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History of mobility — and mobility denied — told in new PBS documentary 'Driving While Black'

Side view of a family sitting in a four door sedan in the 1960s. (H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
Side view of a family sitting in a four door sedan in the 1960s. (H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Watch “Driving While Black” here.

Viewers might expect the new PBS documentary “Driving While Black” to be focused on current events — like the disproportionate number of Black drivers stopped by white police officers for low-level or no offenses, and what Black parents tell their children about in “the talk” about driving.

But only the last few minutes of the documentary are devoted to recent incidents. The majority of the film delves into history, helping viewers understand how current traffic stops are an outcome of more than 100 years of stifled mobility for Black Americans.

Craig Steven Wilder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor who is featured in the film, says the term “driving while Black” isn’t merely a slogan.

“It’s not just part of our political rhetoric. It’s not just something we say to remind ourselves of the persistence of racism in the United States,” he says. “It’s a very personal experience of remembering, in fact, the anxiety, the fear.”

Co-creator and historian Gretchen Sorin says there’s a connection between her childhood memories of driving with her parents — and anxieties about traffic stops today — with the history of Black driving presented throughout the film.

Interview Highlights

On the restrictions to mobility that Black people faced after slavery ended

“There were so many places in the country where African Americans could not go. There were sundown towns. Those are towns that you had to be out of before sundown or something terrible would happen. There were angry mobs that you had to deal with and everything. Of course, [the] North and South [were] segregated … and you didn’t necessarily know the rules because, the way segregation worked, there were different rules of etiquette in every single state. And in the South, while there were signs that told you ‘colored only’ or ‘whites only.’ In the North, segregation was by custom and tradition, so you just were expected to know where you were not welcome.

“African Americans really preferred to drive these really large cars, … and the reason wasn’t because of vanity or more beauty. They wanted large cars because they had a large trunk, and in that trunk, you could carry everything that you needed. You might carry blankets and pillows because you couldn’t stop at a hotel. You might carry all of the food that you needed for whatever the trip was because there were no restaurants that you could stop at. You might carry a can or two of gasoline because you didn’t know if the gas station that you pulled into would sell you any gas … so you really had to carry a lot of stuff in your car just to make sure that you could get your family from Point A to Point B safely. And, of course, you had to carry that large coffee can as a pee can, … just in case you weren’t allowed to use the bathroom at the local gas station.”

Watch on YouTube.

On her personal memories of driving

“As I worked on this, I started to really understand my parents and understand their peculiar behaviors … I’m the product of the Great Migration. My parents moved to New Jersey from North Carolina in 1948. Every summer, we would get in the car, the family Ford, and we would drive back to Fayetteville, North Carolina, but we would get up at three o’clock in the morning and drive in the dark because my father felt that it was good to get an early start. Well, I learned as I did this research that most African Americans like to drive in the dark, because, when you’re driving in the dark, it’s harder to tell who’s in the car. It’s less likely that you’re going to be stopped.”

On the “Green Book,” explored in the 2018 film of that name, which refers to a guide written by Victor Hugo Green filled with restaurants, lodges, resorts and gas stations where Black people would be welcome

“A huge network, a network of tourist homes and guesthouses and hotels and motels and restaurants and little sandwich shops … that were welcoming, … that wanted African American patronage. Also, it had advertisements for gas stations, so you knew which places would accept you and where you could use the bathroom. [Green’s] … guide was not the only one. There were dozens and dozens of these guides [that] I’m sure [were] mostly just tossed in the trash … when legal segregation ended, but this is how African-Americans navigated across the country.”

On whether she feels this age-old terror when driving today

“You know, it’s funny, I was telling my husband the other day that whenever I see a police car, … it just catches me up short. It terrifies me. I think of so many African Americans going out on the road … We certainly don’t hate the police, but the feeling that you don’t want to encounter that one … police officer, male or female, that could be a racist, that really is terrified of you because of the color of your skin, that’s, I think, the current terror. I mean, every person that worked on this, all of the scholars, had some story about being stopped by the police or having their child stopped by the police. It’s quite terrifying.

“I remember, during the unrest in Newark in the 1960s, I was in a car with my mom and we were going home to the suburbs where we then lived. My mother had on her headlights, and we got stopped at a checkpoint, and a National Guardsman started screaming at her that she shouldn’t have her headlights on … As I worked on this, that story came back to my mind. You know, she didn’t understand that she wasn’t supposed to be driving with her headlights on — it was nighttime — but he had his gun leveled at us because he assumed that she was trying to blind him with her headlights, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“It really kind of frightens me because there’s so many misunderstandings. You know, police will assume that someone who’s African American must be a drug dealer if [they’re] driving a nice car. We stereotype people. We have stereotyped all of the police as if they are a monolithic group. I know that there are so many police that are very upset about what they see happening and about their profession being maligned.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtElie Levine adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.