On the third floor of New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), there’s a small refuge for Black travelers. Artist Derrick Adams’s first major NYC exhibit, Sanctuary, pays homage to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication that helped Black travelers find safe places to eat, sleep, use the restroom, and more. Published by New York postal worker Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1967, The Green Book served as a lighthouse to Black travelers at a time when crossing into the valley of the shadow of death was more than a metaphor. But, like The Green Book itself, Adams’s homage is hopeful and full of Black joy.
Though the undercurrent of Jim Crow terror is inherent in the exhibit and in the necessity of The Green Book itself—there are placards throughout describing what it still means to be Driving While Black—Adams’s eye is trained on the access to a fuller American life that the book gave to Black people.
Visitors enter the exhibit, on display until August 12, 2018, which is well-lit and buoyant, through wooden door frames and opened doors with welcome mats. On either side of the door frame is a highway with Poor Boy hats on wheels, a playful depiction of more Black motorists on the road as cars became more affordable and travel became more accessible due to The Green Book. The bright lighting and the playful hats on wheels seemed to express an excitement about the open road. And because Black travelers now had a nationwide directory of places where they could find safety and community, the open road was more than a terrifying place; it opened up a space for adventure.
Reprints of pages from The Green Book are wallpapered over the beginning and ending points of the exhibit, boasting “assured protection for the Negro traveler.” Under that promise, a page from the book is blown up on the wall, featuring the image of a smiling Black woman in a bathing suit, her body draped over a bending palm tree trunk, her hands holding a drink with a straw inside of a coconut. This image exemplified that Green’s Negro motorist was not just going to work or protests, or fleeing the South; these travelers sought the open road for pleasure—luxury, even.
In mixed-media collages representing barbershops, restaurants, and hotels, Adams depicts the nationwide community and collaborative spirit that made joy through travel possible for Black people during the time of The Green Book. Punctuating the corners of the exhibit are “beacons”: small white houses made of concrete, wood, and paper and lit from within, with a welcome mat out front and a wide-open front door. The modernity of the pieces and installations in the exhibit hint at the timeliness of Adams’s homage and message.
We are long past 1967, and, as Adams notes, many of the shelters for Black people listed in The Green Book have long-since been closed (many due to gentrification and other subtler forms of racism like redlining, price gouging, and the use of eminent domain). But the need for Black sanctuary as we travel through intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—not just in our cities or in our country, but in the world—still exists.
A memory of the modern terror of Traveling While Black came rushing back while I was at the exhibit. I was on an impromptu solo road trip to Montgomery, Alabama, in 2016, after making a book-tour stop in Macon, Georgia. The trip began pleasantly enough. The weather was perfect and the Civil Rights Memorial was worth a three-hour drive. But the Confederate flags waving throughout the city were disarming. I was ready to go. I realized I’d stayed a little too long when the sun began to set and I wound up on backroads instead of the highway.
I knew Renisha McBride’s story of knocking on a white man’s door after she’d crashed her car and being blown away by his shotgun. I’d seen Sandra Bland’s road trip interrupted by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, who harassed her, removed her from her car, and violently arrested her before she died in jail. I knew Miriam Carey’s story of her road trip to D.C., and how a U-turn at a White House checkpoint led to her being shot to death in her car. These Black women’s names and faces flashed through my head as I drove through the pitch of night in backroads with low cell reception, hands shaking and clutching the wheel, praying not to break down, not to be the next hashtag. I had no peace until I was safely in my hotel room without incident.
As long as anti-Black racism exists, many Black travelers will feel the trepidation I felt as I traveled alone through Alabama and Georgia. But, thanks to social media, Black travel groups, and Black-owned business guides available online, we continue to create the global Black diasporic community that Green envisioned. The hopefulness in Adams’s exhibit serves as a reminder that, even when we journey alone, as I did down those country backroads in the dark, there are still beacons with welcome mats and open doors that will keep the light on for us.