PBS’s New Documentary “Driving While Black” is a Timely Look at How We Got Here

Ben Chaney, center, in the car on the way to his brother's funeral, August 1964. Mississippi

“Driving While Black” is PBS’s new documentary that chronicles Black mobility in America throughout our history. Starting with slavery and the restriction of Black movement to the slave patrols that morphed into the police force to the invention of the automobile, highways (Black neighborhoods were “sacrificial lands” and these highways left scars on the landscape that erased the history, identity and legacy of those thriving neighborhoods) and suburbs to the present day issues of “driving while black,” this film is an informative and emotional look at how these things all play together to “control” Black people.

A blessing and a curse, the automobile allowed for The Great Migration, (limited) upward mobility, escapism and served as a status symbol and weapon to combat Jim Crow (mobilization during the Montgomery Bus Boycott); but on the other hand, the car and construction of highways has decimated havens of Black success, creativity and economic freedom. The car, “hitting the open road” and the American quest for the freedom of the wide expanse has been romanticized from the beginning — that “freedom” is what it means to be American (at least for non-minorities). But that freedom for Black people has always had a small cloud over it — it casts apprehension in our hearts once dusk falls in certain areas. As a Black female growing up in the South, I was always told about the small towns and places that we weren’t “allowed” in or knew better than to get caught in (and that was in the 1990s and 2000s). There are lots of areas that you have to drive through and just hope and pray that you don’t get stopped or have any car issues. This fear has now morphed into a fear of the cops (everywhere, not just in small towns) in today’s society.

A crowd attacking cars driven by African Americans to protest integration in the schools. (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

“Driving While Black” does a great job of putting that fear into its historical context. Through historian interviews, archival footage and photos along with interviews from folks who grew up during the Jim Crow era, the documentary paints a timeline filled with bleak moments (Fugitive Slave Act, racial profiling, current Black Lives Matter movement) and a few moments of hope, opportunity and prosperity (Reconstruction Era, The Great Migration, places like Idelwild, MI) — even if only fleeting. But that freedom of movement has always been worth the risk for Black people — and will continue to be.

This film is a great thesis on traversing “white spaces.” There is so much that goes into driving — its much more than just the physical act. But traveling allows for your racism and bigotry to be challenged — that’s why it is an important “right” for all. It is a complicated history that intertwines so many different facets of daily life. This documentary will help widen the social understanding of driving while black (or “driving while afraid”) and it also shows us that the past is prologue — something we’ve been seeing a lot of nowadays. Overall, “Driving While Black” is an informative history lesson with heart and soul and its well-done execution makes it well-worth the watch.