Friday, February 8, 2019

Black Travelers and US Racism

Last year I found an image of a book cover from the New York Public Library. The title was partially covered by a sticker, and I wondered what the full title had been. Now I found out the history of this book - or travel book series, in fact.

African Americans were involuntary road trip pioneers who wanted to travel in their own country in the middle of the 20th century. They had to reckon with hostility and rejection in so many places that traveling was a risk. Victor Hugo Green, a Harlem postal employee,  found that staying at home was no solution.

From 1936 he published an annual guide entitled "The Negro Motorist Green Book". Because, as the introduction to the last issue in the early 1960s should say: "Most people who go on holiday (...) are looking for a place to relax, unwind and take refuge from the worries of everyday life. Black travelers (...) are no exception."

Green was mainly aimed at those who wanted to go on road trips. The own car offered the chance to escape the segregated buses and trains. But dangers at stops remained on the way. In the worst case, there was the threat of open violence in so-called "sundown towns", places where black people should not appear on the streets after sunset. That white local and hotel owners rejected non-white guests was the order of the day anyway.

Green gave tips on where everyone was welcome, and according to the Washington Post his travel guides became the "Bible of black travel" in times of racism. Or as the Australian Smith Journal puts it: "For almost 30 years, the handy guide helped African Americans find safe places to eat, sleep, dance, have a haircut or manicure, refuel the car, have a suit made, or buy a pair of shoes."

Long before the great civil rights movement came into being, Green decided to get involved - motivated by the hope that things could get better.

The postman initially obtained his information pragmatically from colleagues. With their help and local knowledge, ever more extensive mailing lists were created. Interested business people, regardless of skin color, should also report themselves in order to be named in the next issue or to place advertisements. Green asked his readers to mention on the spot that they had reached the address via the tip. At the best times, the "Green Books" reached around 100 pages and a circulation of 15,000 copies - and one can assume that these went through many hands.

 "Carry your Green Book with you-you may need it".

Green always tried to avoid a feeling of fear, the editions were full of cheerful illustrations and emphasized the positive. Black travelers should also, as the optimistic Green put it in one of his guides, see themselves as "ambassadors of goodwill for our race to those who may not know us. "The day will soon come when this guide no longer has to be published," he wrote in 1949.

Green could not experience the legal breakthrough in equal rights in the USA through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the theme of his books made it to Hollywood: It became the Oskar “Film of the Year”.
The movie “Green Book”, a ‘60s-era Deep South road-trip story won not only the Oskar but also the coveted People’s Choice Award - among other prizes. 

A Peter Farrelly movie about a black pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver (Viggo Mortensen) in the Jim Crow South pleased also crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.


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