I think I was about thirteen when I learned that black people can’t go just anywhere in the United States. It was a very quick, subtle lesson that could have easily been missed but when I saw the concern on my mother’s face when she said, “We’re not stopping in Rogers for anything.” She said this in response to my stepfather’s unfurled map of Northwest Arkansas. As they sat in the front of our family van, charting a route to Fayetteville, I paid close attention to the unspoken tension from the backseat.
My stepfather noted that there was no way of avoiding the town. We’d have to drive through it to reach our destination. But no, we would not stop. From our vacation home in Bella Vista, where money made more of a difference than color, I was more out of touch than I understood. I didn’t notice the lack of black folks in the tiny community, which was devoted to the Walmart corporation. There was literally a golf course behind our rental. Elderly white men, in their golf carts, regularly made stops yards from where I sat on the patio to read.
It was when we made plans to see the university town of Fayetteville, I was reminded that I was black and that I was definitely The Other. No amount of money would change the fact that when we hit the open rode someone would have to pee. There was a good chance that we’d have to pull over in one of those dinky Arkansas towns. Even if we drove through without gassing up, peeing, or stretching our legs— there was a good chance that state patrol could pull my stepfather over.
The journey only took an hour. It was mostly quiet aside from my parent speaking in hushed tones about this forbidden town of Rogers. “You just don’t stay around this area after dark. Everyone knows that,” said my mother. The tension didn’t let up until we got to the city limits of Fayetteville. Only then, my sister and I felt comfortable enough to start jostling around in the backseat. My parents started talking louder; their laughter was nervous with relief.
I didn’t fully understand the term “sundown town” until I was in college and I had read there were many of them in Illinois (where I went to school). If white people didn’t want blacks in their town after the sunset, they let us know it. In the Jim Crow South, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a valuable lifeline for those who wanted to travel safely. This annual publication informed black travelers which hotels, restaurants, and service stations were relatively safe. Most importantly, the Green Book told us which towns to avoid entirely. This booklet, first published by Victor Hugo Green, probably saved lives in the 1960’s. In a time where the middle-class was booming for all Americans, families wanted to take road trips on the interstate highways. Black families wanted to go on vacation as well. It was just more. . . challenging for us.
I was thirteen-year-old in 1997 when my mother, a child of the 50’s, grew concerned about traveling through her native Arkansas. Twenty years later, in 2017, the NAACP has just issued a travel advisory for the entire state of Missouri. They ask that black people “use extreme caution” while traveling to or through the state. They cite incidents like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, university students who received death threats in Columbia, and recently passed legislation that makes it difficult to sue employers who are guilty of discrimination. An entire state is on notice.
I have written and spoken about this before. I have described what it’s like to travel to Thailand, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland, as a black woman. I may have experienced awkward moments but I don’t remember a situation that made me grit my teeth and stay silent like my mother did in 1997. She knew better than I the dangers that lie in wait in our own backyard; that simple road trip could go horribly wrong if she didn’t keep her wits about her. What I didn’t realize was that things hadn’t really changed and that, in some cases, we were backsliding. I have a U.S. government-issued passport that will take me everywhere in the world. The sundown towns of my own nation. . . the jury is still out on that.
Fayetteville was nice. We had a chain-restaurant meal and did a little shopping but we didn’t stay too long. I’m now certain that while we had fun, my parents thought about the drive back to Belle Vista and the potential issues that could arise. We took off long before dusk. Our drive was quiet.