A groundbreaking, two-hour documentary film has aired on local PBS stations around the nation chronicling the harrowing history and personal experiences of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the tumultuous 1960s and beyond.
The film “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” by historian Dr. Gretchen Sorin and Emmy–winning director Ric Burns explores the deep background of the common colloquialism “driving while Black” that has been a critical part of the African American experience.
The stories are told in large part through the accounts of the men, women and children who lived through it.
“Driving while Black,” the writer and scholar Herb Boyd says in the film, “entails so much more than the simply driving while Black. It’s living while Black. It’s sleeping while Black. It’s eating while Black. It’s moving while Black.”
“So, when we start talking about the restrictions placed on Black movement in this country, that’s a long history. That goes all the way back to day one. And so, you have to get to the root of it.”
Based on and inspired in large part by Sorin’s recently published study of the way the automobile and highways transformed African American life across the 20th century, the film examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the civil rights movement.
The right to move freely and safely across the American landscape has always been unequally distributed by race and powerfully contested in the American experience, says Sorin.
She adds this resonant and deeply moving history is at once revelatory, troubling and deeply inspiring for what it uncovers about the long road to justice in American history.
“I think this story resonates tremendously with Americans, both Black and white, because everyone understands and remembers driving or riding in an automobile, and many people have the experience of going on an annual family vacation,” Sorin said.
“But while these vacations may be fairly universal American experiences, Black and white travelers went down parallel roads, and the experience for Black drivers on the road is something unknown to most white Americans.”
“For African Americans, travel by automobile during the 20th century posed a paradox: although cars freed them from the tyranny of the Jim Crow bus or train, they faced intimidation and even violence when they ventured out on the road.”
The film also explores “The Green Book,” the travel guide authored by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green.
From a first edition focused on the Northeast, Green expanded his guide to include much of the country, providing travel tips for African Americans driving, including safe and welcoming places to stop, dine and rest, as well as places to avoid, given the potential for racially motivated violence.
“Vacation without aggravation,” the book advised African American families planning a road trip.
Historian Craig Wilder says in the film, “For me, the term ‘driving while Black’ isn’t just a slogan, it’s not just part of our political rhetoric, it’s not just something we say to remind ourselves of the persistence of racism in the United States.”
“It’s a very personal experience of remembering, in fact, the anxiety, the fear, the concern that my mother and parents across the United States have as their children mature and as they try to equip them with the information that they need to negotiate our society.”
The film can be streamed on all PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App.