DRIVING WHILE BLACK by Gretchen Sorin

DRIVING WHILE BLACK

African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights
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KIRKUS REVIEW

How the automobile was both a machine of liberation and a potential peril for African Americans during the early decades of the 20th century—and beyond.

In addition to offering an eye-opening history of the terrible discrimination practiced routinely against African American drivers, Sorin (Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program/SUNY; co-author: Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art, 2008, etc.) also discusses her own family’s years of distress driving from New Jersey to North Carolina to visit relatives in the late 1950s. In the first few decades of the 20th century, owning a car demonstrated economic success, and that was certainly the case for a growing black middle class. Moreover, driving in one’s own car meant not having to adhere to the humiliating Jim Crow laws regarding seating in public transportation. The right to move about among the states had always been considered a fundamental constitutional right—the 1920 Supreme Court case United States v. Wheeler assured the “free ingress and egress to and from any other state”—but that was “a right denied to African Americans.” While white Americans took to the road merrily, writes the author, they were “comfortable denying their black countrymen not only the right to travel freely but also the ability to use public accommodations”—and this is key in Sorin’s powerful story. When her family traveled south, they were sure to pack plenty of food and blankets for the children so that they did not have to stop at segregated restaurants and risk being denied a place to sleep. The author provides an in-depth look at the significance of Victor Green’s (literally) lifesaving The Green Book—inspired by Jewish travel guides—first published in 1936 and expanded over the decades, which became the bible for African American drivers hoping to find amenable accommodations in gas and repair services, restaurants, hotels, etc. The author also discusses how the car became a vehicle integral to the civil rights movement.

A pleasing combination of terrific research and storytelling and engaging period visuals.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-63149-569-4
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Liveright/Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2019