How an Artist Learned About Freedom From ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’

Meredith Mendelsohn, Jan. 19, 2018, The New York Times
On a recent wintry morning, the multimedia artist Derrick Adams was sitting in his cozy basement studio in Brooklyn talking about distant cities and faraway times. “It’s like reading a fairy tale book. I see the names of beauty schools and men’s clubs and taverns, and I think, ‘What does that place look like?’”
Mr. Adams was referring to the establishments listed in the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a series of AAA-like guides for black travelers published from 1936 through 1966, and the inspiration for “Derrick Adams: Sanctuary,” an immersive installation opening at the Museum of Arts and Design (known as MAD) on Jan. 25.
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“The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” from the fall of 1956. Credit New York Public Library
 
Widely used at a time when African-Americans were navigating physical and social mobility through the swamp of Jim Crow laws and attitudes in the mid-20th century, the Green Books, as they came to be known, listed businesses from gas, food and lodging to nightclubs and haberdasheries that welcomed African-Americans when many did not.
While they reflect a disturbing reality of American history, the books also offered the hope of partaking in the American dream. “They enabled African-Americans to travel like Americans and to feel American,” the artist said.
Recognized internationally for his kaleidoscopic explorations of the black experience, Mr. Adams, 47, who is African-American, is the first major visual artist to use the Green Books as a creative point of departure. For him, they are not only a Civil Rights artifact and instrument of social change, but also a fascinating record of black leisure time and the built environment — subjects that are continuously percolating in his work.
 

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“Politicians, Priests, and psychiatrists often face the same problem: how to find the most rapid and permanent means of changing a man’s belief…The problem of the doctor and his nervously ill patient, and that of the religious leader who sets out to gain and hold new converts, has now become the problem of whole groups of nations, who wish not only to confirm certain political beliefs within their boundaries, but to proselytize the outside world.” – William Sargant “Battle of the Mind”

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