The Contemporary Relevance of the 'Green Book' 

In Depth

November brings the premiere of The Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, about an African American pianist who hires a rough-around-edges Italian American driver for a tour of the segregated deep South. It’s a good moment to think about the real “Green Book,” a guide for black travelers from which the movie takes its name.

At the New York Times, author Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote about The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which also played a part in her first novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. Created by a black man named Victor Hugo Green and regularly updated until the mid-1960s—i.e., the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The guide listed hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and other necessary destinations that would actually be safe for African Americans. Its very existence is a sobering testament to the lived experience of segregation. Greenidge writes:

In his introduction to the “Green Book,” Green wrote that it was meant to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” This is the language of early 20th-century black gentility. Which makes sense — Green was born in 1892 and married in 1918. He was firmly of the post-Reconstruction generation. It’s a tone that’s all but disappeared from black people’s writing about race — for good reason; its flip side is the stagnation that comes from the desire to appear “respectable” to white people. But I’m drawn to this tone, this understanding of danger and devastation but the refusal to acknowledge it in written word.

But while it’s often presented as a historical artifact, Greenidge makes the point that it would be all too useful in the modern era: “I think of the “Green Book” whenever another viral video appears, showing a black person in a place of leisure — a park, a mall, the anonymous streets of a suburban development — and the hysterical calls of white people to the police to have them arrested, seemingly just for existing.”

Read her piece in full here.

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