A couple of lessons in US black history this week: both a little academic but all the better for it. First, Driving the Green Book. Presented in beautifully modulated tones by broadcaster-educator Alvin Hall, this 10-part podcast series explores 20th-century African American lives. The Negro Motorist Green Book first came out in 1936, and the last edition was in 1962. It was a travel guide for black people, written by a Harlem couple, Alma and Victor Hugo Green (you may remember it from the Oscar-winning film Green Book). Based on a similar guide that was available for Jewish people, the Greens decided to list local businesses owned by black people, and other places where African Americans were welcome. Over the years, the guide was extended out of New York to the rest of the US. It was especially useful for black people who lived in the south and wanted to visit relatives who had migrated north to escape the Jim Crow laws.
“The roadways of the USA have long been a symbol of openness and freedom, one of the expressions of the American dream. For African Americans who wanted to participate in this dream, their travels required caution, preparedness and planning,” says Hall in episode one. (His script is wonderful: dignified and informative.) On one level, the various Green Books told black people where the safe havens were; on another, they provided a year-by-year history of the way African Americans lived and worked, how they negotiated life in a racially segregated US. We learn about this in episode two, when Hall and assistant producer Janée Woods Weber visit the Schomburg Center in Harlem and talk to experts there. A note: Esso was the first petrol company to actively welcome black people. It stocked copies of the Green Book in its filling stations.
Last summer, Hall and Woods Weber drove from Detroit to New Orleans, using the Green Book as a guide. They spoke to 40 people, 31 of whom will appear in this podcast. (There’s a lot of interesting online info if you investigate the accompanying websites and links: transcripts and photos, maps and music.) In the first episode, we met Hezekiah Jackson. “Mother kept putting her finger up to her lips to indicate to us not to make a sound,” Jackson said, remembering when the family car was stopped by white policemen, who called his father “boy” and the N-word. As a young boy, Jackson was bewildered by this; he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in an entirely black neighbourhood. Now, he finds himself advising his nephew on the way to deal with white police in a car (put your hands on the steering wheel and never move them). And recently, Jackson himself had to pretend to be grateful when white policemen escorted him, a sixtysomething reverend, out of a wealthy non-black neighbourhood to the freeway entrance. Things have changed, but not by as much as you’d hope.
Over on the World Service’s Forum strand, Rajan Datar hosted an interesting and shocking discussion about The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I hadn’t heard of this before, and the details are horrible. In the early 1920s, black people in Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had built their neighbourhood into an admirable, prosperous place – the black Wall Street, it was called – which white racists burned to the ground in two days. The mob, who shot at women and children, were aided by the local police force, which lent them police vehicles; private planes were used to drop air bombs on fleeing families.
Contributors Prof Carol Anderson, author of White Rage, John W Franklin, cultural historian and the grandson of one of the massacre’s survivors, and lawyer, author and local historian Hannibal B Johnson talked us through what happened and how the massacre was subsequently covered up. More hopefully, they also explained how the neighbourhood rebuilt itself. And now Greenwood’s senator is working to put the Tulsa massacre into the local schools’ history curriculum, with questions about it to be part of the state-mandated testing. All immensely positive – though when journalists from Oklahoma City recently visited the Tulsa museum exhibit on the massacre, they confessed to never having heard of it. Which is why programmes such as this one and Driving the Green Book really matter.
Three interesting shows about hip-hop
The Dossier: The LAPD Cover-Up of the Murder of Biggie
The title says it all, really: journalist Don Sikorski talks to FBI agent Phil Carson about rapper Biggie Smalls’s murder in Los Angeles in 1997. Carson, the first FBI agent to talk about the case, says that when he was investigating, he was thwarted at every turn by the Los Angeles police department, journalists from the LA Times and certain lawyers. Be warned: the podcast is not for those who don’t already have some knowledge of what happened (it starts where Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary Biggie & Tupac finishes). Sikorski’s presentation can be frustrating (get to the point!), but this is a great piece of investigative journalism. It names names, including the current LAPD chief, Michel Moore.
Hip-Hop’s Laughing Stock
Joe Jacobs has wanted to be a successful rapper for years. He’s released several tracks to not very much acclaim; his family advise him to change to standup. So he does. Can Jacobs combine hip-hop with humour? Should rap be funny? This documentary attempts to find out. There are some lovely interviews about rap battles, as well as toe-curling audio of Jacobs’s first onstage comedy attempts. Great use of music, too, weaved in by producer James Trice, a hip-hop fan himself. Jacobs is self-aware, engaging and – phew – funny in the end.
People’s Party With Talib Kweli
Hip-hop star Kweli has been putting up this weekly show since July 2019, and has bagged some big names: B-Real, Common, Chuck D, Estelle, Lil’ Kim, Monie Love and more, plus non-hip-hop people such as Don Cheadle and Gina Yashere. Kweli’s co-presenter, comedian Jasmin Leigh, is a great, warm presence, and their conversations are not afraid to go deep. I loved the most recent episode with Royce Da 5’9” , about how his sobriety has affected his work. He took his first drink with Dr Dre! You can watch on YouTube too.