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The historical context of 'Green Book'

In 1936, Harlem resident and postal worker Victor Hugo Green began to accumulate material for what would soon morph into a national travel guide for African-American motorists traveling into the Jim Crow South.

Spanning some 30 years, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” became the bible of affluent black highway travelers who wished to avoid riding in the poorly maintained “colored only” train cars of the time, or face the humiliation of being turned away at white-only hotels, restaurants or filling stations where restrooms were for whites only. As well, there were in the South towns that had “sundown” laws, prohibiting African-Americans being on the streets after dark, thereby increasing their chances of being arrested for “driving while black.” As well, history tells us that African-Americans who shopped in department stores were not allowed to try on clothes before purchasing them. Store owners rationalized this blatantly racist policy by insisting that Negros were unclean and that anything that came into contact with blackness — clothing, bed linen, flatware, glasses, drinking fountains — made them unfit for use by whites. Bigotry that defies understanding was also made manifest in emergency care services that were delivered according to race: separate ambulances for whites and blacks; segregated wards in hospitals where neither equipment nor care were equal — with potentially lethal outcomes.

The umbrella term Jim Crow is thought to have originated with Thomas D. Rice, a white song-and-dance man, and hugely popular as a minstrel performer. Wearing blackface, dressed in a costume of frayed, stitched-up clothes, he created a caricature of a black man who sang long ditties in stereotypical and exaggerated dialect with lyrics such as “Weel about and turn around and do jis so. Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” So popular was Rice’s portrayal, that Jim Crow became shorthand for the pervasive laws of segregation that framed the South.

These insidious Jim Crow attitudes and prejudices were codified into law by Southern white legislators in the late 1800s and spanned into the mid-1960s. Their purpose was to enforce racial segregation in all public facilities, including schools. Justified as “separate but equal,” they were ratified by the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), a decision that affirmed segregation as being constitutional. In truth, “equal” was but a euphemism for systemic neglect.

It was into the deep Jim Crow South, in 1962, that Don Shirley, a classically trained jazz pianist toured, at the urging of Columbia Recording Co., playing at “whites only” venues. The cognitive dissonance, as revealed in the film “Green Book,” was jarring. He hired a chauffeur, Tony “the lip” Vallelonga, and together they made the journey, each having no understanding of what they would be confronting.

Don was a child prodigy, born in Florida, who dreamed of performing on the concert stage. When he discovered that because of his race doors closed, even in the north, he adopted a pop repertoire, formed a trio, and played jazz, spirituals and chamber music. Educated and refined, (he had a Ph.D.), he lived a life apart from the black community. Tony, in contrast, was an Italian-American from the Bronx who worked as a bouncer/enforcer.

They were an unlikely pair and, for both of them, confronting the wall of Jim Crow was transforming. For Tony, Don was a revelation, a man who forced him to rethink his many assumptions and prejudices. For Don, the South and Tony were completely unexpected. And that is the essence of this Oscar-nominated film wherein together, Don seated in back, Tony at the wheel, they travel a geography not only of the South but of the human spirit.

Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.

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