooms in their homes and served food to black travelers while providing vital information on where to worship, do their hair, or stop over next.
In the film, Valerie Cunningham recalled her aunt Hazel running the Rock Rest guest house in Kittery, Maine.
“She served her guests the best of everything,” said Cunningham. “Sunday was lobster day, so that would be lobster thermidor. Of course everything was homemade.”
A network of safe spaces was taking shape, mostly east of the Mississippi, and it included jazz clubs and luxury hotels. The Marsalis Mansion Motel on Jefferson Parish in New Orleans and the Rossonian in Five Points in Denver were among the many businesses owned or managed by blacks.
A number of small travel guides listed these safe spaces, but none have been as successful or comprehensive as New York postal worker Victor H. Green’s “Negro Motorist Greenbook”. Green found a white publisher that printed his first travel guides, sold copies at black-friendly Esso gas stations, and then continued to print from 1936 to 1967.
Sorin told CNN that Green’s mantra echoed a quote from Mark Twain that begins, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
She said Green believed that if white Americans could see black people traveling, they would find similarities.
“I don’t know that happened,” said Sorin. “But surely the encounter between some black and some white Americans made a difference. And that is exactly what happens when people travel.”
The progress was not the same
When segregation ended, many of the companies that had focused solely on black customers closed. While blacks took the opportunity to patronize white-owned companies, few white Americans did the same for black-owned companies, according to the film.
Researchers found that only 3% of the thousands of entries in Green’s book still work today. Dooky Chase’s New Orleans restaurant is one of the survivors, and owner Leah Chase spoke to the filmmakers before she passed away in 2019.
Further listings are documented in a book by the historian and photographer Candacy Taylor. Taylor drove hundreds of thousands of miles in search of “Green Book” listings in her pictorial story, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.”
“The ‘Green Book’ does something for us that we need,” says the historian Wilder. “It reminds us of the world that blacks created under the regime of segregation.”
The film is a winding ride full of ups and downs. The major highways that allow people to cross the country were created by paving the black communities on their way. The car has become more affordable, but it’s often the way blacks encounter the police, Sorin told CNN.
Footage of proud black families in their shiny new cars gives way to annoying images of black drivers being molested, beaten, and worse. Sorin says her production team felt that everything had to be included.
“It’s not unpatriotic to talk about American warts and anything. I think it’s very patriotic. That’s how we get better. That’s how we get better.”