If you watch the movie “Green Book,” you might leave the theater thinking that the people who made the movie are convinced that U.S. racism died one idyllic snowy Christmas Eve in the warm glow of a Bronx apartment in 1962, when black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) accepted an invitation to dinner from his Italian-American driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Roll credits.
But movies like “Green Book” – with their stories built on racism as experienced through the eyes of good-hearted white people – are worse than a disservice: They are a danger. They are the “mission accomplished” banner suspended above America. They are grist for the proverbial “post-racial” mill.
In a based-on-a-true-story “Green Book” world, cops no longer harass black motorists and dyed-in-the-wool racists acquiesce, with an insouciant shrug, to the changing of the times. We live in the real world, though. And black Americans still need guides like the “Green Book” of the movie’s title as we set out to explore the United States.
“Green Book” is a reference to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a real-life guide for black travelers in the segregation-era United States. Editions of the book were issued annually from 1936 to 1966. The guide’s creator, black postal worker Victor Green, once wrote, optimistically as it turned out, that “there will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.
That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.” But the end of “The Negro Motorist Green Book” era – which naturally followed the legal death of segregation – must not be interpreted as the death of racism.
I became aware of just how terrifically not dead the most virulently dangerous forms of racism were around 2014, as the disharmonic convergence of social media, lightning-fast news cycles, and cellphones with video recording capacity filled my Facebook timeline with a seemingly endless parade of horrors. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I started keeping track, logging the incidents and related scholarly reports and data on a simple website.
A subsequent reading of the book “100 Years of Lynchings,” a harrowing compilation of news articles detailing black deaths at the hands of white Americans, led me to commit the information I was compiling to the printed page.
I decided to borrow the format and aesthetic of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” with its hopeful outlook on the United States’ “near future,” as commentary. The resulting first edition of “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book” provides a true snapshot of contemporary U.S. race relations.
Other modern projects bear forward the legacy of “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” In New Orleans, where I live, I steer clear of certain businesses based on their word-of-mouth reputation for racist management or their history of racial incidents.
Aiding me in this endeavor is the New Orleans BlackBook, a local directory of black businesses for “wary citizens” that cites, among its impetuses, the “incendiary, racist pronouncements emanating from the highest offices of the land.”
A similar resource, the currently under-development Black Friendly Flag project, is the brainchild of a D.C.-based activist; it is intended to be “a social enterprise that makes it easy for black-friendly businesses to connect with like-minded customers seeking welcoming spaces.” Both of these projects serve essentially the same function as the ostensibly outdated “Negro Motorist Green Book”: guiding black Americans to the safety of those inclined to provide us with services.
I am aware that the America continually assaulting my Facebook timeline – the America I have factually presented in my book – is, generally speaking, not the same nation that white Americans see. Numerous recent exchanges with white colleagues and friends have made me realize that exposure to black realities – contemporary and historical – often just isn’t there, that the things they know or care about or are affected by are too often limited to their own circumstances.
They don’t have to understand systemic racism or implicit bias or the school-to-prison pipeline because these issues don’t even exist for them. And movies such as “Green Book” that give soft-focus treatment to racism and provide a feel-good ending that places racism squarely in the past don’t help.
For this reason, “Green Book” has justly inspired heated debates this Oscars season. Those arguments may end on Sunday night, but at least these questions should stay with movie lovers and all Americans, no matter the outcome of the Academy Awards: Why is it that in 2019, black travelers still need some version of the “Green Book” to navigate our country safely and in a way that minimizes our experience of discrimination? And what will it take to fulfill Victor Green’s dream of a day when his project will truly no longer be necessary?