I have spent more time driving a car over the past three years than in decades prior, due to my move cross country from New York and Boston to the California Bay Area. Since then, I have been wondering how this practical shift in my mobility has also led to a more profound change of pace and purpose in the way I perceive and navigate the different worlds I move through as an educator and artist.
The reflection that stems from such heightened awareness correlates directly with the ongoing project I have been engaged in since the spring of 2016: the documentation of sites listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book (the guide published from 1936 to 1966 to help travelers of color find safe, dignified accommodations and services on the road during the Jim Crow era and segregation in the US) and the creation of bodies of work based on this research that trace and contextualize the experience and representation of African American automobility from past to present.
As a photographer, I am drawn to the visible. Yet being part of the great American car culture involves a becoming-invisible in the protective enclosure of one’s vehicle. Writing about the impact of the interstate highway system built in the late 1950s, scholar Cotten Seiler describes how the liberal ideological horizon of this network was based on “the anonymity of the driving subject,” and “enabled the African-American driver to pass”—in both senses of the word, and in two directions: “upward through socioeconomic strata and outward across geographical space.”
More than half a century later, the contradiction in the expression “driving while Black” remains that as long as we’re driving, our Blackness is, to a certain extent, rendered invisible. There is, moreover, a well-documented set of tactics on the part of Black drivers that is geared to minimize their racial presence. Many of us have conditioned ourselves to achieve a paradoxically self-effacing self-preservation, by avoiding roads known to be patrolled by police, by driving with extra caution, and by purchasing inconspicuous cars that are less prone to draw attention.
From the point of view of the driver’s eye, or the perspective of the “voyeur-voyager,” in philosopher Paul Virilio’s words, the experience of driving generates what Virilio calls a “dromoscopic vision,” or the impression that the inert landscape flashes by in fast motion. He likens the driver’s seat to a “landscape simulator,” and its occupant to an immobilized spectator, whose “comfort depends on being immobile while moving,” restrained by “straps which recall those of childhood.” Again, for drivers of color, this infantilizing position is pushed way beyond the phenomenological and into the existential realm. Black parents routinely tell their children to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to remain still until instructed otherwise if or when they are pulled over by police.
Stereotyped as fast and furious, the Black body freezes into a submissive survival mode that offers no guarantees. Eric Garner did not stop being perceived as a threat as long as he still managed to say he couldn’t breathe, but only after the last breath had been squeezed out of him. Virilio’s discourse offers no consideration of race. Therefore, the only violent end to the simulation he invokes is a car crash. The windshield is shattered, the body ejected into material reality, and the illusion broken, as “the spectators (...) become actors.” Black drivers, however, are not privileged to indulge any fantasies of disembodied spectatorship in the first place, because a sinister legacy of subjection to roadside violence has instilled in us what Seiler calls “a Black “;highway consciousness” distinct from that of white drivers.” The Black driver is always already an actor, compelled to perform his own erasure by hiding in plain sight of a surveillance system that may or may not allow him to escape physical death at the price of the emotional and psychological death of disappearance into invisibility, or in-car-ceration.
The spiritual awakening my Green Book journey has offered me, as I continue to cover thousands of miles in my Ram 1500 silver grey truck, is the opportunity to explore the tension that transforms vulnerability into freedom, where the exposures enacted by my camera and my body become one. I’m certainly no stranger to the viewing pleasures of Virilio’s exhilarating ride, but I have come to realize that the automobility my work seeks to represent is more contemplative in nature, can be expressed as much through portraiture as through landscape photography, and is equally inclusive of moving Black bodies, faces and stories as impressions of buildings and destinations on a map. In this sense, the tentative itinerant vision behind my odyssey is perhaps best articulated through the title of the second volume of Langston Hughes’s autobiography, featuring a travelogue of his 1930s peregrinations: I Wonder as I Wander.
Quotations are drawn from Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), and Paul Virilio, Dromoscopy, or The Ecstasies of Enormities, trans. Edward R. O’Neill, Wide Angle 20.3 (1998), 11-22.