Driving While Black, Still

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"The Negro traveler's inconveniences are many,” Wendell Alston discreetly noted in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a bible of survival for blacks warily navigating segregated America in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. “Carry your Green Book with you - you may need it.” In 1936, Harlem postal worker Victor Green  published the first volume of the series as a 15-page guide to New York; it soon expanded to a vital 100-page national resource for black families seeking safety and dignity in an often hostile landscape. At a time when they had to pack food, painstakingly plan bathroom breaks and gas purchases, find rare lodging that would accept them and stay clear at all times of "sundown towns," Green helped them do it. He described his book in tactful terms: It was meant to "make traveling better for the Negro.” The reality was more chilling: It was meant to help keep them alive.

Seeking to highlight that brutal chapter of history, Nat Gertler of California's About Comics previously re-published facsimiles of the 1940, 1954, 1963 Green Books, and recently released the 1947 edition. He has sold about 10,000 copies, largely through online sales and in African-American and other museum gift shops. The listings - Atlanta's five hotels that accepted black guests, Cheyenne, Wyo.'s one, D.C.'s 7 hotels (including YMCA/YWCA), 4 "tourist homes" or private residences, 3 taverns, 2 restaurants, 1 garage - have provoked strong reactions. One Amazon reviewer was moved to "a primal scream of outrage," but also saw "a fine example of resilience, of finding a way to make things work in an impossible world."

To Gertler, the book makes the evils of the era, invisible to a wide swath of America, come alive: "Unless they're an older person of color who lived through it, they probably heard about segregation in school but as a very abstract thing. Put a Green Book in their hands, and you see a dawning cross their face. They look up their home town, and maybe there’s no places listed." Given some entries - Green's placid urging to make reservations because "housing conditions make this necessary" - "There's this certain expectation the book might be filled with angry polemics about how unfair this all is, but there’s little of that. The person buying this understood very well what the situation was. They were living it every day."

Above all, Gertler argues the books serve as a wake-up call. "They remind us of a past that we still carry with us," he says, "and warn of what may come again." His timing is propitious. At the end of another Black History Month and over 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the last Green Book, the state of the nation is regressive. Racists are in power, hate crimes have soared, police abuses go unchallenged, children are unschooled in our dark history, and a new report finds that civil rights have stalled or back-tracked, with child poverty on the rise, schools becoming re-segregated and white supremacists growing emboldened. 

Travel for black Americans, meanwhile, remains fraught. "Just What You Have Been Looking For!!” proclaimed Victor Green in his first Negro Motorist Green Book, so many years ago. “Now We Can Travel Without Embarrassment.” Not so fast. Today, his book still resonates enough to have inspired at least two plays. A social media full of horror stories of closed doors and sudden cancellations has sparked the creation of popular hashtags like #TravelingWhileBlack and #AirbnbWhileBlack - Sample bitter joke: "bnb stands for 'but no blacks.'" An enduring sense of vigilance by black travelers in parts of the country is widespread. And the questionable premise, “Where is it safe to drive?” remains sadly relevant.

In a foreword to one edition of his guide, Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” He ended, "But until that time comes, we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience." Still waiting, it seems.

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