The Negro Motorist Green Book. And The Assault on Our Liberty.
March 5th, 2014
I recently discovered “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” Here’s the cover.
And here are the first two pages (don’t worry if you can’t read them; I’ve transcribed some bits below).
It’s a fascinating document from what ought to be a bygone era. From page 1:
With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.
The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information. But during these long years of discrimination, before 1936 other guides have been published for the Negro, some are still published, but the majority have gone out of business for various reasons.
And from a few pages later:
Through the ages, men of all races have moved from place to place. Some to seek new lands, others to avoid persecution or intolerance and still others for the sake of adventure.
Today, men of all races continue to move and for much the same reasons, though since the days of the foot-traveler and the ox-cart, they travel with much more convenience and comfort and at far greater speed.
For most travelers, whether they travel in modern high-speed motor cars, streamlined Diesel-powered trains, luxurious ocean liners or globe encircling planes, there are hotels of all sizes and classes, waiting and competing for their patronage. Pleasure resorts in the mountains and at the sea shore beckon him. Roadside inns and cabins spot the highways and all are available if he has the price.
For some travelers however, the facilities of many of these places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available, is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems.
The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups.
My first — and enduring — reaction to this was admiration. What dignity in the face of indignity. These passages etch two different worlds in gracious and straightforward prose.
Reading it today, seven or eight decades later, it’s impossible not to ally oneself with the “Negro motorists,” in defiance of those who degrade them to whatever degree was in their power. My idealized self, if I lived in those days, would only patronize the businesses in this book. But I’m not my ideal self, and I have to admit I’d likely have come up with excuses to break any such rule. That’s to my shame. But I can only admire the stoic perspective of the book’s readers as they plan cross-country trips, undeterred by mile after mile of bigotry.
And so my second reaction was sadness. There’s an attitude in these pages I can’t quite name. It’s not resignation. Resignation connotes giving up, and people determined to travel and experience the world, regardless of the obstacles, have certainly not given up. But there is an acceptance: This is the way things are today. These readers may be working hard for change, but for now they live in the parameters of a racist society. Freedom rides are decades away, and even then, you’d never take your children on them.
My third — and fleeting — reaction was simple: This is the world our anti-gay opponents want for us. A world where bakers and florists turn us away. Where reservations at a bed and breakfast mean nothing when the owner sees you in person with your spouse. Where a government employee, whose salary is paid for by your tax dollars, sends you to a town ten miles away for your marriage license. This is the world they want for us.
I was born in 1962. I came out in 1983, and I’m old enough to remember our own Green Books. The most prominent was the Damron Guide. It listed “gay-friendly” hotels and restaurants in major cities. In smaller communities, it told you where to go to meet like-minded men when the local authorities wouldn’t tolerate gay bars, or when showing your face in one could cost you everything.
I remember the summer between my junior and senior years of college, when I was traveling Vermont lobbying for a balanced budget amendment, and I was determined to find a safe gay space to try and finally begin my gay adolescence. The Damron Guide was out of date, and the bar it listed in Burlington was closed down. I called tourist information, counseling hotlines, even the Department of Parks and Recreation (recreation, right?), ultimately reaching someone at the local Chamber of Commerce. The man who answered turned away from the phone to call out, “Hey guys, anyone know where there’s a gay bar in town?” I wanted to hide under my hotel bed. But they gave me a referral, and when I called them, they said, “No, not anymore,” but referred me to another bar where I could finally, terrified, find a man to touch.
The Damron guide, and resources like it, had to change over time. Thank God. It became no longer dangerous to identify yourself as gay. You could be gay in any number of destinations, and if you consulted guides, it was only because you want to find out where gaydom was dominant. (By the way, if you’re a straight person naive enough to ask, Why would you segregate yourself like that?” let me offer this thought experiment: Would you rather spend Spring Break surrounded by members of the opposite sex who have no interest in you, or would you rather immerse your vacation in place where the folks you’re into might be find you luscious?) But when it comes to the Damron Guide, in the coasts, at least, and in major cities, I no longer had to worry about getting kicked out of a restaurant merely for putting my hand on the hand of my partner. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure how many gay 20-somethings (or even 30-somethings!) even remember the Damron Guide, much less rely on it when they travel.
But the recent surfeit of religious freedom bills could change that. These bills would endorse a world where bakers and florists turn us away. Where reservations at a bed and breakfast mean nothing when the owner sees you in person with your spouse. Where a government employee, whose salary is paid for by your tax dollars, sends you to a town ten miles away for your marriage license. And thus the Negro Motorist Green Book would be reborn. Where can we eat? Where can sleep? Where can we find government employees who won’t turn us away?
This may surprise you, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about discrimination law. Years of adolescent abuse let me with a misanthropic streak that cries, “Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?” I understand the sentiment of those who are not anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Jew, yet still want to leave individuals with the freedom to choose whom they’ll associate with.
But I have to recognize that our real and substantial opposition comes from those who have no coherent philosophy, who in the same breath can say:
No one should be forced to serve a customer against their will,
No one should be allowed to discriminate based on race,
without realizing the contradiction. I’ll grant no quarter to those hypocritical conservatives. They want to deny gays service by invoking principles they don’t apply to other minorities. They are not principled, if “principled” means something that rises above circumstance and political calculation.
Now step back. As I wrote this, I realized my error. Our opponents don’t want us relying on a book like this. The truth is this: They don’t want to such a book to exist.
Their ideological forebears had no problem with the idea of a “negro” class, especially one that kept in its place. They recognized that their maids* and low-paid laborers had to have businesses that catered to their needs, and frankly, the more separate the better. But the fervent advocates of “religious freedom” have something else in mind. They want no one to provide us with wedding photos, with honeymoon suites, with spousal benefits. For that limited, loud, and dwindling group of Christians, this is their version of the Great Commission, which demands that everyone refuse service to same-sex couples, which imposes a theological obligation on our opponents to make sure our lives are miserly as they make they can make them.
Our opponents do not want a “Green Book” for gays and lesbian. No. Their goal is for any such book to be empty. They want the conversion of the whole human race to their belief, where we have no one to provide us with service, because no services is what we deserve.
I meant this to be short post, and it’s not. And I’m surprised at how much it’s upset me. But — as a way of grounding myself — I’ll close with the quote that inspired this whole post: the piece from the Negro Motorist Green Book that says:
There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for is to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.
It is absolutely impossible to view that goal as anything but wholly and entirely good. As something no one can oppose. And at this point, in early 2104, all we can ask is: What side are you on? So really…
What side are you on?
*In case you’re wondering, my father’s mother was a maid, and I will never denigrate honest work done by honest folk