Bloomberg • Best Nonfiction Books of 2020: "[A] tour de force."
The basis of a major PBS documentary by Ric Burns, this “excellent history” (The New Yorker) reveals how the automobile fundamentally changed African American life.
Driving While Black demonstrates that the car—the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility—has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road. Melding new archival research with her family’s story, Gretchen Sorin recovers a lost history, demonstrating how, when combined with black travel guides—including the famous Green Book—the automobile encouraged a new way of resisting oppression.
Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies at SUNY Oneonta, depicts the historical relationship between African-Americans and the automobile as one of promise as well as peril in this insightful debut. Drawing upon archival research, interviews, and her own family's history, Sorin emphasizes the strict limitations on mobility experienced by African-Americans from slavery's Middle Passage through the Jim Crow era, and the extent to which access to a car meant freedom, at least temporarily. Though black motorists in the Jim Crow South had to rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate gas stations, eateries, and motels that would serve them and to avoid "sundown towns" where they were at risk after dark, African-Americans viewed the car as an escape from the humiliation and dangers of segregated public transportation systems, Sorin writes. Car ownership, she contends, facilitated opportunities for travel and employment and provided African-Americans with a "rolling living room" to transport themselves from one "safe zone" to another. She illustrates how the increased confidence and broader horizons of black drivers fuelled the civil rights movement, while noting that the end of segregation doomed black-owned businesses that served the market. Lucidly written and generously illustrated with photos and artifacts, this rigorous and entertaining history deserves a wide readership.