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Laura Stolfi / Stocksy

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Drive-Through Country: Black Women & The Great American Road Trip

Road trips are often romanticized as one of the best ways to see a country—but not for everyone.

It was pitch-dark, and I was still hours away from Knoxville. I was staring into the face of a sheriff after he pulled me over when he asked, “Why did you get off the freeway?”

The reason? I had been looking for the McDonald’s a freeway sign had promised was close by. It was late, my eyes needed a rest, and I craved a chicken sandwich, some lemonade, and a quick bathroom break since I had been on the road for five hours and still had hours of driving ahead of me. I made an illegal left turn because it was too dark to see a sign that forbade it. The moment I saw the sheriff’s car, I knew I was doomed. I was a Black woman in a head wrap traveling alone in the middle of the night with an out-of-state license plate. My heart sank watching in my rearview mirror as he slowly turned down the street to follow me.

My mind went between a stream of curse words and prayers.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, I kept telling myself as I watched the cruiser trail behind. I hurriedly tried to get Google Maps to take me back onto the freeway, to the actual exit I was supposed to get off on. But I made one bad swerve and suddenly sirens and lights flashed. When he appeared at my window I had both hands on the steering wheel, driver’s license ready and expertly tucked between my index and middle fingers, with the photo facing him. My mind went between a stream of curse words and prayers.

I told the officer I had become lost and my Google Maps was going haywire. I told him I pulled off the freeway thinking I wanted to get something to eat but changed my mind.

“I can tell you’re not from here,” he said, noting my license plate. After running my driver’s license, he told me where to find the freeway and asked if I’d like directions to rest stops. I told him I wouldn’t be stopping again.

I drove the rest of the night, no longer tired, no longer hungry, not stopping in a single restroom.

Miles City, Montana.
photo by Marissa Evans

Between 1936 and the 1960s, you could rifle through a Black person’s car and likely see a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. Inspired by how the Jewish community published its own reference of places to go, the guide informed Black travelers which hotels, garages, drug stores, theaters, summer resorts, barber shops, and restaurants across the country were deemed safe during the Jim Crow era. The idea, according to the introduction Green wrote, was “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

“It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment,” Green wrote. “But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.”

But for Black travelers, road trips are more than open skies and hours in the car eating junk food; they also result in a higher level of paranoia.

Road trips are often romanticized as one of the best ways to see a country. There are plenty of guides for the best road trip and places to stop and explore. Despite my fears at times, I have done some of my very best thinking on the open road. I’ve traveled from Milwaukee to Seattle and Seattle to Washington, DC. Between that I drove 12 hours to visit a friend for Thanksgiving, going from DC to Milwaukee. When you have all of that time to think without distractions, you start to take in how pretty the trees are and the vast acres of farmland used to feed the country, and find amusement with the fast-food choices available. But for Black travelers, road trips are more than open skies and hours in the car eating junk food; they also result in a higher level of paranoia.

Green’s book stopped being publishing after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Black people who have to get on the road today are armed with stories passed down from family members about bad experiences passing through or stopping while traveling in the Deep South when segregation was a way of life in America. Family loyalty to “never stop” or do business in communities that wronged our relatives tends to endure.

Just like “flyover country,” Black travelers have “drive-through country,” or cities, counties, and states where you don’t stop for anything. Not for gas, food, or a restroom. Bathroom breaks and gas runs are planned miles before so there won’t be a need to stop. Snacks are rationed to hold everyone over until the next meal.

That’s when I remember the freedom and potential for adventure that comes with road trips and the privilege of being able to not only have a car but to get in and go anywhere I please.

For me, there’s often no stopping to stretch my legs or making pit stops at scenic locations off-course from the final destination, lest I attract attention to myself. Not everywhere is inherently anti-Black, but our presence tends to raise suspicion and prejudice, particularly in communities where Black folks are scarce. Being a woman on top of this can attract attention from curious outsiders wondering where you’re heading and why. While it hasn’t happened to me, whenever I have to stop for gas, I think of my mother’s warning to not linger too long where I am and to stay alert. Again, the paranoia and anticipation of potential danger are constant when I’m on the road.

The headlines about Black women dying or being assaulted at the hands of police have also raised awareness and heightened anxieties around driving. Consider Sandra Bland, Brandy Hamilton and Alexandria Randle, or the Black women who were victims of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. All of them were simply driving near or around their own communities, trying to get home or to their next destination. It’s hard enough driving around our own neighborhoods and cities as Black people, but road trips can exacerbate our otherness and raise our pre-calculated threat levels as we pass through places. Having to stop in a new place for gas or food means potentially dealing with a police department that’s not used to out-of-state license plates or seeing many Black people. While not all officers are like this, it’s difficult today to not have that anxiety and head-on-a-swivel mentality.

Sometimes I lament my road-trip paranoia. It usually happens when I’m on the road, in a good driving groove, making good time, music playlists flowing with pretty trees and open fields zooming by. That’s when I remember the freedom and potential for adventure that comes with road trips and the privilege of being able to not only have a car but to get in and go anywhere I please.

But minutes later I usually spot a state trooper or police car perched on the side of the freeway. As I pass by, heart racing, fearing they’ll start following me, I remember I am not as free as I thought.

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