It’s not uncommon to see Christians point to 1945-1960 (loosely, “the 1950s”) as some kind of Good Old Days that were wrecked by mean ole liberals who hate fun. The mythology these Christians believe is that people were much happier back then and that society was much safer and more law-abiding because everyone “knew their place.” Such Christians feel that everything’s all jumbled up and confused. One politician (if we simply must use that word to describe him) is even basing his entire Presidential campaign around this idea of a onetime Mayberry utopia where everyone lived in peace and harmony in their separate-but-equal spheres. But one book puts the lie to that illusion.
A Guidebook For the Age.
It was called The Negro Motorist Green Book (or The Green Book for short). It was published and updated annually from the 1930s to the 1960s, and it was a guidebook for black Americans who wished to travel across the United States with as little hassle as possible. It functioned as a sort of AAA travel guide for black people in an era when businesses had the legal right to refuse them service–and when many areas were very unsafe for black people traveling by private car. This guide listed businesses that respected civil rights–from hotels and restaurants to hairstyling salons and clothing boutiques. (Here’s the 1949 version in PDF format.)
Victor Green, the Harlem postal worker who created and curated the book, got the idea for it after hearing one too many horror stories from his friends and loved ones about their experiences on the road. What he published wasn’t so much a modern tourism guide directing travelers to the best places, as one user of the guide noted in The New York Times, but rather one that directed them to “where there was any place.” (Emphasis mine.)
During the years the book was printed, a black family in unfamiliar territory wasn’t just on uncomfortable ground while traveling–they were on potentially dangerous ground too. Having a reliable guidebook listing safe and accommodating businesses was much more than simply a relief; rather, its existence was a necessity.
In the excellent documentary Soul Food Junkies, filmmaker Byron Hurt asks his mother why his family always packed a lunch when they traveled. His mother replies, with some surprise, that originally they had to pack food because they either didn’t know if there’d be a restaurant down the road that would serve black customers, or else already knew that there wasn’t one.
The documentary maker had grown up after it’d become illegal to discriminate like that, but years and years later, his mother still packed a lunch for their road trips. She told him it was simply a habit. They had gotten used to doing it, she said, so they kept doing it long after it’d become unnecessary.
With a sinking sensation, I began to wonder as I watched about whether or not this habit was really so unnecessary.
One Planet, Two Worlds.
One of the most pernicious aspects of privilege is that those who have it don’t tend to notice how different life is for those who don’t have it. Their worlds are totally alien to each other. The people who needed something like The Green Book knew quite well what it was, why they needed it, where to find it, and how to use it. And the people who didn’t? Well, they didn’t even know it existed–and likely had no idea why something like it would even be necessary.
It’s not just a thought exercise for those lacking privilege to imagine a world where they literally don’t know without serious investigative work whether or not there’ll be a single restaurant or gas station up ahead that will allow them through the door. It’s not just speculation and idle curiosity for someone in a marginalized and persecuted group even today to ask whether or not they’ll be safe in the next town along the highway, or if they ought to maybe move along to another, more compassionate one further down the road in hopes of finding food and rest.
While white people were writing travel guides that sang the praises of the open road to the heavens, The Green Book was ominously advising black motorists, “Carry your GREEN BOOK with you–you may need it.”
Is any of this sounding familiar at all? Because it should. It really should.
Because it sure as hell seems like a lot of right-wing Christians would absolutely love to return to a society where the people they hate most need to worry every time they leave their homes about whether or not they’ll find lodging, food, fuel, or even physical safety.
The Happy Christian Society Illusion.
Christians often pretend that back in some mythical “good ole days,” everything was much better than it is today. The exact time-period changes from Christian to Christian, but usually they mean the 1950s, when Christians ruled supreme and nobody had the power to stop them from controlling everything in sight. I’ve described this belief as “the Happy Christian Society/Marriage Illusion,” this idea that people, families, societies, and marriages function best when they operate along the lines of fundagelical teachings–and that their groups are much happier and healthier than ones that reject those teachings.
Christians who fall into this kind of thinking are expressing a variant of the Argument from Nostalgia or the Appeal to Tradition:
Premise: At this one specific point in history, everything was sooooo much better than it is today.
Premise: This new idea interferes with that old wonderful way of doing things.
Conclusion: We should reject this new idea and cling more firmly to the old way of doing things.
Expectation: Everything will be wonderful again once we go back to doing things like we did back during that previous point in history.
Phil Robertson, Cliven Bundy (the so-called “welfare queen in a cowboy hat”), and a variety of other Christian leaders (note: this is a long essay, but one that should be considered essential reading) insist up and down that during these utopian wonder-years, black people were treated well and kindly by their white overlords, that most areas were happy wonderlands of racial equity, safety, prosperity, friendship, and solidarity, and that these wonderlands were totally ruined by the Civil Rights Era and its calls for equality and justice. Mr. Robertson himself, who grew up in a Southern town rocked by racial hate crimes during the worst of the Jim Crow era, extolled the glories of those mythical “good ole days” at great length:
I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Really? Is he sure of that? Because The Green Book shows what the reality of American culture really was for a vast swathe of its citizens.
Is an entire book devoted to helping black people escape racist victimization while traveling enough for the Phil Robertsons of the world to acknowledge that racism was a serious problem that made black people’s lives precarious and unhappy?
What about 30 years’ worth of those books? Is that maybe enough?
(That was a rhetorical question; we both know the answer, right?)
A Refutation of Nostalgia.
A book like The Green Book couldn’t exist in a society that was really as peaceful, happy, safe, and fulfilled as fundagelicals pretend their “good ole days” were. It could only exist in an environment of racial tension, injustice, and simmering resentment–in an environment where black Americans needed to protect themselves from bigotry.
The NYT quotes the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History, Lonnie Bunch, to illustrate this point:
The “Green Book” tried to provide a tool to deal with those situations. It also allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism. . . As segregation ended, people put such things away. They felt they didn’t need them anymore. It brought a sense of psychological liberation.
Indeed, in that Soul Food documentary, the documentary creator himself, Mr. Hurt, appears not to know about this book’s existence until his conversation with his mother about the packed lunches. I can only imagine what a point of pride it must have been for parents oppressed by racism to raise a child who didn’t need to utilize such a resource or even to learn about its existence–to see that particular part of institutionalized racism so far back in the rear-view mirror that one didn’t need to keep that specific resource on hand just in case. It must have felt like boarding up the door to the fallout shelter in the basement.
Things still aren’t where they need to be, obviously. Racism is still a grotesque specter haunting far too many public spaces. But at least The Green Book fulfilled the hopes of its creator: it stopped being a necessity for all black travelers to own a copy of it.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was not “Jesus” that brought about the small improvements American culture has seen regarding racism. It was legislation and court action; it was recognition of “freedom of association” as a basic human right and a refusal to negotiate away even one bit of that right so that racists could feel more comfy-cozy in their insular bubbles.
But those same racists, infuriated by decades of smackdowns, legal losses, and general mockery from the rest of society, wouldn’t mind seeing those bad ole days return–and they think they’ve found a way to do it.
Stopping the Wheel from Turning.
We’re going to be talking next time about some terrible new revelations to come out of the the Religious Right, but here I just want to note that the old adage is true: when we don’t know our history, we are way more likely to repeat its worst episodes.
Indeed, with the advent of “religious liberty” legislation, we are seeing an attempt to return our culture to those days. For bigots, it’s not simply about having an environment of inequality and not having their pristine businesses sullied by the presence of people they hate. It’s about denying rights to those hated people. It’s about physically closing one’s door and pointedly ignoring someone seeking service. It’s about flexing superiority and dominance–and expressing those attitudes around victims who won’t be able to resist without taking terrible risks.
But that bigotry is getting harder and harder for those feeling it to express it, thanks to growing awareness about what life was like back when those bigots had more unfettered access to their intended victims (and a growing understanding of how similar different kinds of bigots are to each other).
Awareness is the key to crawling out of the pit that fundagelicals dug for us so long ago. From children’s animation to stage plays to fiction books, The Green Book is finally getting the renewed attention it deserves. Besides the sources I’ve already linked you to, one can read more about it at The Green Book Chronicles, a website devoted to the book.
As the book itself puts it, quoting well-known dissenter to Christianity Mark Twain on its very cover, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
We’ll see you next time, when we look at one way that travel is having exactly that effect on society.