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PBS Documentary, 'Driving While Black,' Examines Long Road Of Racism


Tonight, PBS debuts "Driving While Black." It's a documentary that posits major events, like the Civil War or the civil rights movement, are connected to the ability, or lack thereof, of Black Americans to travel. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says that after watching it, you might never look at your car the same way again.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The film "Driving While Black" offers an idea that's both eye-opening and surprisingly simple - that much of the nation's turmoil over slavery, racial issues and civil rights connects to the ability of Black people to move freely through the country.


GRETCHEN SORIN: Mobility is essential to freedom.

DEGGANS: That's historian Gretchen Sorin. She developed the film with director Ric Burns based on her book "Driving While Black: African American Travel And The Road To Civil Rights."


SORIN: It allows us to understand the way that African Americans have moved forward in this country and the way that African Americans have been pushed back.

DEGGANS: And the drama of this story is summed up by historian Christopher West.


CHRISTOPHER WEST: I think it's really, really tough for the majority of Americans to begin to even understand the gut-wrenching horror that is driving in a racist society.



DEGGANS: Experts like West, largely African American, are the voice of the film. They outline how modern problems with Black motorists overpoliced by suspicious officers connect back to a long history of controlling Black mobility. The film also deftly uses archival photographs, quotes from notable writers and a well-chosen soundtrack.

Its story reaches back to before the Civil War, when slaveholding states of the South used a network of white volunteer posses to make sure no Black people were traveling without permission from their owners. Controlling the movement of Black people to control their labor was important. But when a law passed allowing owners to retrieve runaway slaves from Northern states, Sorin said it also showed those Northerners how they were complicit in slavery.


SORIN: They watched as African Americans were dragged from homes or put into jails. They were being taken back into slavery. They saw the suffering of those people. The Fugitive Slave Act really lit the fuse that brought about the Civil War.

DEGGANS: When cars became commonplace, white people were enticed with advertisements about the fun of driving on the open road. But for Black people, cars were an oasis, shelter from the dehumanizing conditions often imposed on Black travelers by Jim Crow-era segregation laws for buses and trains.

Still, Black motorists couldn't be sure how they would be treated in an unfamiliar hotel or gas station, so they relied on directories listing safe spaces like the famous "Green Book" guide, which inspired the Oscar-winning movie. And they took along all the food and blankets they would need to make the trip, as Sorin herself remembers from her own family journeys.


SORIN: My parents would always carry one of those big green Coleman coolers - those big, heavy metal coolers - and it would be full of fried chicken and potato salad. And it never dawned on me at the time why that was. But we never - we never stopped.

DEGGANS: It's sad and revelatory to learn from "Driving While Black" how many landmark moments in this nation's history were affected by the mix of racism, African Americans and cars. But it's also heartening to see how Black people eventually found their freedom on the open road, no matter the danger or the forces aligned to stop them.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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