What the slave ship, train, automobile, and bus can teach us about Southern Black life in America
In Avidly Reads Passages, Michelle D. Commander plies four freighted modes of travel—the slave ship, train, automobile, and bus—to map the mobility of her ancestors over the past five centuries. In the process, she refreshes the conventional American travel narrative by telling an urgent story about how history shapes what moves us, as well as what prevents so many Black Americans from moving or being moved. Anchored in her maternal kin’s long history on and alongside plantations in rural South Carolina, Commander explores her family members’ ability and inability to navigate safely through space, time, and emotion, detailing how Black lives were shaped by the actual vehicles that promised an escape from the confines of American racism, yet nearly always failed to deliver on those promises. Using personal and public archives, Avidly Reads Passages unfolds distinct histories of transatlantic slavery ships, the possibilities presented by rail lines in the Reconstruction South, the fateful legacies of school busing, and the ways that Black Americans attempted to negotiate their automobility, including through the use of road and travel compendiums such as Travelguide and The Negro Motorist Green Book.
In order to understand the intricacies of slavery and its aftermath, Commander began her exploration with the hope of engaging with the difficult evidences and stubborn gaps in her family’s genealogy; what she produced is a biting and elegiac reflection on working-class life in the Black South. Commander demonstrates that the forms of intimidation, brutality, surveillance, and restriction used to control Black mobility have merely evolved since slavery, marking Black life writ large in America, with neither the passage of time nor the passage of laws assuring true and adequate racial progress. Despite this bleak observation, Commander catalogs and celebrates, through affecting stories about her beloved South Carolina community, the compelling strivings of Southern Black people to survive by holding on firmly to family, and their faith that new worlds could be imagined, created, and traveled to someday.
Part of the Avidly Reads series, this slim book gives us a new way of looking at American culture. With the singular blend of personal memoir and cultural criticism featured in the series, Avidly Reads Passages offers a unique lens through which to capture the intricacies of Black life.
Michelle D. Commander is Associate Director and Curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center. Previously, she was Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee.Michelle D. Commander is Associate Director and Curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center. Previously, she was Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee.