‘Driving While Black’ examines the history of African Americans on the road

The right to move freely and safely across the American landscape has always been unequally distributed by race and powerfully contested in the American experience. 

Driving While BlackPBS recently announced the a ground-breaking, two-hour documentary film by acclaimed historian Dr. Gretchen Sorin and Emmy–winning director Ric Burns – will air on PBS on Tuesday, October 13, 2020 at 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Chronicling the riveting history and personal experiences – at once liberating and challenging, harrowing and inspiring, deeply revealing and profoundly transforming  –  of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the seismic changes of the 1960s and beyond – “Driving While Black” explores the deep background of a recent phrase rooted in realities that have been an indelible part of the African American experience for hundreds of years – told in large part through the stories of the men, women and children who lived through it.

Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship – and based on and inspired in large part by Gretchen Sorin’s recently published study of the way the automobile and highways transformed African American life across the 20th century. The film examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the Civil Rights movement and beyond, exploring along the way the deeply embedded dynamics of race, space and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history.

“Driving while Black,” the writer/ scholar Herb Boyd says in the film, “entails so much more than the simply driving while Black. It’s living while Black. It’s sleeping while Black. It’s eating while Black. It’s moving while Black. So, when we start talking about the restrictions placed on Black movement in this country, that’s a long history. That goes all the way back to day one. And so, you have to get to the root of it.”

With urgent and powerful relevance to issues and dynamics at work in American society today – of race and class, gender, safety, law enforcement, automobile culture, recreation, personal freedom and national identity – this resonant and deeply moving history is at once revelatory, troubling and deeply inspiring for what it uncovers about the long road to justice in American history, and about the creativity, courage and commitment to change that makes it possible.

“I think this story resonates tremendously with Americans, both Black and white, because everyone understands and remembers driving or riding in an automobile, and many people have the experience of going on an annual family vacation,” Sorin said. “But while these vacations may be fairly universal American experiences, Black and white travelers went down parallel roads, and the experience for Black drivers on the road is something unknown to most white Americans. For African Americans, travel by automobile during the 20th century posed a paradox: although cars freed them from the tyranny of the Jim Crow bus or train, they faced intimidation and even violence when they ventured out on the road.”

Sorin, a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, started her research more than 20 years ago as an exhibition curator assembling visual records and oral histories of how the automobile provided greater mobility for Black Americans while further exposing them to systemic racism across the country.

The documentary utilizes a rich archive of material from the period — including footage, photographs, advertisements, road signs, maps, letters and legal records — and weaves together oral histories and the on-camera insights of scholars, writers, musicians and ordinary American travelers.

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