“For African-American travelers in the Jim Crow-era South—often journeying from the north to visit relatives who had not joined the Great Migration—an unprepossessing paper-bound travel guide often amounted to a survival kit. The Green Book often functioned as a lifesaver,” writes Kathleen Burke of the Smithsonian.
The recently released movie Green Book, which opened to much acclaim, depicts a historically relevant tale based on one family’s recounting of a story that reconciles the racial divide between two very different people, people who ultimately recognize the common, race transcending humanity that ties them together. While the movie is worthy of its accolades, and offers an important view into America’s history of racism, its references to the real Green Book provide scant insight into the book’s importance as a once vital African-American travel guide for navigating the country safely. Even traveling with his white bodyguard, Don Shirley, the world renown classical and jazz pianist depicted in the movie, couldn’t be guaranteed protection from the violent racist reality of the time. Deeper digging is required to discover the Green Book’s true historical significance, and how it links to today’s reality.
In early 2016, especially in February during Black History Month, I prefaced a few of my posts with the words “Essential American History.” One of them was about the Green Book. Learning about the Green Book is to begin to understand how heartbreakingly difficult it was for many Americans to navigate a segregated nation. It is one more story in the countless many about racism that are critical to our understanding why it is no simple task to bring people together in trust and harmony given what we’ve done to each other.
To fully understand history details, context, and personal stories matter. They are essential. Not enough detail, context and personal stories find their way into our typical high school American history curricula and textbooks.
Arguably, there is only so much history that can be presented in a school year leaving students (and most of us throughout our lives) with only basic themes and highlights, omitting essential points that I believe affect how we look at one another in the United States, how we look at the rest of the world, and how the world looks back at us. A rudimentary history of the United States, let alone the world, is not sufficient to fully appreciate and celebrate the richness of our diversity, and what it means to the future of our country.
Without awareness of history’s details and context we miss points that may make a significant difference in how we relate to each other; how we welcome or exclude each other; and how we enact laws and promote behaviors that either treat everyone fairly, with dignity and justice, or discriminate against certain people leading to unfair treatment, degrading and devoid of the justice our country promises to all Americans.
The Green Book’s Black History, Brent Staples’ opinion piece that recounts “lessons from the Jim Crow-era travel guide for African American elites,” along with The Smithsonian and PBS stories listed below, documents the Green Book’s importance and relevance in American history. They are well worth reading to gain another much needed view into the cruel and demeaning realities created and sustained by white America.
How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation in the April 2016 Smithsonian Magazine is a story about The Negro Motorist Green-Book. It is accompanied by a Smithsonian online story, “Driving While Black” Has Been Around As Long As Cars Have Existed. Included with the online story is a link to a powerful and telling video clip from Green Book, a Ric Burns documentary scheduled for release in 2019. If anything, view the clip!
Further details, as well as links to Green Book copies, can be found in a 2013 PBS story “Green Book” Helped Keep African Americans Safe on the Road.
Understanding history matters. It is essential.
This blogpost was published in The Connecticut Mirror’s CT Viewpoints on February 13, 2019.
Don Shaw, Jr.