Safe Travels: African American Women and the Myth of the “Open Road” in Mid-20th-Century America

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Allyson Hobbs, Stanford University
A light blue Chevrolet follows the edges of the highway closely as it winds around a bend. The car is large and durable, its lines are long and sleek, it is elegant and, of course, made in America. The car is “floating on air” as one commercial in 1950 put it. If the 1952 Chevrolet was the “Key to Our Horizons,” the redesigned 1953 model was, as singer Dinah Shore announced, the “Great New Star.” She urged Americans to “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet” and crooned: “On the highway, or on a road along a levee, the performance is sweeter, nothing can beat her, life is completer in a Chevy.”

These mid-century American pleasures—taking to the road, exploring the country, enjoying the freedom and the autonomy of driving one’s own car—were almost entirely unavailable to African American motorists. Black drivers carried with them stories of trouble, violence, humiliation, and indignities that occurred regularly on the road. The road was, in fact, an anti-democratic, traumatic space where black travelers were subjected to near-constant anxiety and to innumerable losses, especially the painful loss of dignity and the loss of the most basic citizenship rights. African Americans were largely left out of the car culture that flowered in the mid-twentieth century.

The critical question that this paper asks is: how does the social and cultural history of the automobile change if we examine it through the eyes of black motorists? How did the car culture affect the lives of African American men and women differently? My goal is to explore the interior, psychological, and emotional worlds of African American travelers and the meanings of mobility for African American men and women.

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