Chronicling the riveting history and personal experiences of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the seismic changes of the 1960s and beyond. Available to watch through 10/12/27.
Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America, a ground-breaking, two-hour documentary film by acclaimed historian Dr. Gretchen Sorin and Emmy–winning director Ric Burns. The film chronicles the riveting history and personal experiences of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the seismic changes of the 1960s and beyond. It explores the deep background of a recent phrase rooted in realities that have been an indelible part of the African American experience for hundreds of years – told in large part through the stories of the men, women and children who lived through it.
Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship – and based on and inspired in large part by Gretchen Sorin’s recently published study of the way the automobile and highways transformed African American life across the 20th century – the film examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the Civil Rights movement and beyond, exploring along the way the deeply embedded dynamics of race, space and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history.
The right to move freely and safely across the American landscape has always been unequally distributed by race and powerfully contested in the American experience. With urgent and powerful relevance to issues and dynamics at work in American society today – of race and class, gender, safety, law enforcement, automobile culture, recreation, personal freedom and national identity – this resonant and deeply moving history is at once revelatory, troubling and deeply inspiring for what it uncovers about the long road to justice in American history, and about the creativity, courage and commitment to change that makes it possible.
Driving While Black utilizes a rich archive of material from the period — including footage, photographs, advertisements, road signs, maps, letters and legal records — and weaves together oral histories and the on-camera insights of scholars, writers, musicians and ordinary American travelers. Program website.