The Nobility of Mobility: A Road Trip Through RacismHistorians in the News
tags: racism, travel, African American history, automobiles, car culture, leisure
White people who benefit from what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the wages of whiteness” usually take the ordinary process of going from here to there for granted. But as Stanford professor Allyson Hobbs points out, this everyday right was historically “not available to all Americans.” Today, as Pasadena City College professor Christopher West observes, “driving in a racist society” persists as a “gut-wrenching horror.”
These Black academics are among the interviewees in PBS’s Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America, which focuses on how U.S. “car culture” has, and continues to be, exclusionary.
The nearly two-hour documentary is a deep dive into the fraught history of Black people and transportation, from the Middle Passage, to passes permitting enslaved individuals to travel outside their plantations, to Jacob Blake getting shot in the back by police as he tried to re-enter his own SUV with his three young children inside.
Driving While Black is a captivating creative collaboration between a historian and a documentarian. Gretchen Sorin is a distinguished professor and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York Oneonta and author of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, on which the similarly named documentary is based. The Black scholar’s co-director is the white filmmaker Ric Burns, whom Sorin met while providing commentary for his 1999 New York: A Documentary Film.
Ric, the younger brother of filmmaker Ken Burns, co-produced the 1990’s landmark PBS nonfiction mini-series The Civil War. In 2012, when I interviewed Ken Burns about his film The Central Park Five he said: “In many ways it’s the same film, because almost every film we’ve done has touched on or come up against the question of race in America.”