Connected \\ August 22, 2018
Green Book Project
Growing up in the rural Florida Panhandle we didn’t own a car, which is probably why I didn’t know about The Green Book then. However, from others in my extended family who did own cars and who drove us to visit relatives or attend church conventions in Pensacola FL, Thomasville GA and Dothan AL, I experienced the planning and saw the rituals that occurred before and during every African-American family’s road trip. Safety was always the first concern; comfort was second. By safety I don’t mean driving carefully and obeying the laws. More specifically, I mean protecting the family from being harmed by others along the way.
Jonathan Calm (American, born 1971), Green Book (Jackson II), 2016, archival pigment print, Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, Image © Jonathan Calm.
So, when BBC producer Jeremy Grange and I, accompanied by photographer Jonathan Calm, started our road trip to record our radio program on The Green Book and to document the people and places we visited, those same concerns about safety that my relatives had shared with me as a young child kept bubbling up inside me. Quietly, I wondered what Jonathan Calm, a New York City-born black man making his first trip through the South, was feeling. What had his relatives told him about driving through the South and what were his instincts saying to him? In many ways, the two of us were like an old soul and a new soul making a journey from my Deep South past into our shared present—the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and its ongoing ramifications a recent memory.
Jonathan Calm, BBC Radio 4: The Green Book (Production Still I), 2016 © Jonathan Calm.
As we started our journey, the dense bushes and trees on either side of the two-lane roads we often traveled emerged as a source of both fascination and speculation. I told Jonathan and Jeremy that the woods, as we called them, used to be much closer to the road. The live oak trees formed shady canopies over the road—tunnels of dappled light with sky and sun appearing and disappearing overhead. This sounds cozier than it felt. You didn’t want to have a flat tire or a breakdown along these desolate, densely wooded stretches of road. Of course, there were rattlesnakes and other wild animals that you had to watch out for, but the real danger was that our vulnerability could be too much temptation for a group of white men or boys who might want to cause some “mischief.” And who knew where that would lead, or end?
As we drove from Tallahassee to Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, Memphis and finally Ferguson, we talked about the Great Migration. How ominous these roads, this landscape, must have felt for people leaving the South. Back then most of the roads would have been, as they were in my childhood, just two lanes, and most people would have travelled them at night to avoid notice. Long ago memories and feeling of these roads became intuitive, something my folks called “mother wit,” and now reemerge whenever I am driving in the South.