Radio Readers BookByte: What Else Are We Missing?

Sep 12, 2017

First published in 1937 and 15 pages long, The Green Book for Negro Motorists cautioned those African Americans who were traveling in New York against towns they were not allowed to be in after dark lest they be arrested if not killed; it listed towns that did offer accommodations to African-Americans, and offered names of businesses that might service their vehicles or allow them to use the restrooms.
Credit Victor Hugo Green, 1940 / Wikipedia

I’m Meagan Zampieri, your book discussion leader for this month. Our first Fall Read 2017- Food and Story is The Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky and I chose to lead the discussion for this book because, well.

I travel a lot for my work.

That is an understatement. This year alone, I’ve crossed Kansas so many times I’ve lost count. I have gone to Texas, St. Louis, and Chicago, and I have a trip to Utah planned. Wichita tomorrow, Topeka on Tuesday, Lawrence the following Tuesday. Sharon Springs at the beginning of August, Dodge City at the end of August, Wichita again in a couple months… That’s outside of whatever meetings I might need to attend inside of the 12-county region I serve in my work with libraries.

I mostly travel alone.

I am not afraid to do so. I mostly know the roads I’m on, so I can be picky about where I stop. I have a lot of choices too. I drive the interstate mostly, and travel stops are well-lit and well-staffed.

And I am lucky. First, to be born in such a time as this, and live in such a place as this, when my choices are endless, when I can choose to travel alone and go where I wish. I am lucky that I wasn’t born when the essays in this book were being written, and I’m lucky that I was born white.

I recently visited St. Louis, I mentioned. And in the Missouri History Museum, there were two seemingly unrelated but actually very related exhibits: #1 in Civil Rights: the African American Struggle in St. Louis and Route 66: Main Street through St. Louis. See, I also recently learned of a book that was written specifically for the African American audience by a mail carrier Victor Hugo Green. Published in 1937 and 15 pages long, The Green Book for Negro Motorists cautioned those African Americans who were traveling in New York against towns they were not allowed to be in after dark lest they be arrested if not killed; it listed towns that did offer accommodations to African-Americans, and offered names of businesses that might service their vehicles or allow them to use the restrooms. The last issue was published in 1966-67, and it had been expanded to 100 pages and covered most of the country and some international places.

100 pages of places that African Americans weren’t just not allowed to go there, to eat or to sit. Their lives were at risk if they did go. In our book, Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky does mention this history. In the introduction, very seriously, and again more in depth when he introduces the South Eats. He writes:

            This journey by time capsule to the early 1940s is not always a pleasant one. It affords us a glimpse at the pre-civil rights South.

Kurlansky then describes the examples of overt racism not included in the book as well as the subtler stereotypes, those of physical descriptions that are more like caricatures than people. He describes that while in the 1940s, African American foods were a flavor of the South, what we recognize as Southern cooking today is almost entirely African American in origin.

I think this deserves to be part of a larger conversation, a constant conversation. The Green Book for Motorists was first a guide book for New York. New Hampshire had a total of three hotels that would board African Americans. Illinois—where half the towns were sundown towns—is decidedly in the Midwest. This was and is not exclusively a Southern history.

Food of a Younger Land does draw a story of white migration across the plains, pulling in regional First People’s stories now and then. Mexican influence is obvious in the SouthWest section, and we learn of the Nordic immigrants in the northern Midwest. It does this well. I enjoyed the journey, and I do have so many travels to compare it to.

But what else are we missing? What perspective isn’t here because the writers were almost exclusively white? Were there no writers in San Francisco’s Chinatown? There is not a single Italian bakery mentioned—not even in New York where my father’s father’s bakery was. What other prejudices were felt so strongly that we missed entire swaths of people, veritable banquets of culture unexplored?