Great Escapes: African American Migrants, Motorists, and Runaway Slaves and the Search for Freedom

AHA Session 165
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Nicole Myers Turner, Virginia Commonwealth University
Nicole Myers Turner, Virginia Commonwealth University

Session Abstract

This interdisciplinary panel explores the themes of escape and freedom in cinema and in African American social and cultural history by drawing on narratives of runaway slaves, motorists, and migrants. Film scholar Ellen Scott mines the larger history of images of American slavery on the silver screen to focus on Hollywood’s treatment of runaway slaves from the silent era to the early Civil Rights movement. Scott examines how Hollywood has grappled with African Americans’ struggles for freedom. If slavery itself is underexplored in cinema, as Scott argues, how would Hollywood portray those African Americans who rebelled against this institution and gained their freedom by running away? Historian Allyson Hobbs’s paper examines the meaning of the automobile for African Americans and for African American women in particular. The automobile and the “open road” have functioned as iconic symbols of freedom for white Americans. This paper asks, how does the history of the car change when we examine it through the eyes of black motorists? Given the restrictions and terrors that African Americans faced on the road, did the automobile have a fundamentally different meaning to black drivers? Sociologist Karida Brown takes on the concept of “escape” by using this term to describe the first wave of the Great Migration. She argues that northern industrialists catalyzed the movement of 1.6 million African Americans to the North and Midwest between 1910 and 1940, making this “escape”—not migration—possible.
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