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The Negro Motorist Green Book. And The Assault on Our Liberty.

Rob Tisinai

March 5th, 2014

I recently discovered “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” Here’s the cover.

green cover

And here are the first two pages (don’t worry if you can’t read them; I’ve transcribed some bits below).

green book intro

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,

and

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

 

Comments

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Bose in St. Peter MN
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Beautifully put, Rob.

My personal corollary syncs up with your thought, “The truth is this: They don’t want to such a book to exist.

Absolutely, they don’t want it to exist, and their misguided thinking can be traced to hopes that we won’t be served, feel punished and adopt their religion.

And yet it strikes me that they don’t want the pink book to exist because they want (a) 100% of their community to show up in their shop, ready to buy; (b) to quietly turn away the 6% who they find objectionable, and (c) to continue earning the business of the 60% who would walk away if they showed up in the book.

Nothing prevents any business from publicly promoting NOM and otherwise engaging in culture war issues. Competent business people generally don’t go there, because doing so is not good for business.

FYoung
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Thanks, Rob, for bringing back this piece of history. It is peculiarly relevant today.

Victor
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Beautifully written, compassionate, and spot on, Rob. Those of us of “a certain age” – who have survived The Plague, who have an indelible retention of the historic social upheavals we have lived through, and who are mature and honest enough to admit we have been both oppressed and the occasional oppressors of others – are blessed to live in this crucible of time where religion-infused social conservatism has finally slipped its moorings as the bedrock of American Values and given way to a progressive understanding of human diversity that relies on actual relationships instead of mythology to underpin our sense of morality and social justice.

Religionists are unhinged by this seismic shift away from their universally accepted dominance… terrified at the thought of living in a world where their beliefs are not only not shared, but questioned. They confuse disagreement with attack because they have no real experience with being a minority and don’t know how to deal with being anything other than “Chosen.” They have been taught that this End of Days scenario is their final test.

It is from this posture of terror that these “religious liberty” laws spring… a last, desperate attempt to insulate themselves from the a New World Order they believe is poised – and fully able – to destroy everything they hold dear. There is no resolution. We will simply have to wait for this glacially slow process to play out, mindful and vigilant of their tactics, and prepared to welcome those who finally see the light graciously. Thus is the transition of humanity to its next level of awareness.

Timothy Kincaid
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Beautifully said, Rob

Christopher
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

This was beautiful and thought-provoking. And it doesn’t surprise me that you have mixed feelings about anti-discrimination laws. It can sometimes be a tricky thing balancing individual freedoms and the need for a civil society.

Regarding the world that our opponents want, I’m reminded of a portion of an article titled Last Call At Juanita’s, from the Nashville Scene:

[T]he police’s harshness toward gays actually increased crime downtown. Jeff, who frequented Nashville’s gay bars from the days of Arlene’s, says muggers and robbers would prey on gay men because they knew the men wouldn’t dare go to the police for justice.

This same article describes how men could be arrested for touching another man’s shoulder, and their names would then be published in the paper the next day.

Last Call At Juanita’s was published in 1995, and, at the time, it was breathtaking to me how far we’d come. And yet, if you’d told me at the time how much better things would get within less than nineteen years, even if I believed you, I would have thought, there will be a backlash.

It’s the backlash that we’re seeing. I take some small comfort in that it’s not as bad as I worried it might be.

Paul Douglas
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Poignant and well written!

Nathaniel
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Victor, I don’t always agree with you, but on this you have hit the nail on the head. A minister friend of mine once posited (and I gathered the idea wasn’t original to him) that the recent popularity of end-of-world and apocalyptic movies was a response to the social upheaval that was casting out old ideas in favor of newer (and better) ones. This upheaval, while benefiting many, is scary for those ensconced in the old ways, so they take comfort in scriptures and entertainment that speak of faithful remnants surviving the destruction of the world. That these rejections of these upheavals also result in legislative overreactions (right-to-discriminate laws, personhood amendments, etc) shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, the anti-marriage amendment in NC was passed in spite of acknowledgement from some supporters that it wouldn’t stay on the books more than 20 years. If the courts didn’t get it, the younger generations would, they said. But the anti-gay forces wanted to hang on to power just a bit longer. We are seeing the tides turn.

Nathaniel
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Rob, excellent post! While reading “a government employee, whose salary is paid for by your tax dollars, sends you to a town ten miles away for your marriage license,” I was reminded of a command of Jesus. Your reference to the Great Commission reinforced it. Before JC gave the GC, he was asked about taxes, which were being extracted from the Jews in Palestine by an occupying nation. His response was to remind them who’s face was on coin with which they did business: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” As Timothy recently pointed out, Jesus said some inconvenient things, and I think this is another one. Our tax dollars fund not only a county clerk’s pay check, but also our entire economic system and the infrastructure system on which that economic system functions. To point at someone with legal tender and declare that theirs is somehow lesser, no matter the reason, violates this very command. Honor the dollar you are offered. Honor the system that allows your business to function. This has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with “Caesar.”

Victor
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

@Nathaniel… Agreed. Humankind has gone through many upheavals as one age has given way to the next. Just as the Dark Ages yielded to the Renaissance, so too is this regressively anti-everything time slowly passing into an era of spreading enlightenment. The advent of universal communication has perhaps accelerated change beyond what many can process. But such changes have been happening everywhere technology and education and the free expression of ideas backed by facts have been allowed to challenge accepted ignorance. Thus it is no surprise that progress of all kinds has been stalled when- and wherever the truth has been successfully stifled by political expediency, religious persecution, greed, and/or the lust for power. The changes are uneven (at best) across our planet and the tectonic forces building along the fault-lines of reason are going to claim many more innocent lives before we emerge on the other side. I fear the worst is yet to come. The fact that we have been pushed to this precipice – forced to fight injustice again and again and again – by those who claim to worship a God of Love and Peace is the bitterest irony of all.

Joseph Singer
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Why do you speak of Damron guide as a thing of the past? It’s still very much in existence both in dead tree editions and electronically.

And Spartacus guide still exists and is a lot of helpful information on which countries are hostile to gays and which cities are the ones to look at.

Rob Tisinai
March 6th, 2014 | LINK

Joseph, the Damron Guide still exists, but I haven’t heard anyone refer to it in years and years.

Chris
March 7th, 2014 | LINK

The one good thing about pointing out discrimination is that it forces people to decide which side they are on. I, for one, welcome the increased hostility of the far right toward gays, who have become a lightning rod for their anti-modernist views. Why welcome this?
two reasons:
1) religious people of conscience will eventually see the error in their ways and will reform their religion from the inside
2) the over-reach of the far right, the irrationality of it, the prejudice (biblical prejudice no less!) will turn off non religious people and force the religions of the world to grapple with modernism, rather than dismissing it.

Nathaniel
March 7th, 2014 | LINK

“The fact that we have been pushed to this precipice – forced to fight injustice again and again and again – by those who claim to worship a God of Love and Peace is the bitterest irony of all.”

Victor, that is all the more true for the champions of fairness and justice who still try to follow Jesus.

NancyP
March 7th, 2014 | LINK

Back in the days when the Green Book was obligatory for the long distance black traveler, the Green Book listings would not have been able to safely accommodate white customers. The white KKK types would have torched (at minimum) any black-owned businesses that served whites.

I think that the comparison of today’s situation with the Green Book is a bit over the top. The dead-tree Damron guides have been largely superceded by the internet, but there are plenty of places where the electronic Damron guides are needed, here in the Red States. There are plenty of dead-tree and electronic Gay Yellow Pages that help us spend money within the community.

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