Today's Reading

Despite the overt racism Victor Green must have experienced during his life, when he wrote this introduction, he had reason to be optimistic. Just a few years before he created the Green Book, the concept of the American Dream was born. It was defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 as "a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." It was an ambitious goal, but Americans from all races and classes wanted to believe in the American Dream. Remember, there was no established civil rights movement in the 1930s, no Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so to be a black business owner during the Jim Crow era was the highest expression of the American Dream.

It took another thirty-three years before Adams's dream of social equality would be written into law as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, Victor Green died in 1960, so he didn't live to see racial integration. But if he had, it may have broken his heart, because after integration became law, racism continued to shape America's social, political, and physical spaces. The Federal Housing Administration redlined neighborhoods, denying housing loans to blacks and preventing them from accessing the same wealth-building opportunities freely given to whites. More recently, there have been brazen attempts to dismantle the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And unconstitutional policing policies such as "stop and frisk" have caused the prison population to skyrocket 700 percent, and today, as a result, nearly one in three black men is incarcerated.

When I talk about the Green Book, some people say, "Thank god we don't need that anymore." And yes, it is true that we have made progress, but some of the communities that were once safe havens for black people are now just as dangerous as the sundown towns blacks were avoiding during the second wave of the Great Migration. As I drove through neighborhoods where Green Book sites once thrived, I could see the indelible scar that mass incarceration had left on these communities. I believe that a century from now, people will look back on this time in disbelief and wonder how we could stomach locking up nearly one-third of the black population. I believe this era of mass incarceration will prove to be at least as horrific, barbaric, and shameful as segregation was during the Jim Crow era.

After surveying the tragic spectacle of ruins and poverty in dozens of cities and rural communities throughout America, I can't help but think that this was not the future Victor Green imagined. It was during these trips that I realized that if we want to understand the historical role of the Green Book and its residual impact today, it shouldn't be reduced to being merely regarded as a travel guide that was needed during a shameful chapter in American history. While photographing the Hampton House in Miami and patiently waiting for a young prostitute, naked from the waist down, to walk out of my frame, I realized I wasn't interested in presenting the Green Book as a historic time capsule. I wanted to show it in the context of this country's ongoing struggle with race and social mobility, because the problems black Americans face regarding police brutality, homicide, unfair drug sentencing, and mass incarceration are arguably just as debilitating and deadly as the problems the 'Green Book' helped black people avoid more than eighty years ago. Clearly, we still have work to do, and not only in the government sector—since the Green Book ceased publication, racism persists in the travel industry as well. In May 1994, the restaurant chain Denny's was successfully sued for making black customers wait longer and pay higher prices than white patrons. At fifty-four million dollars, the settlement was the largest and broadest of its kind. More recently, home-sharing start-ups such as Noirbnb and Innclusive were created in response to widespread discrimination experienced by black Airbnb customers. In Missouri, the NAACP initiated a travel advisory in response to Senate Bill 43 that was passed in the Missouri Legislature which found that black motorists were 75 percent more likely to be pulled over than white motorists. Soon after that, the NAACP announced another travel advisory after numerous complaints of unfair treatment of black passengers on American Airlines.

During this time, I was inundated with media requests to discuss the NAACP travel advisories, and I was still getting regular calls from friends who were terrified at the state of the country. I knew things were serious and that we needed to push back and demand our constitutional rights, but I wasn't panicked. We had survived this before.

One of the gifts of the Green Book is that it shows an annual record of black travel during America's most turbulent decades of racial conflict leading up to the civil rights movement. As I looked closer at American history, I saw that racial progress has never traveled in a straight line. It's a cyclical, reactionary process that swings back and forth like a pendulum. For this reason, I have chosen to examine the Green Book editions chronologically. I want to show why it wasn't surprising, especially to Ron (and others like him), that right after Barack Obama left office, America elected a president who was embraced by white supremacists. But I don't want to give Trump too much credit. Although he exacerbated the problem of race and division, he didn't create it. If anything, his presidency showed Americans the hate that has been hiding in plain sight, both in our communities and in our government policies. Still, after his election, I was excited to see people out in the streets and outraged.
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