Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, is a book penned by Dr. Gretchen Sorin, a distinguished professor at The State University of New York College at Oneonta (SUNY).
I was made aware of the book’s existence in a very unlikely place – a guest article in my latest edition of MotorTrend. For those of you unaware, MotorTrend is an American automobile magazine which dates back to September 1949.
When the September issue of MotorTrend landed in my mailbox with the Driving While Black guest article, it seemed like fate was encouraging me to continue on with my quest for more information on racial divides in our country.
Mark Rechtin, Editor-in-Chief at MotorTrend, said, “Some of you will read this and say, ‘Stay out of politics. Stick to cars.’ Like it or not, the automotive industry is incontrovertibly linked to politics. Laws passed by politicians dictate what we drive, where we drive and how fast we drive. But I’d argue this is above politics. This is a human rights issue.”
As a white male in America, I’ve come to understand and realize that I’ve unknowingly inherited certain privileges in society. Privileges which have undeniable made my passage through life far less complicated and void of struggles many Black Americans have had to face.
The Driving While Black article made me realize that one of those struggles includes something many white Americans take for granted each and every day – the simple act of driving.
“The ability to travel freely without restriction is a basic right of a free society that holds special meaning for Black Americas,” says Sorin in Driving While Black. “The automobile enabled this mobility, making self-directed travel a possibility when travel by bus and train could lead to humiliating or event life-threatening encounters.”
Driving while black meant bigger cars
For the white car shopper of today, their priorities are for bigger and bigger SUVs with more and more get up and go under the hood. It’s an amusing shift in the automotive landscape given the fact that families have less children, rarely transport anything larger than a grocery bag and are restricted from pushing the pedal to the metal due to crowded highways and city streets.
For the Black American motorist during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, horsepower and size were top priorities as well, but for very different reasons. “Horsepower and size mattered, not for showing off but for giving Black American drivers the ability to escape from being stopped or harassed by white citizens eager to take the law into their own hands.”
They preferred larger cars over compacts not because of style but utility. It allowed them to carry blankets and pillows so they could sleep in their cars. Large trunks were often filled to capacity with baskets of non-perishable food and water, clothing and toiletries, empty coffee cans to use in place of bathrooms and sometimes, jugs of gasoline in case a service station was unwilling to wait on them.
In an age where so many are willing to adopt autonomous driving – easily relinquishing the wheel without any remorse – I ask that you not forget what the ability to have a car and drive around freely meant to Black Americans. Perhaps for some, it’s still a powerful reminder of days long ago and issues which are still not so far away. Remember, driving is a privilege – and not so long ago, it was a white privilege.
Sorin concludes, “Although there continue to be disparities between African American life and white life, Black travelers today generally do not worry about being lynched by white mobs or being turned away from hotels simply because of skin color. For the most part, driving into “unknown” communities is less dangerous today than it was a half century ago—though the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery for jogging in a white neighborhood is a frightening reminder of the desire of some white Americans to control the mobility of Black Americans.”