There is an element of my upcoming trip, that when placed in an historical perspective, compels a story of privilege. Back in July, the VSB writer Brian Broome wrote a piece "I Want To Take The Great American Roadtrip Through The Heartland, But I'm Scared Because I'm, You Know, Black."
And this isn't a response to an invented media "hype" about police brutality, misconceptions about the expansive racial thinking of our President or a failure to "move on." Its fundamentally a response to two things: privilege and living history and how they conspire to psychologically lock Americans out of this experience.
"What good is the open road," the author asks, "if it isn't open to you?"
There are at least two threats to the open road that I cannot say, as much as I wish to, that I believe have been eliminated for my black countrymen and women: the threat of embarrassment and the threat to life.
What its like to roll through communities where citizens are openly antagonistic – even proud of that antagonism – and to feel the chilled sweat of an invisible fear on my palms is something that I have not experienced. At least experienced uniquely toward me as a white person; the fears I've faced – stuck in a washout, locked in the mud of the Great Salt Lake, caught in the Mojave with an overheated truck, or smashed up by a runaway rig – these are circumstances of the road and ignorance. Not a function of my race.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented an "explosive rise" in the number of hate groups over the last 100 years. SPLC data suggests the rise accelerated in 2009, the year President Obama took office, but declined after that. According to a recent report, "The number of hate groups operating in the country in 2016 remained at near-historic highs, rising from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year, according to the latest count by the SPLC. That’s only about 100 fewer organizations than the 1,018 tallied in 2011, which was the all-time high in some 30 years of SPLC counts." The rises documented in SPLC studies are made up, in large part, by increases in anti-Muslim and neo-Confederate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Map identifies the location of 917 hate groups across the country.
In the early part of the century, when hate groups were largely undocumented and served as an invisible network across communities, the black community responded to the (truly) great American motoring appetite with "The Negro Motorist Green Book," akin to a Fodor's for black folk with cars.
The idea for the Green Book came to Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green in 1932 and the first edition was published in 1936. The guide would be published for another 30 years. In a forward to the 1956 edition, the guide's assistant editor Novera Dashiell writes, "The idea crystallized when, not only himself but several friends and acquaintances complained of the difficulties encountered; oftentimes painful embarrassments suffered which ruined a vacation or business trip."
What I most love about this book is what I most respect about the civil rights movement and all that the movement's members have contributed toward our efforts to build "a more perfect union." And it is the future-forward optimism that closes the introduction, the recognition that despite the pain of the present, perseverance, solidarity and hard work will produce a better, brighter future.
Dashiell writes, "Our leaders and educators look forward to the day when as a racial group, we will enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed us, but as of now withheld in certain areas of these United States.In looking ahead…A trip to the moon? Who knows? It may not be so improbable as it sounds. A New York scientist is already offering for sale pieces of real estate on the moon. When travel of this kind becomes available, you can be sure your Green Book will have the recommended listings!"
Here's to the legacy of "The Negro Motorist Green Book" and a future when it is no longer needed for the safety and security it provided citizens of color, but rather a guide through a shared and valued history of our nation.
The experiences of young travelers like Khellie Braxton give me hope that this nation is coming. In a recent ATTN: article, "Here's What It's Like Taking a Long Road Trip as a Person of Color" she talks about a particular time in Texas when her car broke down, and she and her partner had to thumb it for help.
"Texas is a red state and maybe the things that you do and the lifestyle you live isn't necessarily accepted there," she told the interviewer. "That was my idea in my head. My experience though was the complete opposite."
So while I count it as a privilege to embark on this Search for America, I do it with a recognition of the privilege that it entails – at multiple levels, not just racial – and with a hope that the American road becomes a place where we all pursue our appetites for adventure, our restless appetite to move, and the joys of discovery.