The film Green Book, which won this year’s Oscar for best film, explores road travel through racist America by African-Americans in the segregation era.
It is based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, a compendium volume published for 30 years by Victor Green on safe hospitality businesses. Black people could patronize these businesses while traveling by road, whether on business or enjoying a vacation, without fear of being excluded because of race segregation policies.
The book was regarded as “part travel guide and part survival guide”, offering information on where to “eat, stay, shop and do business while on the road”, in the Jim Crow south but in reality in the entire United States.
The survival value of the Green Book was very real, many so-called sundown towns prohibited black people from staying within municipal boundaries after dark, an attitude characterised by Maya Angelou in her memoir as “Don’t let the sun set on you here nigger”.
The Green Book was first published in 1936 and by 1960 had over two million readers.
I have not seen Green Book the movie, which is controversial in ways unrelated to the way in which it tells its story. I can understand the criticism that it records a black jazz musician’s experience of racism while on a tour of Southern States, through the lens of his white driver. (It should be surprising yet it isn’t, that Mahershala Ali got the best supporting actor Oscar rather than the one for lead male role.)
A better depiction of the theme is contained in the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, which tells the story of the travel-cum-survival manual itself and its impact on the African-American community.
Black South Africans didn’t have the dubious benefit of a guide to going on the road through whites-only apartheid South Africa. You were expected to know the law and, even better, know your place.
What has become known as “petty apartheid” was a dehumanising exclusion on the basis of one’s race from certain parts of the country, parts of cities and towns, private business establishments and public amenities. African travellers could only be in a city which was not legally designated as their home, for 72 hours. South Africans of Indian descent could not travel to or through the Free State, period.
Sometimes “Whites Only” signs were prominently displayed outside businesses. At other times, black people had to use political nous, gut feeling and racism deely boppers to figure out where we might be welcomed and where chased away.
Whether it was driving at Christmas or Easter from a city to a rural home, trying to enjoy a summer’s day on the beach, attend a major sports event, get into a drive-in to view a movie, find good music preferably with a glass of alcohol, check if the rides at the local funfair were open to all kids, or wonder if one could enjoy the new flavour of milkshake advertised on the board outside the Wimpy Bar, this same reliance was required.
A big part of growing up in our family was the regular and obligatory trip “home” from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, my father’s home town.
We would usually do the bulk of the 800km trip in the wee hours, ostensibly to avoid the baking sun but, I realised much later, also to enjoy the cover of darkness as we passed through one racist small town after another. The road took us at times along the Garden Route via the Tsitsikamma, Knysna, Wilderness and George, alternatively across the Langkloof through Joubertina, Misgund, Haarlem, Uniondale, Oudtshoorn. And then linking back to Riversdal and from there, Swellendam, Riviersonderend, Caledon, Somerset West.
We had little reason to stop apart from fuel and toilet breaks and then those stops were carefully decided. My parents were mostly guided by past experiences of how we were received anywhere. There was a silent, almost intuitive unanimity between them about such matters which we children knew little about. Where we stopped, we were hurried in and out, with the expectation at any moment that our way would be barred. And a ban on entry could be viciously and violently applied.
My mother went to great lengths to prepare enough “padkos” and other supplies for a small army in transit. My first understanding of this ritual was that it was part of cultural identity; only much later would I realist it was a political act of survival, about protecting her family from the inhumanity of being barred from a café or store.
My father sometimes let the side down quite badly, as we would run out of petrol in a rural location late at night, an overly conspicuous mishap.
And then, there was the real prospect of being taken in for questioning at a security branch roadblock, especially in the conservative rural hinterland, if the SBs detected the slightest hint of political consciousness, let alone anti-apartheid activism. In a world where cell phones did not exist, there was no way of checking if the coast was clear before setting out, although it was useful to remove any suspicious or potentially incriminating items from a car.
In what is now the Eastern Cape, we also had to endure the abuses of bantustan government thugs who legally clamped down on anything happening on the road, depending on how their mood had progressed through a day. And the fear of the spot fine kept every “non-citizen” driver passing through a particular Bantustan, alert to potential traffic transgressions, which might result in immediate imprisonment if one could not pay the fine.
My knowledge of road trips under apartheid was limited to the coastline, from the “verligte National Party” Cape to the “last British outpost” of Natal. I have no personal knowledge of being in the Free State or Limpopo or anywhere else regularly. I can only imagine how equally, horrendously dehumanizing those experiences were.
We must continue to document these stories.