Picturing the all-American highway journey (and its many hazards) for Black drivers
A Parallel Road, Willett’s new book (published November by Overlapse), vividly shows the gap between the ideal of the road trip and the fears of black Americans on the street.
It’s a humble book modeled after the draft of the Negro Motorist Green Book, referring black drivers to friendly companies across the country from 1936 to 1966. But this humility is a searing message.
With the Green Book listings in mind, Willett first uses his family’s archive snapshots, then his own pictures and images from the news, to ponder what the road trip means to Americans and how that dream can turn into a nightmare.
It starts quite harmlessly.
“You see these happy and proud people standing next to their cars,” said Karen E. Haas, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, who purchased two prints of “A Parallel Road” last summer. “And then you read the text below and find out that there may be only a few motels or gas stations.”
“What a feeling,” she added, “having your whole family in the car and not knowing where the nearest gas station is.”
From happy family snaps, “A Parallel Road” switches to tire tracks, a glued-on taillight, pictures of Ku Klux Klansmen and stills of Rodney King who was beaten up by Los Angeles police in 1991 after being run over for drunk driving. More contemporary images to follow – of Sandra Bland, who died in 2015 after a traffic obstruction in a Texas prison; by Diamond Reynolds, who televised the killing of her friend Philando Castile in 2016 after being stopped outside St. Paul.
Why does traffic stop such flashpoints? “I think with that [invention of the] Car, all of a sudden you had this weird space created where you sit in your car, but you are in a public space, ”Willett said. “There was much more interaction between whites and blacks in public spaces. And police and black people in public spaces. “
Willett, who is biracial, grew up in Cambridge. He believes he was stopped by the police for his looks – he’s fair skinned, but he wore dreadlocks in college.
“Family members talk about being racially profiled or run over because they don’t have a taillight,” he said. “Friends were violently beaten. Friends were arrested for no reason and separated from their families in two different police cars. “
In the 1980s, when Willett and his brother were little, his mother Gail, unable to find children’s books about black or biracial children, opened Savannah Books, a Central Square bookstore dedicated to children with color.
“From a young age I knew that representation was important, that it was important to reflect in society, that it was important to have stories about your experiences,” he said.
Gail appears in one of Willett’s photos in “A Parallel Road,” which is barely lit at night in a dark car and looks up at her rearview mirror. This is one of the prints the MFA purchased.
“You can see where she is,” said Haas. “And then you realize that maybe a police car has stopped. And you feel this threatening, unsafe feeling. “
The snapshots and the family relationships give the following images – of Bland, of Castile’s bloody T-shirt – a family intimacy.
“It hits you in the stomach,” said Haas.
“A Parallel Road” combines many threads: the story of black Americans on the street; the trope of the American road trip, which is a photographic genre in its own right (Robert Frank’s “The Americans” was published in 1958, a year after Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”). Then the camera lens changes the way Americans see themselves – most recently with the devastating spread on social media of images of violence against black citizens that woke the sleeping giants of white America.
Willett found much disheartening when he put “A Parallel Road” together.
“While I was working on it, something happened every day that I could add to the project,” he said. “It was exhausting.” Numerous black Americans who were killed on the street are listed towards the end.
But he also found hope.
“People will go on road trips. The Black Community will go on road trips. Even if it takes more courage, ”he said. “You will experience this American road trip in every safe and every possible way experienced.”
Cate McQuaid can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.