Black History Month Reads: ‘Driving While Black’
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The events of 2020 have left a lot of things for us to think about, including systematic racism in the United States. To understand more about the Black experience, I recently dove into Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights by Gretchen Soren. It’s appropriate to expand your horizons in any month of the year, but this tome is an especially perfect read for Black History Month.
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The growing public discussion about racism in this country has pushed forward a lot of helpful books, like How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. However, I wanted to learn more about how it affects the world of transportation, something I’m very familiar with. It ended up being a good choice because it showed me how it’s not just the big things in this country that are influenced by prejudice, but little pieces that most of us don’t think about.
In Soren’s book, she talks about how Black families saw automobiles as a refuge from the racism they faced on public transportation. While it wasn’t gone by any stretch of the imagination, in their cars Black people could sit where they wanted and talk freely.
One of the things that stood out to me was the popularity of larger cars, like those made by Lincoln and Cadillac, because they were more reliable and had lots of room. Besides being comfortable, however, the need for these cars had a dark side: Black motorists didn’t want the trouble of finding a tolerant mechanic shop on their trip, and more space meant it was easier to spend the night in the vehicle if there were no Black-friendly accommodations nearby.
That alone is eye-opening, but Soren goes on to talk about how Black families would have been uncomfortable seeing billboards using mammy caricatures and signs declaring whole towns unfriendly to their race as they drove. She doesn’t only covers the past, either — she talks about the current challenges facing Black motorists and how far we still have to go to even approach equality.
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Sometimes non-fiction can be a bit dry, but Soren presents the stark facts of her subject matter alongside personal stories from her family and famous Black personalities. The book also has several pictures and prints to illustrate its points and keep you engaged.
Last year I read Overground Railroad by Candacy Taylor to learn more about the famous Green Book travel guides. That book was very educational and very visual, but it was somewhat restricted to things The Green Book addressed in its pages. I appreciated the broader scope of this title, but you can certainly read both without being bored by repetition.
February is Black History Month, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn more about race in the United States all year. Consider picking up this book to learn more about the past and what you can do to make the future better.
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