Mobility has been central to the American identity—think of the automobile, the perceived freedom that comes with it, the open road—but Black Americans have never possessed the same freedom to move around as whites. From the slave patrols policing the movement of Black Americans in the nineteenth century to the indignities and violence that Blacks suffered on road-trips in the twentieth, Black travelers in the United States have faced violence, indignities, and a confusing and contradictory set of racist rules. This history—the history of the Black experience of travel in the United States—is expertly and beautifully told by Mia Bay in her new book Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Harvard UP, 2021)
In addition to examining the white-supremacist restrictions on Black travel, Bay—the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Chair in American History at the University of Pennsylvania—foregrounds how Black Americans coped (The Negro Motorist Green Book is one such example) and even resisted travel segregation. In fact, by putting travel at the center of her analysis, Bay sheds new light on the the civil rights movement. Finally, Bay concludes the book with an epilogue on the continuities into the present, writing that “there's no need to travel back in time to travel Black.”
Dexter Fergie is a doctoral student in US and global history at Northwestern University. His research examines the history of ideas, infrastructure, and international organizations.