If “walk a mile in my shoes” is a way to invite another person to experience the world as you have, then Gretchen Sorin’s “Driving While Black” — a history of the centuries-long effort to limit and indignify black mobility — is that same concept magnified. Sorin’s book represents millions of miles traveled in millions of shoes over more than 100,000 days. If that sounds overwhelming, it is sometimes. In order to chronicle the history well, as Sorin does, one has to overwhelm.
Sorin begins with compulsory travel during the Middle Passage, considers the limitations on movement enforced during slavery, examines Jim Crow train cars, racism on interstate buses, and back-of-the-bus policies on city buses, all before she gets to cars.
For blacks, cars arrived as a haven. In an automobile, there is no Negroes-only railcar right behind the locomotive, filling up with soot. In a vehicle that you own, you never have to sit in the back or give up your seat to a white passenger. Cars allowed migration to industrializing cities. They made visiting relatives easier. Automobiles became a source of and tool for employment: taxi services, hauling jobs, musical gigs in multiple cities. Educators and civil rights leaders drove from town to town, promoting their ideas in person.
Cars served the struggle for civil rights in other ways. The Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott worked because folks with cars helped those without cars. After the automobile arrived, in order to stem revenue losses, trains and buses were forced to change racist policies.
But progress invites backlash, and the automobile is no exception. Gas stations, restaurants, hotels and repair shops often refused service to black customers or mistreated them. Blacks could not drive through certain cities or stay past 6 p.m. Blacks who traveled, within their town or outside of it, encountered violence and were killed sometimes, as we are today.
“Driving While Black” is a marvel. It is the work of a brilliant mind and a beautiful heart. Sorin, a professor at State University of New York at Albany, dazzles with plain language. She writes in a way that academics and laypersons will both admire. Sorin combines impeccable, exhaustive research and personal stories with a seamless elegance, somehow managing to hold the object under examination far enough away to consider it fully and close enough to really inhabit it.
The general history of racism on every conveyance won’t surprise most readers, but many readers will be bedeviled by the details, as I was. For example, big cars were essential because you could sleep in them, and the “Permit Pattys” of today are a continuation of times when all white citizens were deputized to enforce written and unwritten codes against blacks. There are many more.
The ability to relate to another person’s experience is the foundation of empathy. Books like “Driving While Black,” books that speak truths with clarity and urgency, have the power to change the world in two steps. First, they must be written. Then, they must be read.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul.
Driving While Black
By: Gretchen Sorin.
Publisher: Liveright, 332 pages, $28.95.