The story

The Black Book


In 1914 Noel Pemberton Billing joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Billing claimed that in November 1914, he played a prominent role in the planning of the first bombing raid on Germany when it was decided to attack the large Zeppelin base at Friedrichshafen. However, James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002) has argued: "Billing claimed... to have risen to the rank of Squadron Commander. Later, official sources would claim that Billing had spent only 12 months in the RNAS, had never flown on a raid or in the face of the enemy, and never rose beyond Flight Lieutenant."

Billing left the RNAS and began a campaign against the way the air war was being conducted. Despite the fact that his wife was half-German, he constantly advocated the deportation of aliens in case they were spying on the country. Billing, who drove a lemon-yellow Rolls Royce, dressed in unusual clothes, including long pointed collars without a tie, and openly expressed a preference for "fast aircraft, fast speed-boats, fast cars and fast women".

In 1916 Billing, despite the support of Horatio Bottomley and Hannen Swaffer, was an unsuccessful independent candidate at Mile End by-election in January 1916. Two months later he tried again at the East Hertfordshire by-election. According to his biographer "the tall, monocled, and debonair Billing drew large enthusiastic crowds to his meetings." This time he was successful and he became a member of the House of Commons.

Billing now founded a journal called The Imperialist that was part-funded by Lord Beaverbrook. His biographer, Geoffrey Russell Searle, has pointed out that "Billing campaigned for a unified air service, helped force the government to establish an air inquiry, and advocated reprisal raids against German cities. He also became adept at exploiting a variety of popular discontents."

The journal also claimed the existence of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As Ernest Sackville Turner, the author of Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "One of the great delusions of the war was that there existed an Unseen (or Hidden, or Invisible) Hand, a pro-German influence which perennially strove to paralyse the nation's will and to set its most heroic efforts at naught... As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."

The journal also claimed the existence of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."

Billing now joined forces with Lord Northcliffe (the owner of The Times and The Daily Mail), Leo Maxse (the editor of The National Review), the journalist, Arnold Henry White (the author of The Hidden Hand), Ellis Powell (the editor of the Financial News), Horatio Bottomley (the editor of John Bull) and the former soldier, Harold S. Spencer, to claim that the Unseen Hand were working behind the scenes to obtain a peace agreement with Germany.

Noel Pemberton Billing was a strong opponent of the Russian Revolution and feared that the Bolsheviks would try to persuade influential people in Britain to seek a peace deal. He argued that money from Germany and Russia was being used to fund the peace movement. These people were part of what became known as Boloism (Paul Marie Bolo was a German spy who was executed by the French during the First World War). According to Billing and other supporters of the Hidden Hand theory, Boloism was the distribution or receipt of funds calculated to assist the act of treason.

In December 1917, Billing published an article in The Imperialist by Arnold Henry White that argued that Germany was under the control of homosexuals (White called them urnings): "Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents... Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race... When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent."

Relying on information supplied by Harold S. Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute."

Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".

In February, 1918, Billing changed the name of The Imperialist to The Vigilante. Soon afterwards it published an article that argued that the Unseen Hand was involved in a plot to spread venereal disease: "The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting - even profit-making - army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers."

Later that month it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chancellor as being blasphemous. Billing had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand.

On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."

As soon as Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."

Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stewart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stewart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."

The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.

Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stewart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stewart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stewart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.

The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.

The prosecuting counsel, Travers Humphreys, asked Spencer what he meant when he said during cross-examination that "Maud Allan was administering the cult.... Will you tell the court exactly what you meant by that?" He replied: "Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."

Spencer then went onto to explain what he meant by the "Cult of the Clitoris". In reply to Travers Humphreys: "In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl." Billing joined in the attack on Maud Allan: "Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."

On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."

Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stewart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."

Noel Pemberton Billing retained his seat at the 1918 General Election but with the end of the First World War he was seen as an irrelevance. His reputation was severely damaged when Eileen Villiers-Stewart admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious, and that she had rehearsed it with Billing and Harold S. Knowing that he faced defeat in the next election he retired in 1921 claiming he was too ill to continue.

There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute....

It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence.... Tthe thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".

Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail.

Eileen Villiers-Stewart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case, asserting that, through her previous political associations, she had actually seen the notorious Black Book.

Miss Allan and her producer, Mr J. T. Grein, took offence and brought an action for criminal libel. The case opened on 29 May 1918 at the Old Bailey before Acting Lord Chief Justice Darling, whose own suspicions of Germany bordered on paranoia. The prosecution was led by Mr (later Sir Ellis) Hume-Williams KC, assisted by Mr (later Mr Justice) Travers Humphreys and Mr Valetta. Pemberton Billing conducted his own defence alone, but had the support of enthusiastic crowds outside the court, a crowded gallery, and a remarkable series of witnesses who spoke with feeling on either sexual perversion or German espionage or both. His first witness was Mrs Eileen Villiers Stuart, an attractive young woman who, a few months later, was to be sent to prison in the same court for bigamy. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that she had been shown the Black Book of the German Secret Service by two politicians since killed in action. Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception. Her life, she added, had recently been threatened in connection with the case. When Mr Justice Darling intervened at this point to reprove the defendant for his line of questioning, Pemberton Billing moved quickly and dramatically to the counter-attack.

"Is Mr Justice Darling's name in that book?" he asked the witness.

"It is," replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, "and that book can be produced."

Darling was understandably bemused. "It can be produced?" he queried.

"It can be produced," declared the witness. "It will have to be produced from Germany, it can be and it shall be. Mr Justice Darling, we have got to win this war, and while you sit there we will never win it. My men are fighting, other people's men are fighting."

The dramatic quality of Pemberton Billing's cross-examination was well sustained. "Is Mrs Asquith's name in the book?" he asked the witness.

"It is in the book."

"Is Mr Asquith's name in the book?"

"It is."

"Is Lord Haldane's name in the book?" "It is in the book."

Darling had had enough. "Leave the box," he told the witness.

"You daren't hear me!" shouted Mrs Villiers Stuart.

To his later regret Darling relented and allowed Pemberton Billing to continue his bizarre cross-examination. Before long, however, he found himself assailed by both defendant and witness and brought the cross-examination to a close.

The next witness was a Captain Spencer who claimed to have been shown the Black Book by a German prince and gave some further details of its contents. During cross-examination Mr Hume-Williams KC enquired as to his mental stability. Captain Spencer retaliated by asking whether Mr Hume-Williams was working for the Germans. He was followed into the witness box by a doctor, a surgeon, a literary critic and a cleric who testified to the depravity of Salome. Then came Pemberton Billing's star witness, Oscar Wilde's disaffected former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who complained of being "bullied and brow-beaten" by both Darling and Hume-Williams.

The final witness was Mrs Villiers Stuart, whose second appearance was as sensational as her first. "Did you take any steps," asked Pemberton Billing, "to put this knowledge (of the German Black Book) before any public person in this country?"

"I did."

"Was he a prominent public man?"

"You may ask his name," Darling told Pemberton Billing.

"Mr Hume-Williams!" replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, pointing dramatically at the leading counsel for the prosecution. After cross-examination by Hume-Williams' colleague, Travers Humphreys, Pemberton Billing began a re-examination. Uproar followed. Hume-Williams called Pemberton Billing a liar. Pemberton Billing threatened to thrash Hume-Williams.

In his final address Pemberton Billing won the hearts of the jury by denouncing the "mysterious influence which seems to prevent a Britisher getting a square deal". Hume-Williams made a less successful defence of Darling's reputation. "It has recently pleased the King", he reminded the jury, "to make him a member of the Privy Council." "I wish you would not allude to that", said Darling, "because privy counsellors are particularly mentioned among the 47,000."

In the course of his summing-up Darling lost most of what control he still exercised over the proceedings. Lord Alfred Douglas intervened to call him "a damned liar", stormed out of the court, and then returned to ask if he might collect his hat. A series of spectators were ejected and Darling finished his address amid scenes of chaotic farce. The jury returned after an hour and a half to find Pemberton Billing not guilty. Tumultuous cheering filled the court and was echoed by the enormous throng outside. Pemberton Billing emerged to a hero's welcome. The case remains mercifully unique in the history of the British courts.


The Black Book

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"A friend introduced me to Middleton (Spike) Harris* [a retired city employee], who became the chief author of the project. His collection of black memorabilia is extensive and his passion for the subject as intense as it is thorough. His friend Morris Levitt, a retired public-school teacher and amateur black sports enthusiast, joined Harris on the project. So did Roger Furman, an actor and director of New York's black New Heritage Repertory Theater.
Finally, Ernest Smith [a collector of black memorabilia since he was 14] also joined. All of these men have one thing in common: an intense love for black expression and a zest wholly free of academic careerism." (Toni Morrison, in
"Rediscovering black history," New York Times)

Toni Morrison is the author of numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature, most recently, the novel A Mercy. She twice has received the Pulitzer Prize–for Sula (1974) and Beloved (1988)–as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most recently the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, she lives in Rockland County, New York.


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Full of rarely told history lessons, the BH365 curriculum has exclusive access to more than 3,000 original artifacts that take students and educators on a colorful journey to embracing an inclusive account of American history.


18 Best Black Books for Black History Month

1. Incidents in the Life Of A Slave Girl

This slave narrative by Harriet Ann Jacobs was originally published in 1861 just as the American Civil War began. Jacobs fictionalized her own story on the horrors of slave life as a young girl, specifically one having to deal with the sexual harassment projected by her slaveholder and the physical violence of his jealous wife.

/> Incidents in the Life Of A Slave Girl, Thayer & Eldridge

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2. The Marrow of Tradition

Charles W. Chesnutt was a prolific black writer who could very well pass for white but refused to. This historical text, published at the turn of the century, depicts the Wilmington Race Riots in 1898. It focuses on racial politics, violence, and blackface during Reconstruction, and sadly, echoes events happening today.

/>The Marrow of Tradition, Haughton, Mifflin, and Company

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3.The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson, the creator of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” shares the story of being raised by a black mother, but also believing that he was as white as his school-age peers due to his biracial heritage. His loss of innocence comes as he is discriminated against by his teacher. Throughout the text, Johnson gives firsthand accounts and observations of occupying two racial spaces, fitting into neither, yet being forced to choose one.

/>The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, Sherman, French & Co.

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4. Mules and Men

Zora Neale Hurston flexes her anthropology chops in this book that published in 1935. She gathers and documents cultural information from her native Florida, and New Orleans, and brings forth the beauty of common folk their voice, their diction, their living, their way.

/>Mules and Men, Harper Collins

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5. Invisible Man

This existential text told the story of a lone, nameless black man navigating a white world and, eventually, we find him so isolated from society to align and protect himself from the powers that be. It is an allegory for the entire black race, which is mistreated, objectified, commodified, and cast aside in such a way that it may as well be invisible.

/>The Invisible Man, Random House

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6. Go Tell It On The Mountain

Christianity has close ties to the black American experience, and in many instances it is inextricable. Baldwin puts the beauty and the problematic on the page by way of a young man attempting to negotiate being black, religious, unloved, and possibly gay. Go Tell It On The Mountain is an exploration of identity and migration.

/>Go Tell It On The Mountain, Knopf

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7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

We are blessed to have this book in the world. Alex Haley documented X’s life-changing story for two years prior to his assassination. The book posthumously was published in 1965.

/>The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books

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8. Dopefiend

Long before the crack era of the 1980s, heroine wreaked havoc on black communities. Donald Goines, a brilliant writer of street literature captures the pain of addiction perfectly.

/>Dopefiend, Holloway House

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9. Roots

Alex Haley’s family tree is the context for Roots. It tells the story of his matriarchal forefather’s journey from Africa, through the middle passage, and through chattel slavery and is carried on by his descendants. The text was integral to African Americans wanting to know their family roots, and sparking interest in genealogy.

/>Roots, Doubleday

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10. For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf

Ntozake Shange took the Black Arts movement by storm when her collection of choreopoems hit theaters. These monologues are rooted in black feminism and speak specifically to the intersectionality of race and sexism black women experience.

/>For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Bantam Books

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11. Song of Solomon

This Nobel Prize-winning book traces the history of a black family and shows the nuance and complexity of black community rarely highlighted in mainstream literature—through Morrison’s remarkable storytelling and beautiful words.

/>Song of Solomon, Alfred Knopf

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12. The Color Purple

If there has ever been a story told about black trauma, toxic masculinity, and survival, The Color Purple by Alice Walker will likely come up. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book made it to the big screen three years after its 1982 publishing date.

/>The Color Purple, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

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13. How to Succeed in Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making It in America

This list would be remiss without this text from BLACK ENTERPRISE founder and publisher Earl G. Graves Sr. His shoot-from-the-hip commentary on what it takes to be a great, black entrepreneur in a white world is just the prescription the black business world needs.

/>How to Succeed in Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making It in America, Harper Collins

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14. The Coldest Winter Ever

The cold, harsh reality of drug culture bleeds off these pages. It effectively captures the allure of the game while serving its consequences as well.

/>The Coldest Winter Ever, Simon & Schuster

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15. The New Jim Crow

Mass incarceration has long plagued the black community. While representing just 13% of the nation’s population, black people make up 40% of the prison population. Michelle Alexander links this disparity to the war on drugs created to militarize police and fracture black communities, but also exposes its lasting effect as well as its ongoing nature.

/>The New Jim Crow, The New Press

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16. The Underground Railroad

If you ever thought the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad when growing up, don’t feel ashamed. Colson Whitehead puts that perspective in play in this Pulitzer Prize-winning, historical text. It is a refreshing fictional look at slavery.

/>The Underground Railroad, Doubleday

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17. The World According To Fannie Davis

Numbers playing is a part of the black culture that is common, yet elusive. The life of a black woman numbers runner is written alongside the historical events and the backdrop of black Detroit.

/>The World According To Fannie Davis, St. Martin’s Press

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18. Heavy: An American Memoir

This is the story of a life filled with contradictions, tragedy, and resilience. Kiese Laymon lays out parts of his life in intricate detail, taking the reader through observations of a range violence committed against black folk and a range of violence committed by them as well. This memoir is a reckoning of the internal and external conflict with, in and around blackness.

/>Heavy: An American Memoir, Simon & Schuster

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on February 14, 2019

Please note: Black Enterprise makes a small commission when you purchase one of these products via the embedded Amazon links.


How to Tell 400 Years of Black History in One Book

In August of 1619, the English warship White Lion sailed into Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the conjunction of the James, Elizabeth and York rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean. The White Lion’s captain and crew were privateers, and they had taken captives from a Dutch slave ship. They exchanged, for supplies, more than 20 African people with the leadership and settlers at the Jamestown colony. In 2019 this event, while not the first arrival of Africans or the first incidence of slavery in North America, was widely recognized as inaugurating race-based slavery in the British colonies that would become the United States.

That 400th anniversary is the occasion for a unique collaboration: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by historians Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. Kendi and Blain brought together 90 black writers—historians, scholars of other fields, journalists, activists and poets—to cover the full sweep and extraordinary diversity of those 400 years of black history. Although its scope is encyclopedic, the book is anything but a dry, dispassionate march through history. It’s elegantly structured in ten 40-year sections composed of eight essays (each covering one theme in a five-year period) and a poem punctuating the section conclusion Kendi calls Four Hundred Souls “a chorus.”

The book opens with an essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind the New York Times’ 1619 Project, on the years 1619-1624, and closes with an entry from Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza writing about 2014-19, when the movement rose to the forefront of American politics. The depth and breadth of the material astounds, between fresh voices, such as historisn Mary Hicks writing about the Middle Passage for 1694-1699, and internationally renowned scholars, such as Annette Gordon-Reed writing about Sally Hemings for 1789-94. Prominent journalists include, in addition to Hannah-Jones, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer on Frederick Douglass (1859-64) and New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie on the Civil War (1864-69). The powerful poems resonate sharply with the essays, Chet’la Sebree’s verses in “And the Record Repeats” about the experiences of young black women, for example, and Salamishah M. Tillet’s account of Anita Hill’s testimony in the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“We are,” Kendi writes in the introduction collectively of black Americans, “reconstructing ourselves in this book.” The book itself, Blain writes in the conclusion, is “a testament to how much we have overcome, and how we have managed to do it together, despite our differences and diverse perspectives.” In an interview, Blain talked about how the project and the book’s distinctive structure developed, and how the editors imagine it will fit into the canon of black history and thought. A condensed and edited version of her conversation with Smithsonian is below.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019

Four Hundred Souls is a unique one-volume “community” history of African Americans. The editors, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, have assembled 90 brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that four-hundred-year span.

How did the Four Hundred Souls book come about?

We started working on the project in 2018 (it actually predates the [publication of] the New York Times 1619 Project.) Ibram reached out to me with the idea that with the 400th year anniversary of the first captive Africans arriving in Jamestown, maybe we should collaborate on a project that would commemorate this particular moment in history, and look at 400 years of African American history by pulling together a diverse set of voices.

The idea was that we'd be able to create something very different than any other book on black history. And as historians, we were thinking, what would historians of the future want? Who are the voices they would want to hear from? We wanted to create something that would actually function as a primary source in another, who knows, 40 years or so—that captures the voices of black writers and thinkers from a wide array of fields, reflecting on both the past but also the present too.

Did you have any models for how you pulled all these voices together?

There are a couple of models in the sense of the most significant, pioneering books in African American history. We thought immediately of W.E.B. De Bois' Black Reconstruction in America in terms of the scope of the work, the depth of the content, and the richness of the ideas. Robin D.G. Kelley's Freedom Dreams is another model, but more recent. Martha Jones' Vanguard, is a book that captures decades right of black women's political activism and the struggle for the vote in a way that I think, does a similar kind of broad, sweeping history. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross's Black Woman's History of the United States is another.

But ours was not a single authored book or even an edited collection of just historians. We didn't want to produce a textbook, or an encyclopedia. We wanted this work to be, as an edited volume, rich enough and big enough to cover 400 years of history in a way that would keep the reader engaged from start to finish, 1619 to 2019. That’s part of the importance of the multiple different genres and different voices we included moving from period to period.

How does Four Hundred Souls reflect the concept of a community history?

We figured that community would show up in different ways in the narrative, but we were really thinking initially, how do we recreate community in putting this book together? One of the earliest analogies that Ibram used was describing this as a choir. I love this—he described the poets as soloists. And then in this choir, you'd have sopranos, you'd have tenors, and you’d have altos. And so the question was: Who do we invite to be in this volume that would capture collectively that spirit of community?

We recognized that we could never fully represent every single field and every single background, but we tried as much as possible. And so even in putting together the book, there was a moment where we said, for example, "Wait a minute, we don't really have a scholar here who would be able to truly grapple with the sort of interconnection between African American History and Native American history." So we thought, is there a scholar, who identifies as African American and Native American and then we reached out to [UCLA historian] Kyle Mays.

So there were moments where we just had to be intentional about making sure that we were having voices that represented as much as possible the diversity of black America. We invited Esther Armah to write about the black immigrant experience because what is black America without immigrants? The heart of black America is that it's not homogenous at all—it's diverse. And we tried to capture that.

We also wanted to make sure that a significant number of the writers were women, largely because we acknowledge that so many of the histories that we teach, that we read, and that so many people cite are written by men. There's still a general tendency to look for male expertise, to acknowledge men as experts, especially in the field of history. Women are often sidelined in these conversations. So we were intentional about that, too, and including someone like Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, we wanted to acknowledge the crucial role that black women are playing in shaping American politics to this very day.

How did historians approach their subjects differently than say, creative writers?

One of the challenges with the book, which turned out to be also an opportunity, was that we were focusing on key historical moments, figures, themes and places in the United States, each within in a very specific five-year period. We actually spent a lot of time mapping out instructions for authors. It wasn't just: “Write a piece for us on this topic.” We said, “Here's what we want and what we don't want. Here's what we expect of you ask these questions as you're writing the essay, make sure you're grappling with these particular themes.”

But they also had to have a bit of freedom, to look backward, and also to look forward. And I think the structure with a bit of freedom worked, it was a pretty nice balance. Some essays the five years just fit like a glove, others a little less so but the writers managed to pull it off.

We also spent a lot of time planning and carefully identifying who would write on certain topics. “Cotton,” which memoirist Kiese Laymon wrote about for 1804-1809, is a perfect example. We realized very early that if we asked a historian to write about cotton, they would be very frustrated with the five-year constraint. But when we asked Kiese, we let him know that we would provide him with books on cotton and slavery for him to take a look at. And then he brought to it his own personal experience, which turned out to be such a powerful narrative. He writes, “When the land is freed, so will be all the cotton and all the money made off the suffering that white folks made cotton bring to Black folks in Mississippi and the entire South.”

And so that's the other element of this too. Even a lot of people wondered how we would have a work of history with so many non-historians. We gave them clear guidance and materials, and they brought incredible talent to the project.

The New York Times’ 1619 project shares a similar point of origin, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to colonial America. What did you make of it when it came out last year?

When the 1619 Project came out, [Ibram and I] were thrilled, because actually, it, in so many ways, complemented our vision for our project. Then we decided we really had to invite Nikole Hannah-Jones to contribute. We weren't sure who we would ask for that first essay, but then we were like, "You know what? This makes sense."

I know there are so many different critiques, but for me, what is most valuable about the project is the way that it demonstrates how much, from the very beginning, the ideas and experiences of black people have been sidelined.

This is why we wanted her to write her essay [about the slave ship White Lion.] Even as someone who studied U.S. history, I did not even know about the White Lion for many years. I mean, that's how sad it is…but I could talk about the Mayflower. That was part of the history that I was taught. And so what does that tell us?

We don't talk about 1619 the way that we do 1620. And why is that? Well, let's get to the heart of the matter. Race matters and racism, too, in the way that we even tell our histories. And so we wanted to send that message. And like I said, to have a complementary spirit and vision as the 1619 Project.

When readers have finished going through 400 Souls, where else can they read black scholars writing on black history?

One of the things that the African American Intellectual History Society [Blain is currently president of the organization] is committed to doing is elevating the scholarship and writing of Black scholars as well as a diverse group of scholars who work in the field of Black history, and specifically Black intellectual history.

Black Perspectives [an AAIHS publication] has a broad readership, certainly, we're reaching academics in the fields of history and many other fields. At the same time, a significant percentage of our readers are non-academics. We have activists who read the blog, well known intellectuals and thinkers, and just everyday lay people who are interested in history, who want to learn more about black history and find the content accessible.

About Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of American History & Culture and a professor of history at William & Mary.


The Anti-Racist Reading List

Because allyship can't be proven with a few social media posts.

The last few weeks, and really, the last few centuries, have been exhausting for Black Americans. The violent cycle goes: trauma &mdash> invisibilization &mdash> normalization &mdash> repeat. How do we stop the runaway train that is white supremacy? There&rsquos no one answer&mdasha complex problem needs many solutions. But the question I consistently pose to those who claim to support Black people is, &ldquoWhen is the last time you read a book written by a Black person of your own volition?&rdquo

The answer I often receive is silence and an averted gaze. But these books contain so many of the answers. Black people have been yelling and writing about the many paths to true equity since before this country was formally founded. Spoiler alert: the 28 days in Black History Month are not enough time to acknowledge this scholarship. Our contributions to this great nation cannot be confined to one short month, and your allyship cannot be proven with a few social media posts. The best way to show your commitment to the Black community today and every day is by genuinely engaging with us. That starts with the books.

As James Baldwin said, "It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive." There's no better time for stillness, independent learning, and empathy for those disproportionately impacted by systemic issues than right now. Below is a list of recommended reads from some of the greatest Black American authors, thinkers, and leaders. Hopefully you&rsquoll find an answer to my first question. You'll certainly find that many of your questions about the Black experience are already answered around you.


The Black Book - History

In Acts 21:37 - 39 we read of this encounter
that tells the world the complexion of the Apostle
Paul. 37 And as Paul was to be led into the
castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I
speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak
Greek?

38 Art not thou that Egyptian, which before
these days madest an uproar, and leddest out
into the wilderness four thousand men that were
murderers?

39 But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of
Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city:
and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto
the people.

“Not true!” According to Roman historians at
the time. Tacitus the Roman historian wrote:

“The Jews of AD 90 and abounding in
Europe were called Ethiopians.”

Note: At that time in history, the continent was
not called Africa and black people were
universally known as Ethiopians.


The Black Book (Ebook)

The Britons on the Nazi Hitlist

For the first time, discover the stories of the heroic men and women the Nazis singled out for death in their plan to invade Britain

'Thoroughly researched and fascinating' Observer
'Wondrous . a formidable piece of scholarship' Bookanista

In 1939, the Gestapo created a list of names: the Britons whose removal would be the Nazis' first priority in the event of a successful invasion. Who were they? What had they done to provoke Germany? For the first time, the historian Sybil Oldfield uncovers their stories and reveals why the Nazis feared their influence.

Those on the hitlist - more than half of them naturalised refugees - were many of Britain's most gifted and humane inhabitants. Among their numbers we find the writers E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, humanitarians and religious leaders, scientists and artists, the social reformers Margery Fry and Eleanor Rathbone MP, the artists Jacob Epstein and Oscar Kokoschka.

By examining these targets of Nazi hatred, Oldfield not only sheds light on the Gestapo worldview she also movingly reveals a network of truly exemplary Britons: mavericks, moral visionaries and unsung heroes.


Building America

Four hundred years ago, “about the latter end of August,” an English pirate ship called the White Lion landed at Point Comfort in the Virginia Colony carrying “not anything but 20 and odd Negroes,” wrote colonist John Rolfe. Though this is often viewed as the starting point of slavery in what would become the United States, the anniversary is somewhat misleading. Africans, both enslaved and free, had lived in St. Augustine, in Spanish Florida, since the 1560s, and since slavery was not legally sanctioned in Virginia until the 1640s, early arrivals would have occupied a status closer to indentured servants. But those ambiguities only point to how essential people of African descent were to the establishment and development of the imperial outposts that became the United States. It was their work, as much anyone else’s, that helped build the world we live in today.

Books in Review

Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America

By Joe William Trotter Jr.

In his new book, Workers on Arrival, the historian Joe William Trotter Jr. shows that the history of black labor in the United States is thus essential not only to understanding American racism but also to “any discussion of the nation’s productivity, politics, and the future of work in today’s global economy.” At a time when mainstream political rhetoric and analysis related to economic change still tend to center on white men displaced by job loss in manufacturing and mining, similar challenges faced by black workers are often examined through a distinct lens of racial inequality. As a result, Trotter contends, white workers are viewed as the victims of “cultural elites and coddled minorities,” while African American workers suffering from the very same economic and political conditions are treated as “consumers rather than producers, as takers rather than givers, and as liabilities rather than assets.” Reminding us that Africans were brought to the Americas “specifically for their labor” and that their descendants remain “the most exploited and unequal component of the emerging modern capitalist labor force,” Workers on Arrival provides an eloquent and essential correction to contemporary discussions of the American working class.

Trotter acknowledges that he is not the first to offer this critique and cites generously from “nearly a century of research” and prominent African American scholars in order to demonstrate “the centrality of the African American working class to an understanding of U.S. history.” These include W.E.B. Du Bois’s studies of black working-class communities in Philadelphia, Memphis, and other cities during the turn of the 20th century, as well as Sterling Spero and Abram L. Harris’s 1931 book The Black Worker. But Trotter’s achievement is to synthesize this rich body of historical scholarship into a single volume written with an eye to a general audience.

Trotter’s analysis adds to this scholarship as well: While emphasizing the breadth of black workers’ contributions to economic development and growth, he is particularly interested in their roles building American cities. Extending an analysis developed in his 1985 book on black migration in early 20th century Milwaukee, he depicts cities as spaces of economic and political opportunity not available in rural settings. They are places where people of color—and in particular black communities—have been able to thrive. Without minimizing restrictions on jobs, housing, and civil rights, he describes how Africans established important employment niches, formed religious, civil and labor organizations, and connected with the burgeoning resistance to slavery in colonial cities from New Orleans to Boston. Enslaved and free black workers built the roads, buildings, fortifications, and other infrastructure, performed essential household and service labor, and toiled in a wide variety of crafts.

P erhaps the most striking characteristic of black workers in colonial America was their skill. Newspapers in Boston, New York, and Charleston carried ads for the purchase of enslaved carpenters, seamstresses, bakers, and blacksmiths, and Philadelphia slave owners turned a large “share of the ordinary trades of the city” over to black craftspeople. Some Africans arrived with canoe building, carpentry, blacksmithing, and navigational skills, but owners and employers had obvious incentives to train enslaved workers in other artisan fields, too. Skills gave these black workers a modicum of independence, providing in some cases independent sources of income, and increased their ability to escape or purchase freedom for themselves and their loved ones. The skilled trades also helped connect them to local and international political movements, especially those opposed to slavery. Once the Northern states abolished slavery after the American Revolution, free black communities, often centered on artisan work, became hotbeds for the Underground Railroad and the growing abolitionist movement.

In his discussions of the 19th century, Trotter’s tendency to focus on cities can have its limitations. Highlighting Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others who escaped from bondage to the cities, at times he loses sight of the economic and political power wielded by those who remained behind in the rural and agricultural parts of the United States. As Du Bois observed in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America and as more recent studies by historians Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and others have confirmed, the productivity of plantation labor drove urbanization and imperial expansion on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century. Rejecting the prevailing view of his generation that enslaved African Americans were helpless bystanders in the conflict between Northern and Southern whites, Du Bois insisted that as a result of plantation labor’s importance, the black worker was the “founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought the civil war in America.” As much as free and enslaved urban artisans, enslaved agricultural workers helped make the 19th century world what it was their refusal to continue to do this work, Du Bois added, helped end the war that liberated them and created the America we know today.

In addition to discounting the significance of plantation slavery, Trotter’s emphasis on the liberatory nature of urban life also overlooks the degree to which many African Americans found power and autonomy in rural settings and remained committed to agriculture well into the 20th century. That commitment prompted the people emancipated from plantations not to move to the cities after the Civil War but rather to demand “40 acres and a mule” and to view sharecropping as preferable to wage labor. The historian Nell Painter reminds us that the first great migration of African Americans after Emancipation was not to Northern cities but to homesteads in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states to the west. It is true, as Trotter claims, that black men sought seasonal employment in mines, lumber camps, and railroad construction as their “dreams [of] landownership” faded in the face of racist violence, theft, and exploitation in the Jim Crow era. Yet even then, most viewed rural wage work as a seasonal supplement to farming. Only when the boll weevil and the collapse of international markets killed Southern agriculture did the majority of African Americans head to the cities.

Current Issue

H owever, Trotter’s emphasis begins to make much more sense as his narrative moves into the 20th century. As generations of black Southerners headed north in the face of Jim Crow, urban industrial employment became central to the economic and political aspirations of black workers. Black workers established small footholds in industry through strikebreaking in the 1890s, then moved rapidly into Northern cities during World War I. Most unions remained hostile to them, so African Americans joined others or formed their own. Black newspapers encouraged the exodus by advertising employment opportunities and contrasting the political and cultural offerings of cities over the rural Jim Crow South.

The differences between urban and rural life for black workers were, in the early 20th century, only sharpened by the New Deal’s labor legislation, which excluded agricultural and domestic employment from Social Security, collective bargaining, and the minimum-wage regulations that transformed industrial work in the 1930s and ’40s and made work in the cities all the more desirable. By the beginning of World War II, roughly 3 million African Americans had moved to cities in the North and the West by 1980, an additional 5 million had followed, turning a largely rural population into an urban working class.

Even with the Great Migration, urban black workers still had to fight their way into industrial jobs. Black women primarily supported themselves and their families through domestic and personal service work, taking in laundry and sewing, and running beauty salons, bars, and other small businesses. Men sought industrial work but often ended up working in the service sector as redcaps, porters, janitors, garbage collectors, and waiters. Like the migration itself, moving into industrial work became the focus of a social movement. Trotter points out that black women had more success in industrial Southern cities, where they came to dominate low-wage labor in tobacco factories, industrial laundries, and canning plants. Black men pushed into the lowest-paid, most dangerous jobs in meatpacking, steel, automaking, and other Northern industries, but it would take the early organization of trade unions and civil rights activists to finally begin to open up other levels of industrial work to black Americans.

World War II marked a turning point in this struggle, as the demand for industrial employment formed a central plank of the emerging civil rights movement. Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycotts erupted in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC, setting the stage for the 1941 March on Washington Movement against racial discrimination in the defense industry. Led by A. Philip Randolph, who headed the predominantly black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, the movement grew large enough that Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination by defense contractors.

With that victory, Randolph canceled the march but called for continued protests to demand a federal law banning discrimination by all employers. A few cities and states passed fair employment laws in the 1940s and ’50s, but it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that this became federal law. Along with demands for voting rights, open housing, and equal access to public accommodations, the ability to secure well-paid union jobs formed the core of black political objectives well into the 1970s.

T ragically, Trotter notes, the substantial realization of those demands “coincided with the decline of the manufacturing economy, the resurgence of conservatism in U.S. politics, and the fall of the black urban industrial working class by the turn of the twenty-first century.” While the general trend is well known, the speed and extent of the change were shocking. Between 1967 and 1987, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia lost 50 to 65 percent of their manufacturing jobs, with the steepest losses affecting black workers. Many black workers moved back into service and retail positions, but lower wages and weaker unions led to sharp increases in poverty across urban America.

In the last parts of his book, Trotter describes how this economic crisis was exacerbated by aggressive policing and a rising backlash against both the social safety net and the racially egalitarian policies of the 1960s. Black workers continued to push back through organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and more recently, through movements like the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter. Yet the resurgence of housing and voting discrimination, the persistence of hiring discrimination and the rise of mass incarceration, coupled with the challenges of rebuilding unions in a changing economy, meant the continued decline of black workers’ economic and political power.

Unfortunately, the experiences of black workers are largely absent from contemporary analysis of the economic and political effects of deindustrialization. In the wake of the 2016 election, when political analysts scattered across the South and the Midwest in search of Donald Trump’s blue-collar base, many uncritically accepted his assertion that rural white men and a dislocated white working class were the principal victims of the globalization of manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction.

It was not just Republicans who claimed to champion the white working class, as Joe Biden garnered an early lead in the Democratic primary race by emphasizing his roots in Pennsylvania’s mostly white coal country while rarely mentioning the multiracial working-class communities in Delaware that had been his political base for half a century. The journalist Henry Grabar points out that the majority of voters in Youngstown, Ohio, a frequent destination for journalists’ “heartland safaris” after the 2016 election, are black or Latino. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild mentions in passing that African Americans are half the population of Lake Charles, Louisiana, yet she treats their experience as secondary to white workers’ in her best-selling ethnography of conservatism in a refinery town. “The collapse of manufacturing in the Mahoning Valley may have provoked a white identity crisis that the national media can’t get enough of,” Grabar notes of the area surrounding Youngstown, “but the upheaval was more severe for black Americans.”

This oversight is not just academic, given that a decline in black working-class turnout could be as decisive in the 2020 presidential election as the conservative views of some white workers. Grabar asked a black union leader why only 10 percent of registered voters participated in a recent primary election in Youngstown, summing up her response as, “Poverty…was crushing people’s will to participate in the political process.” The pollster Stanley Greenberg, who coined the term “Reagan Democrat” to describe the white working-class voters who shifted right in the 1980s, insists that a similar phenomenon was only part of the story in 2016. In places like Youngstown and Lake Charles, frustration with the economic policies of both parties has led more workers of all races to drop out of the political process altogether than to shift from one party to another. “The Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class problem,’” Greenberg has argued. “They have a ‘working-class problem,’ which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly.”

Trump’s election placed the economic challenges faced by American workers at the center of political analysis, albeit in ways that distorted the racial diversity that has always defined the nation’s working class. If progressives want to understand how central African Americans have been to that history, they might start by reading Workers on Arrival.

William P. Jones William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.


The Green Book was a critical guide for African-Americans struggling to travel safely in the Jim Crow era. This 360 degree video explores its complicated legacy.

[music] “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” first published in 1936, was a critical guide for African-Americans traveling during the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. [music] It was created by a Harlem postal worker, Victor Green, and his colleagues, who gathered a listing of restaurants, bars, hotels and private homes that welcomed black travelers across the country. [music] In a time where Americans started hitting the road, African-Americans faced restrictions as they traveled. Although you could purchase a car, you couldn’t get gas, stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. Travel was difficult and dangerous. [music] Ben’s Chili Bowl, at 1213 U Street, Washington, D.C., was originally a silent movie theater called the Minnehaha. It was later featured in the “Green Book” as a pool hall. Since 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl has continued the legacy of the “Green Book,” providing a refuge for the whole community. [music] I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1939 in a segregated hospital. I lived in a segregated neighborhood and I went to a segregated school. First, I didn’t realize any difference because all the people around me looked like me. And I was comfortable with that, until I realized that I was being discriminated against. [music] We couldn’t shop downtown at the major stores. You couldn’t try on clothes. You couldn’t try on hats. Because if you tried them on, they didn’t want you to get grease on the hats. You know, we oil our hair. And our makeup is dark, and so they didn’t want us to try on clothes because you might get makeup on the clothes. I remember being about 7, maybe 10 years old in Hecht’s department store when a little girl called me a nigger and spat on me. And I couldn’t retaliate. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t do anything. I was so angry inside, but I couldn’t do anything about it because I knew that it would be blamed on me. [interposing voices] “The ‘Green Book’ was a guide for African-Americans to travel safely, to find shelter, food and gas in a time where these basic rights were not guaranteed.” [interposing voices] “Washington, D.C., had more listings in the ‘Green Book’ than any other city in this country. The 1213 U Street was listed in the ‘Green Book,’ and that’s why we’re sitting here in Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U Street today. From the very day that we opened up to the current time, it’s still a safe haven for people.” [music] “And we invited the community in, and we started with the neighborhood young men that thought this was home for them. They always sat over there in that corner. There was always eight, six, eight, 10 of them every evening, from different walks of life in the community. When someone spilled something on the floor and the staff was busy, one of them took care of it — go in the back, get the mop. If we were running out of ice, they’d say, ‘Hey, Joe, go get some ice for me’ — kind of place. That was really the beginning of the building of the relationship with this community, these young guys that found this to be home. As soon as they started to broadcast professional basketball, they put the TV up for them to keep them here so they wouldn’t have to go see that game someplace else. We didn’t have TVs in Ben’s Chili Bowl, but that was for them. And that brought in that segment of our community. And then, of course, this being the strong close-knit community that it was, when you came here for a chili dog, you ran into a friend.” [music] Particularly in the early ‘50s, when we would leave Washington, D.C., on the train, we could sit anywhere on the train, until you got to the Virginia line. And when you get to the Virginia line, you had to go to the last train on the back. And I remember being so frustrated because we could not eat on the highway if the train stopped. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t relieve ourselves on the train. You either had to hold it or relieve yourself sitting there, and then you’re wet. When the train stopped, you would get off the train and you would relieve yourself outside, almost like you would if you were a dog. [music] And that’s the way basically I thought that white people felt about me as a black African-American — or Negro woman, or nigger woman, or whatever — that they felt like I was not human, not a human being, that I was less than a human being. I see people treat their dogs better now. Right now, they treat the dogs better than they treated us as black Americans. [interposing voices] “Well, one of the things that I remember was traveling from southwest Georgia down to Mississippi. And this was right after Miss Hamer had been beaten. I mean, they dragged her off the bus and beat her and crippled her. And one of the things that I remembered on that bus, I felt two things. First, I had to sit in the front of the bus, just like you. But second, I also was, in my head, saying, what am I going to do if these people come on the bus and try to treat me like Miss Hamer? And one of the things I was very clear about is that I was not getting off the bus and going to any of these places to try to use the bathroom. I was not going to get off the bus to try to get anything to eat. I knew enough to pack a lunch before I got on that bus. Now, it was a 10-hour ride from Albany, Ga., down to Jackson, Miss. But, I mean, it was really tough trying to not only deal with the question of where you’re going to go to the bathroom, where you’re going to go eat, but whether if you exercised your right under the law, whether somebody was going to come up there and try to assault you. That was a reality that we wanted to change. I mean, I remember I was maybe 14 years old when I started seeing the challenge, the real challenge, in Montgomery with the bus boycott, with Rosa Parks. Just in terms of local transportation and interstate transportation, we had to face people telling us, you’re not good as we are. And now because of people who got on the bus and challenged the institutions that were developed, you can dream big. You can dream bigger than we could dream. It was important. I mean, the biggest thing that we were able to do — and Frank can tell you this — the biggest thing we were able to do is we were able to say, you cannot block our dreams. Now we couldn’t say what our dreams were, but we could say, you can’t block our dreams. You can’t tell us what we can’t do. We’re going to kick down all these barriers.” [music] “Those barriers could be life threatening. Every trip through America for a black person during those times was potentially fatal. It seemed like many people were out to hurt us, or even kill us, just because we were black.” [thud] [grunt] [thud] [thud] [thud] [siren blaring] “The assumption is, at some time it stopped. And that’s not the case. It never stopped.” [shouting] “That’s a continuous thing that hasn’t changed since the beginning of the relationship that exists here between blacks and whites in the United States. It’s like a river that keeps flowing, and we don’t really see all of it. But at the end of the day, it’s something that started back in slavery and continues today. Young black people don’t have the ‘Green Book’ in front of them, but they have it in their head. We are no longer looking at ‘No Negroes Allowed’ and stuff like that, but you’re looking at the same thing, which says, these are barriers here. And then people feel that if you cross these barriers, they have a right to kill you.” [shouting] [music] “Tamir was such a energetic kid. At 12 years old, he would actually get up in my arms, as big as he was, and let me hold him and kiss him and squeeze all on him.” [music] “So that day when you got the knock on the door, what happened?” “So, I was actually coming from the store and putting groceries up, and a knock came at the door. Two little boys told me that my son was shot by the police. And I was like in denial. I’m like, ‘No, you’re not talking about my kids. My kids is at the rec playing.’ And my oldest son was laying on the couch. He wasn’t feeling well. But he ran out right past me. I guess he heard it in the little boy’s voice. And he ran out before me, and I’m still trying to get my coat and my shoes on, talking about, ‘No, my kids is playing.’ And surely enough, as I walk across the street around a little track where I could see the kids, my son is laying on the ground with 10 police officers surrounding him. And my daughter is screaming in the back of the police car. And they have my other son surrounded, and they put him in the back of the police car. So it was terrible. That’s how that day turned out. The police asked me — well they didn’t ask me, they told me to calm down or they were going to put me in the back of the police car. Because I was trying to get to my son. They never let me get to him. They also let me ride in the front seat as a passenger.” “Of the police car.” “Of the ambulance.” “Of the ambulance.” “So I never even got a chance to get back close to my son, to hold his hand, to kiss him and let him know that it was going to be all right. I don’t know what they were doing.” “So he was in the back of the ambulance, and you were in the front.” “Yeah, I was in the front, like a passenger.” “What kind of service were they giving Tamir at the scene?” “I don’t know because they were surrounding him.” “They were surrounding him.” “I couldn’t really see.” “What were the officers doing? They were just standing there?” “Well they were just blocking me, not letting me go towards him, and telling me to calm down. And I’m telling them, you need to let my kids out the car. They’re minors and stuff like that. And like I told you, they gave me an ultimatum to stay at the scene of the crime with the other two children or to go with Tamir. I chose to go with Tamir, and I had to leave two children at the scene of a crime.” [music] “Everybody see what happened to my son. They didn’t even want to release that tape. My attorney had to threaten them to release the tape. And after that tape was released, it just went worldwide.” “What did you see on that tape? What was your reaction to it?” “My son was scared when they rolled up. He was scared. And he shrugged his shoulders, like this. They tried to say he was reaching for his waistband. He wasn’t reaching for nothing. When you roll up fast like that, you scared him.” “Absolutely.” “And that’s what I see.” “He was just stuck. He was just like — “ “Yeah. Like, what did I do?” “Right.” “Yeah. So, yeah, I will never get that vision out my head. That’s devastating. I play it over and over again. Also, with the picture of him laying on a gurney, and they would not allow me to touch him because they said he was evidence. So I didn’t even get a chance to touch him or none of that. No kiss goodbye. No nothing. No feeling him or nothing. So they said he was evidence, so I couldn’t touch him. And I don’t really know how that works.” “What ultimately happened to Tamir’s body?” “So — I had to get Tamir — well I didn’t have to, I choose to get him cremated. I don’t really think I told anyone that. But I don’t want to leave my son in Cleveland when I leave Ohio, so I will be taking him and my mother with me and have them in urns in my house.” “So to take him everywhere that you go, every stage of the rest of your life.” “Yeah, he has to go with me. Yeah. Because he just has to go. I wasn’t finished raising him, you know? I wasn’t finished nourishing him. And America robbed me. Yep, they robbed me.” “So when people talk about the American dream, what do you call it?” “A nightmare, especially if you’re black. Yeah.” [music] Traveling while black means to me that discrimination, segregation is still alive and well. And that even though I don’t have to have the “Green Book” to guide me to a black person’s house and I can stay in any hotel I want, but just think about the people who have been killed while traveling black. A young man, who was involved in the schools in the area where he lived, killed in front of his fiancée and their child, traveling while black. Traveling while black, I’m driving down the highway and the police decide to stop me. Even though I’m an elderly black woman, I could be killed just because I’m black and don’t give them the answer that they want. Traveling while black in America is still happening. And I am really frightened for black men traveling while black. I wonder, when does it end? [music]

Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.

[The New York Times and Oculus are presenting our 300th Op-Doc, the virtual-reality film “Traveling While Black,” related to this Opinion essay. To view it, you can watch on the Oculus platform or watch the 360 degree video above. “Traveling While Black” is an Emmy Nominee for Outstanding Original Interactive Program.]

Read this essay, first published in January, on the history of the Green Book. The Best Picture Oscar was awarded to the “Green Book” feature film.

Imagine trudging into a hotel with your family at midnight — after a long, grueling drive — and being turned away by a clerk who “loses” your reservation when he sees your black face.

This was a common hazard for members of the African-American elite in 1932, the year Dr. B. Price Hurst of Washington, D.C., was shut out of New York City’s Prince George Hotel despite having confirmed his reservation by telegraph.

Hurst would have planned his trip differently had he been headed to the South, where “ white s only” signs were ubiquitous and well-to-do black travelers lodged in homes owned by others in the black elite. Hurst was a member of Washington’s “ Colored Four Hundred ” — as the capital’s black upper crust once was known — and was familiar with having to plan his life around hotels, restaurants and theaters in the city, and throughout the Jim Crow South , that screened out people of color.

Hurst expected better of New York City. He did not let the matter rest after the Prince George turned his travel-weary family into the streets. He wrote an anguished letter to Walter White, then executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., explaining how he had been rejected by four hotels before shifting his search to the black district of Harlem. He then sued the Prince George for violating New York State’s civil rights laws, winning a settlement that put the city’s hotels on notice that discrimination could carry a financial cost.

African-Americans who embraced automobile travel to escape filthy, “colored-only” train cars learned quickly that the geography of Jim Crow was far more extensive than they had imagined. The motels and rest stops that deprived them of places to sleep were just the beginning.

While driving, these families were often forced to relieve themselves in roadside ditches because the filling stations that sold them gas barred them from using “whites only” bathrooms.

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White motorists who drove clunkers deliberately damaged expensive cars driven by black people — to put Negroes “in their places.”

“Sundown Towns” across the country banned African-Americans from the streets after dark, a constant reminder that the reach of white supremacy was vast indeed.

As still happens today, police officers who pulled over motorists of color for “driving while black” raised the threat that black passengers would be arrested, battered or even killed during the encounter.

The Negro Traveler’s Bible

The Hurst case was a cause célèbre in 1936 when a Harlem resident and postal worker named Victor Hugo Green began soliciting material for a national travel guide that would steer black motorists around the humiliations of the not-so-open road and point them to businesses that were more than happy to accept colored dollars. As the historian Gretchen Sullivan Sorin writes in her revelatory study of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” the guide became “the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s.”

Green, who died in 1960, is experiencing a renaissance thanks to heightened interest from filmmakers: The 2018 feature film “Green Book” won three Golden Globes earlier this month , and the documentary “Driving While Black” is scheduled for broadcast by PBS next year.

Then there is The New York Times opinion section’s Op-Doc film “Traveling While Black,” which debuts this Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. The brief film offers a revealing view of the Green Book era as told through Ben’s Chili Bowl, a black-owned restaurant in Washington, and reminds us that the humiliations heaped upon African-Americans during that time period extended well beyond the one Hurst suffered in New York City.

Sandra Butler-Truesdale, born in the capital in the 1930s, references an often-forgotten trauma — and one of the conceptual underpinnings of the Jim Crow era — when she recalls that Negroes who shopped in major stores were not allowed to try on clothing before they bought it. Store owners at the time offered a variety of racist rationales, including that Negroes were insufficiently clean. At bottom, the practice reflected the irrational belief that anything coming in contact with African-American skin — including clothing, silverware or bed linens — was contaminated by blackness, rendering it unfit for use by whites.

This had deadly implications in places where emergency medical services were assigned on the basis of race. Of all the afflictions devised in the Jim Crow era, medical racism was the most lethal. African-American accident victims could easily be left to die because no “black” ambulance was available. Black patients taken to segregated hospitals, where they sometimes languished in basements or even boiler rooms, suffered inferior treatment.

In a particularly telling case in 1931, the light-skinned father of Mr. White, the N.A.A.C.P. leader, was struck by a car and mistakenly admitted to the beautifully equipped “white” wing of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. When relatives who were recognizably black came looking for him, hospital employees dragged the victim from the examination table to the decrepit Negro ward across the street, where he later died.

That same year, Juliette Derricotte, the celebrated African-American educator and dean of women at Fisk University, succumbed to injuries suffered in a car accident near Dalton, Ga., after a white hospital refused her treatment.

Advertising to the Black Elite

Victor Hugo Green remains a mysterious figure about whom we know very little. He rarely spoke directly to Green Book readers, instead publishing testimonial letters in what the historian Cotten Seiler describes as an act of promotional “ventriloquism.” The debut edition did not exhort black travelers to boycotts or include demands for equal rights. Instead, Green represented the guide as a benign compilation of “facts and information connected with motoring, which the Negro Motorist can use and depend upon.”


Watch the video: PATRON - Новый Градострой-Выживание (November 2021).