Between 1896 and 1965, the automobile and the Interstate Highway System utterly transformed America. They became emblems of the look and feel, rhythm and beat, poetry and song of the American landscape. The world as seen through the windshield of a car created a new kind of vernacular: the road trip, the family vacation, the Sunday drive. No innovation has proved more poetically linked to the romance of individual desire, and none has found a more abiding home in the archive of American art, film, literature and song. This poetry – of promise and danger, partings and arrivals, loneliness and intimacy, of setting out and coming home – was intricately connected to the hopes and dreams of all Americans.
But for no group was the siren call of the automobile and the highway – the promise of freedom and mobility, choice and adventure, agency and self-expression – more powerfully felt, more freighted with hope, or more fraught with danger and anxiety – than it was for African Americans. Thanks to the decreased cost of automobiles, the fully closed car bodies that dominated automobile design and helped insulate black passengers from the invidious racial hierarchies of Jim Crow, and the newly constructed Interstate Highway system, the period 1930 to 1965 marked the first time in history that the average black middle class family had the freedom to travel across the country by automobile.
And yet, though automobile travel brought freedom of movement to African Americans, the road was fraught with real dangers if drivers ventured into the wrong parts of town or stopped at the wrong places. Motorists confronted racist law enforcement officials, racist gas station attendants and automobile repairmen, threatening road signs, and restaurants that would only serve African Americans through a window slot out back. Sometimes, black motorists encountered angry racist mobs. And, still, families and business travelers took a chance, venturing into unknown regions, and across state lines, to National Parks and resorts and urban centers – often sticking as close as possible to main highways as a precaution. Driving a car through all-white communities represented a small, yet meaningful personal act of bravery, a statement of rebelliousness and refusal to accept the status quo.
Driving While Black, a feature-length documentary film, explores the role of the automobile in the lives of African Americans in the early twentieth century. Based on over a decade of research by acclaimed African American historian Dr. Gretchen Sorin, the film draws on an extraordinarily rich archive of material from the period – including photographs, advertisements, billboards, road signs, maps, brochures, letters, and legal records – along with riveting oral histories and the on-camera insights of scholars, writers, musicians, artists, religious leaders and ordinary American travelers. The film will be structured by the emergence, flourishing and eventual obsolescence of a new genre of travel literature aimed at facilitating black automobile travel during the period; including The Negro Motorist Green Book – “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow” – published by a Harlem-based businessman named Victor H. Green, and his wife, Alma.