Current Project

My second book project is titled Far From Sanctuary: African American Journeys and the Road to Civil Rights (forthcoming, Harvard University Press, Fall 2019).

Far from Sanctuary argues that the national fraternity of American motorists excluded African Americans during the early to mid-twentieth century despite the ostensibly democratic nature of the “open road.” My goal is to provide a textured account of the emotional lives of black drivers including the sense of pride, the seduction, and the exhilaration that owning a car offered while considering the fears and anxieties that arose once African Americans motorists got behind the wheel. The road was (and certainly, still is) a site of racial contestation. I describe the conflicts between black drivers and owners of hotels, motels, rest areas, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, and gas stations that refused to serve African Americans. Far from Sanctuary calls for a reconsideration of “automobility” and the role of the car in American culture.

The critical question that this project raises is:  how does the social and cultural history of the automobile change if we examine it through the eyes of black motorists?  At times, the car held similar meanings for black and white drivers as both groups desired recognition and treatment as “consumer citizens” in the burgeoning post-World War II economy.[1] But most forms of citizenship eluded African Americans even as they achieved the accoutrements of middle-class status including increased purchasing power through credit cards. The automobile was a contradictory and conflicted symbol for black drivers and passengers. On occasion, it delivered on its promise to offer freedom, autonomy, and individualism. But in other moments, the automobile could create painful humiliations, lasting frustrations, and bitter embarrassments. To tell these stories, I have assembled a wide spectrum of sources including oral histories, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies, diaries, newspaper articles and editorials, personal papers, and correspondence.  

The Negro Motorist Green Book

To research this project, I am taking to the road.  I am following "The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide," a travelogue that cost $0.75 and offered black migrants and travelers eighty pages of listings of friendly tourist homes, hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barbershops, nightclubs, and service stations. The need for the “Green Book” became more urgent by 1949 as increasing numbers of African Americans were taking to the road. Victor H. Green, a Harlem postal worker and publisher of the Green Book, printed 15,000 travel guides annually. The last edition was published in 1965, but black travelers continued to rely upon these guides for decades. Revisiting this popular travel guide will reveal the ways that African Americans maneuvered around the humiliations and indignities of racial segregation. Harvard University Press will publish Far from Sanctuary in the fall of 2019. 

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[1] See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).


 
 

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life