The car is unquestionably one of the most influential inventions of the past nearly 150 years. Broadly speaking, it changed not just how, when and where we traveled, but also had major impacts on how our cities look and the condition of our environment. And that all just scratches the surface, as the car has had unique impacts on different groups of people. The new PBS documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” takes an in-depth and comprehensive look at the widely varying effects of the car and transportation as a whole on Black Americans from the days of slavery to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
As the documentary shows, the car certainly brought about many good things for Black people. The auto industry, while not 100-percent equitable by any means, provided many good-paying jobs and upward mobility for families moving away from the South. Cars offered private transportation that meant Black people could travel around without being subjected to segregation laws or intimidation at bus and train stops. They offered a way to get to parts of the country that could offer better livelihoods while also making it easier to get back home to family with less ability to move. Cars even played important roles in the Civil Rights Movement, with one particular example being the carpools that helped circumvent the discriminatory bus system during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Just as there were positives for Black people and cars, there were negatives. One consistent theme shown throughout the documentary is that of Black people still being at risk when traveling by car. In the Jim Crow era, Black people had to be extremely careful about where they went and where they stopped. Not all gas stations, hotels or restaurants would be welcoming, and frequently people would bring food, bedding and other supplies to make sure that they didn’t have to stop somewhere unfamiliar. This is what led to many pamphlets and travel guides, the most famous of which being The Green Book, that would tell Black people where they could safely eat and sleep on the road. The documentary also highlights modern-day issues such as the dangers of traffic stops and racist policing for Black people. And then there are the arguably more subtle problems of highway construction, which frequently cut through and separated Black communities, severely damaging them and the businesses there.
It’s a complex, fascinating, painful and hopeful documentary, and is well worth the two hours of your time to check out. It offers both excellent context for modern-day issues and a look at the past that isn’t always discussed enough. It’s available to watch at this link, or in the embedded video above, and can be viewed anytime through November 10.