Photographer Jonathan Calm Retraces Jim Crow-Era ‘Green Book’ Locations | KQED Arts

Photographer Jonathan Calm Retraces Jim Crow-Era ‘Green Book’ Locations | KQED Arts


– There were definitely
more dangerous times to be a Black motorist, even though it doesn’t
feel like that today. We have, unfortunately, way
too many Black men and women being pulled out of cars, being
killed by police officers. So my project is to look at the past, to understand where we are today. And I’m just gonna read
directly from the book itself. The Green Book was also known as the Negro Motorist’s Green Book. First published in 1936,
was a product of the rising African American middle
class having the finances and vehicle for travel, but facing a world where social and legal restrictions barred them from many accommodations. As a person of color, you
could be denied service if you were trying to
eat at certain places, definitely in trying to get hotel rooms. The owner of a hotel
could say we were full, even if there were vacancies,
but they just didn’t want to serve you as a black person. This book helped black
motorists know where it was safe for them to actually have accommodations. My Green Book project is to
travel as many of these sites as I physically, possibly
can, to get a sense of what are these locations. What I’m looking for is
this classic, quintessential narrative of what is America. We have as a nation in our psyche that car mobility is important to us, but there are different rules for different people when they’re driving. This house, we’re in the
historically Black neighborhood called Oak Park, and this place is called Dunlap’s Restaurant. Blacks that owned property
created businesses out of their homes. They’d rent out rooms. They were always ready for business. I think about it as an
early form of Airbnb. It is ironic that it is
actually now an Airbnb. – [Talking to a neighbor] She’s the only one listed in Sacramento. – Oh, no way. – Yeah. A neighbor came out to find
out what we were doing, which I was glad. You know, I like it when people come out and talk, as opposed to call the
police or just, you know, stare at me awkwardly. Traveling the nation, by the time I’m done, there’ll
be hundreds of sites covered. The New China Club in Reno. A lot of gambling, parties. There were beauty pageants
that occurred there, and all that could have been
left is a tiny piece of facade. And it looks like it’s a
parking lot for the stadium. These spaces, they’re disappearing. I want to capture them
before they’re all gone. My Green Book project
started three years ago for a project that the BBC commissioned, and with my first trip to the South, to Tallahassee, Florida;
Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; ending back in the North
in St. Louis, Missouri. That trip, it was an opportunity to take myself back in time. My understanding of the South was what I learned in school in the North. I felt I wasn’t
welcomed there, generally, but, if anything, I
think to visit the sites, what I saw, I saw a lot of emptiness. Towns and cities that were hollowed out. The hotel in a Black neighborhood,
the building is there, maybe one business is
left still operational, but the hotel is gone. That first trip was so powerful,
and I saw so many things that are happening in contemporary culture that it just makes me want
to compare and contrast. I think we feel that this
bit that I’m photographing is history, and it is,
but that fear that I have, that fear that other people have for me, is a very similar fear that
people would have had back when The Green Book was published. I don’t think the hotels or
the buildings I’m photographing are the destinations, actually. It’s having the experiences
between each site, the actual driving and
stopping and eating, and my own connection to being on that landscape and on the highways. There aren’t black
photographers doing that, and so I see part of this
work as a performative act. I want to be free, and
this drive is investigating that level of freedom.

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