The automobile has always represented freedom and mobility. But the reality for Black Americans is a lot more complex.
A few years ago, soon after the shooting death of Black motorist Philando Castile, my friend Neal Pollack reached out to talk about a phenomenon he’d just heard of—”Driving While Black.” Having been Black my entire life, I was too happy to share with my buddy the challenges and constant apprehension that many Black people experience when driving (and honestly, doing virtually anything in public). So when Neal reached out recently asking me to review an upcoming PBS documentary, Driving While Black, it seemed apt for me to do so.
Driving While Black is so much more than I expected. Clocking in at almost two hours, its scope is breathtaking. The documentary opens with historian Gretchen Sorin’s framing of this organizing framework:
Mobility is essential to freedom. The automobile shows us the value of mobility in a free society. But it also goes beyond mobility. It allows us to understand how African Americans have moved forward in this society, and the ways this society have held them back.
The central premise of Driving While Black is that while mobility and travel, exemplified by the automobile, has represented freedom and liberty for White Americans, the reality for Black Americans is fraught with complexity. Visually stunning, with animated graphics, documents, still images, and video, Driving While Black spins a narrative of the constraints of mobility and travel, all the way back to 1619 when slavers captured the first Africans and transported them via the Middle Passage to Jamestown, Virginia. Chattel slavery demanded control over Black bodies and limited mobility and travel for enslaved people. The documentary vividly recounts the testimony of Fountain Hughes, a formerly enslaved man, in a recording from 1949: “We were slaves… we belonged to people. I couldn’t go across the street without a note from my master.”
These consequences, levied by slave-catchers eventually transformed into American policing: state-sanctioned control over Black people and their ability to travel. Vagrancy laws, loitering laws, and even the seemingly innocuous query “where are you going?” are linked to the premise that White agents of the state have the ability to control the movement of Black people, at any time, for any reason.
The documentary describes the promise of Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and how, for a time, we achieved some advances toward freedom and justice. But by 1877, Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. This advances Driving While Black to an era more familiar to most: the 20th century and the peak of racial segregation.
Politicians purposively designed Jim Crow laws to diminish the dignity of Black Americans. They traveled in the back of buses or in the parts of trains covered with soot, only to arrive at stations with separate facilities and food options. Therefore, the advent of personal car ownership—introduced by auto magnate Henry Ford, who held racist and anti-Semitic views—also provided opportunities for advancement and middle-class wages for Black Americans who moved to Detroit during the Great Migration in the early 20th century. The documentary presents a revealing story of how car ownership was a sign of middle-class achievement and a way of marking social progress, especially for those African Americans returning to the South.
But though these events brought the promise of mobility closer for African Americans, it created more hazards and threats to liberty and life. Driving While Black conveys the visceral fear of Black motorists, who traveled with the fear that if they needed food, gas, or lodging, there was no guarantee that people would welcome them as customers. The intersplicing of footage from lynchings (with smiling White crowds, and children) drives this point home.
This very real fear created an opportunity for Black entrepreneurs—innkeepers, restaurateurs, and club owners. Victor Green, a postman turned travel writer, created the Green Book, an essential guide for Black motorists from the 1930s to the 1960s. The documentary introduces us to the Black hoteliers and business owners in New Orleans, Denver, and other cities that served as safe havens for Black travelers and their families. This is the most heartwarming part of the documentary, as we hear and see the memories of leisure with families, providing some lightness regarding a fairly weighty topic. But a grim undertone always lingers. While people often regarded the building of the U.S. Interstate system as a quantum leap in the chronicle of American transportation, the documentary also juxtaposes the freedom and access it afforded with the concurrent story of urban renewal, slum clearance, and redlining.
The final 30 minutes of Driving While Black brings us to the present: the all-too-familiar chronicles of Black motorists harassed, beaten, and shot to death by law enforcement officers. The documentary reminds us that the assembled experts—historians, activists, and community organizers—are mothers, fathers, and members of a community who live in fear of the mundane traffic stop escalating to the injury or death of a loved one. As we observe police beating and shooting Rodney King, Philando Castile, and Jacob Blake, historian Christopher West tells his interviewer: “Driving while Black is as core as driving while afraid. And if I have to fear the state, the state that we are all part of, then am I a member of the state? Is my son?”
Driving While Black is a visually-gripping chronicle of how different America has been for White and Black citizens, and an educational tool that resists focusing only on the present phenomenon of recorded interactions between Black drivers and the police. Instead it immerses the viewer in the deep history that has always presented Black Americans with fear and violence in regard to travel and mobility. Driving While Black will be an ideal conversation starter, and an opportunity for empathetic connection for all Americans, and perhaps the possibility of inspiring a much-needed policy review of policing in America.