BENTONVILLE — Before I could drive, I found most car trips boring.
We used to take them, in the ’60s, rides through America in various Chevrolets. I always wanted to stop sooner than my parents did, for Krispy Kreme doughnuts you could tell were hot because the red light was on, for a dipped cone from some exotic dairy bar we didn’t have back where we lived. For a motel with a pool.
But we always pushed on, driving well after sundown, the orange lights of little cities glancing off our windshield. My parents always wanted to make good time and more than once we’d drive straight through the night. Buffalo, N.Y., to Savannah, Ga. Los Angeles to Tucson, Ariz. Headed from our house to the houses of family and friends: These were our road trips.
I remember a few times we stayed in motels; there was no planning involved, no reservations. We’d pull into the parking lot of some roadside arrangement of cottages and my mother would evaluate it. What her criteria was, I don’t think I ever knew, but we hardly ever stopped at the first place we came to. Maybe there was something just as nice on the way out of town that would give us just that much more of a start in the morning.
There were things we never thought about then. We never thought about how unusual it was that we could roam so far, so freely and so fast, with no borders to mind or people asking for our papers. We never encountered a town where signs warned us to be gone by nightfall.
Once in South Carolina I saw a billboard with a white-robed man on a rearing stallion and the words “This is Klan Country” and I felt something clutch in my chest, but after a conversation with my dad about how some people were ignorant and mean, it was ultimately decided that the billboard had nothing to do with me.
This land was our land, from California to the New York island. And if it wasn’t that way for every American, then it would be soon. I was going to school with Black and brown kids, we played sports together, we mixed socially. Those old attitudes were exhausted, they would die out with the generations that murdered Emmett Till and interned the Japanese Americans. By the time I was grown, American apartheid would be dull history.
That was wishful; tribalism runs deeper than our idealistic aspirations. It is better in some ways, though. There is no longer any need for “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guidebook for Black travelers published from 1936 to 1966. It was started by Harlem mailman Victor Hugo Green who was inspired by similar guides that existed for Jewish travelers.
Green understood firsthand the difficulties Black people faced when traveling in Jim Crow America — some towns did not have hotels or motels that would accept Black guests. There were restaurants that would not serve them and gas stations and garages that would not refuel or repair their cars. Green listed barbers and hairdressers, anticipating all kinds of services a traveler might need.
With a Mark Twain quote on its cover — “Travel is fatal to prejudice” — and a hopeful introduction that included the lines “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States,” the Green Book became an indispensable tool for Black families embarking on the same sort of holidays I endured as a kid.
While his first edition covered only the New York metropolitan area, Green soon expanded his guide to cover the entire country, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, with copies distributed through Esso Standard Oil service stations. (At the times, Standard Oil was one of the few oil companies that would sell Black entrepreneurs a gas station franchise.)
A lot of people found out about the Green Book in 2018, when it provided the title to a feel-good movie about characters played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen discovering their common humanity while on a road trip through the segregated South in 1962.
I didn’t care much for the movie, but some people were outraged by it, and it managed to win an Oscar for Best Picture in 2019 despite the director having films like 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” and 2001’s “Shallow Hal” on his résumé.
It was as warm-hearted and reassuring as Hollywood movies tend to be, but anyone who gets their history from Hollywood films gets the sort of history they deserve.
A lot of people could watch “Green Book” and feel pretty good about how far we’ve come as a nation. Challenging Americans’ self-conceptions as fair-minded and compassionate individuals who would never have owned a slave or yelled at a school girl might not be as viable a business plan.
Anyway, our current road trip — two adults old enough to remember the ’60s in the front seat, three terriers in the wayback — terminates here at the Momentary, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s adjacent gallery and performance space that’s operating under reduced capacity during what we all hope is the tail end of the covid-19 pandemic.
We’ve been meaning to come up for weeks, but weather, scheduling and other factors intruded (it’s hard enough to plan a trip when you don’t have to worry about sundown towns).
One of the exhibits at the Momentary through June 6 is Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams’ “Sanctuary,” which consists of 50 mixed-media collages and sculptures based on “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” Spanning two galleries, it presents as whimsical and light-hearted until you begin to think about the conditions that produced a need for the guide.
The Green Book was designed to lead a certain class of Americans to designated safe spaces; elsewhere their safety could not be guaranteed. Like the old legends read, “here be monsters.”
In an interview with Interview magazine a couple of years ago, Adams — who was born in 1970 — called his work “a very American story.”
“It wasn’t like I wanted to remake or glamorize the Green Book,” he said “I wanted to talk about what it represented for people at the time in a way that’s less literal. This particular body of work is about having people empathize with the idea of what it means to travel, to have borders, to have accessibility.”
Some of us have always been able to take accessibility for granted.
We have always been able to light out for the territory, to head on down the highway without a plan, beneficiaries of our invisible privilege.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.