During the summer of 2016, I drove from Los Angeles, CA to Beaufort, SC. In Texas and Louisiana, I visited sites listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Negro Motorist Green Book was initially published in 1936 and remained in print until 1966. The book provided safety information for Black families traveling across the United States in their cars. Although many of the families were able to avoid segregation on public transportation by driving cars, other dangers such as racially-motivated police harassment and violence often arose on the road. Additionally there were many gas stations, restaurants, and hotels that would refuse service to African-American travelers. The Green Book served as a crucial companion for Black travelers to find safe travel routes and spaces where they could eat and sleep safely with their families.
The last copy of The Green Book was published in 1966, following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination, which had made people believe the need for the book was obsolete. In the summer of 2015 Sandra Bland, a 28 year old woman from Chicago Illinois was found hanged in her cell in Waller County Texas, after a traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas. She was pulled over for failure to signal a lane change. Eye-witness accounts, cell phone footage, and tampered police dashcam footage reveal aggressive and violent tactics used to remove Sandra Bland from her vehicle. Her death and the innumerable deaths of African-descended people and people of color at the hands of the police brings up the question of whether the need for The Green Book is in fact obsolete.
The ability to have determination over mobility can be linked to liberation in the context of slavery. Slavery greatly inhabited the mobility of Africans who worked under forced labor, and reconstruction-era laws worked to continue to limit the mobility of African-Americans across geographic space. During Jim Crow, although African-Americans owned cars and in theory possessed mobile freedom, racially-motivated harassment hindered their ability to move freely across state lines. The Green Book addressed this issue, and the case of Sandra Bland brings up current issues with mobility hinderance.
During my drive across country using The Green Book as a guide, I collected sound through field recordings, camped alone, met with historians of color, and wrote about my cross- country drive.
The following piece is based on a conversation that I had with a woman whose home was listed in The Green Book under the category Tourist Homes.*
This sound work was recorded while driving across the country researching travel sites that were listed in the Green Book, travel companion for African American travelers. As a part of this project I set up a google voice number where friends could call in and wish me well on my travels. For the first piece I juxtaposed those well wishes, with conservative radio/ ideaologies, that I met on the road. This piece serves as an exploration of the limitations ( in terms of the history of criminalization and violence) placed on black and non- white people as we move through space.
After leaving Elaine’s house on Jackson Avenue, I got in my car contemplating whether to go to the next house. I felt like I was pulled by a force greater than me to focus on the tourist homes in the book. Because, according to my logic, it made more sense to focus on social spaces such as beauty parlors and barber shops in order to be able to photographically document as many spaces listed in The Green Book , or at least what they had become, as possible before ending my time in New Orleans. But I decided to listen to the pull, instead of logic, and it had worked out. I felt grateful to meet black homeowners, who were all very excited about my work and who had resources and were willing to share information. I knew I had to hit the road soon and drive seven hours to go to Dallas, but something told me to stop at just one more tourist home and spend an hour there if I could. I wasn’t even sure if anyone would be at home or willing to talk to me, but I put the address into my GPS and made my way.
I got out of my car with my camera, phone, wallet and keys and walked up to a big two-story house with a spiral staircase in the front. I pulled on the gate, letting myself in and felt surprised by how easily the gate opened. I rang the bell, halfway not expecting anyone to come to the door, when a black woman who appeared to be in her early 70’s, with a close-cropped silver afro answered the door, opening the screen door with one hand and holding a black cordless phone to her ear with the other.
She was mid-sentence, but cupped the receiver, looked at me and said hello.
I began to introduce myself and tell her about my work with The Green Book, when, cutting in, she said, “my house was listed in The Green Book and I can’t find my copy.” Astonished and suddenly feeling shy I asked, “Are you Mrs. Bailey?” I was surprised because the majority of the sites that I had visited from the 1955 edition were either empty lots or had changed owners.
She said, “I sure am, and this is my house!” She let out a laugh.
I said, “The book listed a NJ Bailey.”
She said, “NJ Bailey was my husband.”
I said, “I am not sure what you are up to today, but if you have five minutes I would love to speak with you some about this being a tourist home in The Green Book."
She said, “Well sure, come right on in.”
I walked into the house. It was beautiful with a long corridor and wooden floors. She led me toward the back into a living room area with a mantle filled with sepia pictures of folks who were, my guess, her ancestors. She led me to a dining room table behind the living room mantle and I saw a sewing machine. I said, “Oh, do you sew? I sew too!”
She invited me to sit down and began to immediately tell me how her husband purchased the house in the 1930’s and she began living there in 1935. I asked her if it was okay with her for me to record our meeting. She said, “Sure honey, go ahead.” Throughout our meeting she called me “baaaby" and “honey child” making me feel so happy and at home, and reminding me of the grandmother energy I had been praying for.
To my surprise she went on to tell me that she was 97 and born in 1919. Bewildered, I took a moment to process her age, I couldn’t believe this woman so filled with youth energy and vital memory was 97! I shared with her that my grandmother was born in the same year, on August 5. She told me her birthday was on November 1; I said mine was on October 31. I felt myself so drawn to and comfortable with Mrs. Bailey. She told me her first name was Dorothy.
She began to tell me about how she worked in insurance, but did not expect to go into that industry. She had suddenly become pregnant with her third child upon finding herself out of work and trying to figure out how to make money. She sewed and did tailoring work on the side for many people in the community, but knew that she needed more money flowing in.
She told me she went into a store and was told she could no longer use her husband’s credit card. She told me her hair was down to her back, her titties were sitting high, her waist was tiny and her hips were big. That when the man working the counter said she couldn’t use her husband’s credit she felt astonished. The man then began complimenting her clothes, which she had made. Whenever he asked her a question, she had a quick response back to him.
He asked her, “Mrs. Bailey, would you like your own line of credit? All you have to do is pay your bill on time and you can shop anywhere you want and get the things you need.”
She said, “I most certainly would like my own line of credit.”
She told me she went on to use her credit to buy other homes in New Orleans. She told me that I can have whatever I want and to remember that the biggest cost in buying a house is the downpayment.
Mrs. Bailey told me that she would go into stores and be told one price and in her mind know how much she wanted to spend. She’d walk into a store and get items for less than what she wanted to spend.
Reflecting on her essence of abundance, femininity, prosperity and deep power, I thought to myself, this is a true and powerful Oshun.
She told me about how when her daughter went to sign for her house, they told her that they wouldn’t allow her to use her mother as a co-signer because her father had died. Mrs. Bailey said she drove to Shreveport met with the loan officer, pulled out all her credit cards and proof that she was a credible co- signer and told him, “Go ahead now, hurry up, I have to go” Her daughter got the house.
Mrs. Bailey made friends with a meat seller and was able to buy meat at wholesale prices and share this food with her community. Her husband bought their house with the intention of making it into a hotel. She wanted to make it into a home for their children.
Mrs. Bailey circled back to the topic of her needing a job while she was expecting her third child and went on to tell me that she went to work for a friend at a ball. She was put on the cash register. A man had asked her if she was married to the man who ran the ball and she had said no, she was not married to him but her friend was. He said, “I think you’d be good working in insurance.” She said, “I’ve never done that before.” He told her to call him on Tuesday about a job.
On Tuesday, the man called Mrs. Bailey and asked her where she was on that day. She said she was busy helping a friend out and she would have to come by later. Later she went by, and was given the job.
Mrs. Bailey sold insurance for over 22 years. She sold insurance in the black community and took the months August and December off every year. None of her policies ever went into default and whenever she had money, she donated to the church and to the people who faithfully kept policies with her.
In the middle of Mrs. Bailey telling me this story, her daughter called to check on her.
After she hung up the phone, Mrs. Bailey told me that before I arrived, while she was in the bathroom, she tipped over and hit her head. Her daughter had told her not to go to sleep for six hours and she thought to herself, how am I gonna do that, not sleep for six hours? She said, “and that’s when you rang the doorbell. Everything happens for a reason.”
The time went on and I became worried about driving through Texas late at night and I told her I should get going, since I had to drive to Dallas.
She said, “Well let me just show you this room I haven’t shown you.”
She said, “Well let me just show you this room I haven’t shown you.” She showed me her room. There was a picture of a rabbit outside of the room’s door and inside was an incredibly crafted quilt on the bed that she had made by hand. She also had stuffed rabbits on the bed. I asked her if she loved rabbits. She told me her nickname was Rabbit. They called her that because of the amount of children she had.
Mrs. Bailey pointed up to a picture of the Virgin Mary and said after Katrina there was a fire in the building that was next door to hers and the fire impacted and damaged some items in her home. Of all things, the Virgin was not damaged. “The glass frame cracked and the picture rolled up a little, and that's it,” she said. I asked her which Virgin it was. She said Guadalupe but I pointed out the healing waters. She said, “It’s whichever one runs the healing waters, then.” I asked if it was Lourdes, the Virgin Mary who had been speaking to me the most lately. It seemed like an amazing coincidence. Every time I went on a walk in LA and followed my intuition about which turn to take I would encounter a statue of the Virgin Mary of Lourdes or even meet someone named Lourdes. When this started happening regularly, I began to look up the significance of the story of Lourdes and her healing waters. I walked over to the mantle and saw a picture of Saint Anthony and one of Saint George. Mrs. Bailey said, “Saint Anthony will help you find anything you need when you lose it.” I agreed with her and said, “He helps you immediately.” I told her I didn’t know much about St. George. She said, “He helps you with money.”, I said that was good to know. There was a glass of water by the image of St. George. As we were walking out of the room she stopped by a dark skinned depiction of Marie Laveau* and just looked at me and smiled and tapped on the wall. I smiled back.
She took me to the furthest front room which had many angels and she showed me her area with wood and a rosary and a beautiful pot that also did not get damaged in the fire. Her daughter then called and Mrs. Bailey put me on the phone with her. They both said that it was best that I didn’t drive to Dallas and Mrs. Bailey said that I should spend the night. I started to feel worried about staying through the night but something in my spirit was screaming not to drive to Dallas. I told Mrs. Bailey that I had to go to the community bookstore real quick to let them know that I was leaving the next day and that I’d id be back. Before I left the house I looked up at the door to see a horse shoe turned upright covered in white cloth with St. Anthony and St. George on either side. I knew I was protected and in the home of a very powerful woman.
I went to The Community Book Center, which felt like my hub of community support while I was in New Orleans. My friend Shaina, who I met in LA and who is from New Orleans told me that this needed to be my first stop in New Orleans and it was. The Community Book Store, where I met Mrs. Vera and Mama Jenn carries an array of books focused on the histories and contemporary topics of the African Diaspora. Not only did this book store feel like a home to me, where I met so many people and learned about sites in the Green book, but the bookstore is home to so many generations of Black folks from New Orleans.
I went to see Mrs. Vera and Mama Jean and let them know the updates of my travel and walked in on a room filled with black women of many ages participating in a “sister symposium.” I sat down then walked across the room behind the speaker to see Mama Jenn and hug her. As I walked across the room, the speaker called out to me and asked me what I do. I said that I make healing teas and am an artist, and Mrs. Vera said “What else?” and gave me that look. I then introduced my Green Book project and people seemed very interested and moved. Mrs. Vera offered to have me stay at her place. Mrs. Vera gave me her key and texted me throughout the night to make sure I made it in safely.
I spent some time at Mrs. Vera’s place and then went back to Mrs. Bailey’s house and told her I would only stay for a while, which she basically shut down completely by saying that it was too late to leave.
Mrs. Bailey showed me to the room where I would be staying. I had told her that I loved camping earlier in the day when we had first met , I also shared with her that throughout my travels I spent a great deal of time camping alone. She introduced the room where I would be sleeping by saying that her daughter Gwen also loved to camp and that it was her room. It was called the angel room. It was filled with beautiful antique gold furniture and felt like Oshun’s room. There were black angels everywhere.
Mrs. Bailey’s granddaughter Malisa came over and I joined them downstairs to talk. Malisa started talking about herbs she was taking for healing. After I mentioned that I make tea, and Mrs. Bailey mentioned that she had edema and asked what herbs she could take. I recommended ginger and told her I’d put together a tea for her. I asked her if she’d ever worked with herbs and she said no but that her mother and grandmother did, and that people from all over would come to them for salves and herbs for their period cramps.
I felt tired and went to bed. I woke up to this 97-year-old woman cooking a huge pot of grits, boiling sausage, and making coffee. She asked me to sit down and have a cup of coffee and talked to me, making sure I would call her when I reached Dallas. I told her I would. She wished me safe travels.
mrs bailey at Jackson ave
epitome of Oshun water in glasses above pictures of ancestors
the serendipity of me coming into her home
her inviting me over for sleep
the history of this house as a hotel
current day manor
she gives to the people in her community
worked in insurance
made anything happen that she wanted to
was born on november 1
would wander into places meet the right people and get just what she wanted
she is 97
met her grandaugter malisa
spoke out against colorism
had family members who passed for white
the room she put me up in is her daughter gwendolyn’s room also known as the angel room was
decorated in gold and black angels
has swelling issues — edema
make tea for mrs. bailey.
The people interviewed in the sound piece are Elaine, who grew up taking piano lessons in one of the homes listed in the Green Book and Mrs. Bailey, who’s home was listed in the Green Book, where she rented rooms for travelers.
Charmaine Bee received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. She is an interdisciplinary visual artist. Through, installation, sculpture, sound and textile she explores the impact of historically charged materials on our consciousness. She has also studied herbalism with Karen Rose. Charmaine has been awarded the Felix Gonzales - Torres Foundation travel grant, Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Foundation grant for The Stoop Gallery, a pop up gallery project and Puffin Foundation grant for her gentrification mapping project. She will be in residence at Five Myles gallery in Brooklyn, NY in the summer of 2018 and has been in residence 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, CA and the Fountainhead Residency in Miami, FL. She resides in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, NY.