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Freedom Rides Again

Henry Louis Gates, Jr, once remarked that slave narratives 'arose as a response to and refutation of claims that blacks could not write.'1 He might have added they also challenged the assumption that they could not travel. In which case, perhaps, black travel writing to the extent that it is still produced within similar configurations of power is doubly provocative.

freedom riders memorial plaque
Freedom Riders plaque, Birmingham, Alabama: Photo by kschlot1


If slave narratives inaugurated a radical tradition in which their final destinations (Canada, Europe) provide telling examples of freedom the authors are denied in the United States (and one which continued well after Emancipation), another tradition emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Here, time, rather than space, supplied the principal medium of comparison and contrast, as writers revisited the sites of struggle decades later to measure how much - or how little - things had changed between then and now.

In doing so, they generated what is, I think, a distinctively politicized variant of the 'footsteps' genre of travel writing. Let me try and illustrate this with examples drawn from two authors who have retraced the journeys of the Freedom Riders.

Footsteps

The campaigns to desegregate Southern transit often involved the symbolic duplication of previous journeys. The first Freedom Ride of May 1961 reprised the Journey of Reconciliation of 1947. Subsequent Rides often followed the same routes (or completed journeys that had to be abandoned). And later anniversaries were often marked by some form of re-enactment. Repetition is a predominant theme in the multitude of texts associated with the movement, not only those spoken or written at the time, but especially perhaps in the retrospective assessments published much later.2

John Lewis' Walking with the Wind is the memoir of a former Freedom Rider, who, at the time of writing (nearly forty years later) was a US congressman - and still is.3 No Place Like Home by Gary Younge, a black British journalist with the Guardian newspaper (and still is) who spent a summer in the late 1990s riding buses between Washington, DC and New Orleans, tracing the route of the first Ride.4

If Younge's is a book-length footsteps narrative (and clearly indicated as such on the jacket, as well as by its formal organisation - each chapter begins with an itallcized paragraph referring to the events of May, 1961), Lewis' story also slips into 'footsteps' mode as his personal recollections are framed within accounts of more recent return visits to the scenes of the most memorable confrontations.

But before looking at these examples in more detail, it may be worth reflecting on the footsteps mode of travel writing and what it usually entails. I would say that the mainstream footsteps narrative - modelled, ultimately, on religious pilgrimage - tends to aspire to the recreation of an earlier, historical experience, and its ideal epiphany is a moment where intervening history seems to disappear.

Consider this, from The Road to Timbuktu, Tom Fremantle's account of a journey that traces the route taken by a late eighteenth-century explorer:
I took a few photographs, trying to capture family life. I felt sure if Mungo Park had been able to carry a camera, he would have snapped similar scenes. The courtyard had a timeless quality. The goat milker, the silent elders, the three palm trees, the lone cow, the doves and chickens, the children balancing water buckets on their heads, the laughter, and all the time the pounding of the millet - whump, whump, whump - West Africa's steady and imperishable heartbeat.5
Here is one of those precious moments where the text luxuriates in an apparently perfect communion with the past - or suspension of time altogether. If it works, it is something of a miracle because the reader has only just been told that the author arrived at this spot courtesy of a Bob Marley-loving bus driver who was also a well-known local ganja dealer.

Other footsteps narratives make a point of highlighting the changes that have taken place since the visit of their predecessor - they lean on that Bob Marley moment rather than try to make us forget it.
The rooms on the north-east corner of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana look out, to the north, over the old cathedral [they still do], the entrance to the harbour [yes], and the sea [not quite, an ugly modern block with yellow plastic water tanks has gone up since then], and to the east to Casablanca peninsula, the roofs of all houses in between and the width of the harbour. [With its long line of Spanish fortifications, that view can't have changed much since the beginning of the seventeenth century.] If you sleep with your feet toward the east ... the sun, coming up over the Casablanca tide and into your open window will shine on your ace and wake you no matter where you were the night before.6
Here, in Hemingway Adventure, Michael Palin measures these changes by, as it were, grading each statement within Hemingway's text. The bathos of finding tower blocks when one expected an idyllic sea view has become something of a cliche these days and is indicative I think of the pervasively cynical flavour of much contemporary travel writing. But, like the more innocent perspective illustrated by Tom Fremantle, its benchmark is always stasis. If things have changed, then it can only be for the worse.

Above all, these changes get in the way of the writer's ability to imagine what it used to be like. Which is why in the account of his Grand Tour, Pencillings by the Way, Nathaniel Parker Willis prefers the Roman forum in moonlight rather then during the day:
One would think it enough to be upon the spot at any time, with light to see it; but what with modern excavations, fresh banks of earth, carts, boys playing at marbles, and wooden sentry-boxes; and what with the Parisian promenade, made by the French through the centre, the imagination is too disturbed and hindered in daylight. The moon gives it all one covering of gray and silver. The old columns stand up in all their solitary majesty, wrecks of beauty and taste; silence leaves the fancy to find a voice for itself; and from the palaces of the Caesars to the prisons of the Capitol, the whole train of emperors, senators, conspirators, and citizens, are summoned with but half a thought, and the magic glass is filled with moving and re-animated Rome.7

In the Waiting Room

Lewis was in the first group that left Washington (on two separate buses) on April 4th, 1961, but was forced to leave the ride several days later in Rock Hill, South Carolina when he heard he had been invited to an important interview in Philadelphia. He planned to rejoin his companions in Birmingham on the 15th. But on the previous day - Mother's Day, Sunday the 14th - the first ride had come to an end. Trailways refused to run the service to Montgomery, and the Greyhound bus had earlier been forced off the road in Anniston, and set on fire.
The bus had been bombed.

I felt shock. I felt guilt. That was my bus, my group. It was devastating to hear this news, and it was torture to hear it only in the sketchiest terms. There were no details - no reports about injuries or deaths. I could only imagine, and imagination coupled with fear is a torturous thing.

Later I would learn what had happened. The next morning every newspaper in the nation, and many more around the entire world, would carry a front-page photograph of the Greyhound bus in Anniston, Alabama, flames licking out its exploded windows, a column of thick black smoke billowing toward the sky. Even now, thirty-seven years after the fact, the picture is stunning to look at. It's like a scene out of Bosnia. Or the aftermath of a tank battle in World War II. Or the carnage of Verdun. Or Antietam.

But this was America in 1961.8
The account moves from an attempt to convey how he received the news at the time to a more retrospective assessment which records his response to the (now iconic) photograph 'thirty-seven years later' as the proper names he invokes in a search for parallels include references to events (the Bosnian War of 1992-95) that happened decades later. The parallels are wilfully excessive and there is an air of impulsive desperation in the way that, instead of the expected incrementum we are presented with a series whose only order appears to be its reverse chronology, and even this may be accidental. The reader is addressed as someone who needs some persuading that this event took place as recently as 1961, as if we would have to go back a century to the Civil War to find an equivalent atrocity on US soil. There is an exceptionalism here in the implication that Anniston is an anomaly in what has been in general a narrative of progress from the end of slavery to the era of civil rights. And to my mind this is a conservative impulse, one that befits a mainstream polician, who feels obliged to repeatedly underline his patriotism in order to be taken seriously.

A few pages later:
The Birmingham Greyhound terminal sits today in the same spot it did back in 1961. Its front doors still open onto downtown Nineteenth Street. Its rear doors still lead to a loading platform and a line of buses painted red, silver, blue and white, their engines idling, the destination tags above their windshields reading:

TUSCALOOSA
SHREVEPORT
NEW ORLEANS
MERIDIAN
JACKSON


Inside, the floor of the waiting room is the same worn patchwork of yellow and cream-colored tiles I walked across many times as a college student traveling back and forth from school to home for the holidays. Sunlight still slants down through the windows high up near the ceiling, just as it did back then. And though they now sit together instead of separately, there are still many more black men and women than whites lined up at the ticket counter and resting in the rows of hard plastic seats.9
This is more conventionally footsteps-like, as Lewis records an actual visit to Birmingham and marks the 1961/1998 similarities and differences through empirical description. The repetition of 'same' and 'still' exceeds the usual footsteps rhetoric so that instead of signaling delight at the ease with which one can imaginatively step back in time, it rather strikes us with the depressing thought that nothing much has changed. That black and white passengers are no longer forced to use separate accommodations is the only change he can report; and it is overshadowed by the realization that nothing else has - certainly the implication is that civil rights legislation has done little to transform the social-economic disparity between blacks and whites. So, in contrast, a more pessimistic outlook here - as befits someone whose radical image is still important to him.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

The fast cutting in Lewis' list (Verdun, Bosnia, Antietam) is a passing rhetorical flourish. But in Younge's book, this kind of foregrounded editing might be said to be its modus operandi. For it is a footsteps book that does not just tack between the Freedom Rides of 1961 and his own journey of the late 1990s. He repeatedly inserts anecdotes from his own past, largely from growing up in Britain in the 1970s and 80s. For example, he recalls watching the TV documentary series Eyes on the Prize when he was a student, scenes of which reminded him of racist abuse hurled at the bus he was on, while visiting the seaside as a boy.10

Instead of swinging between optimistic and pessimistic evaluations like Lewis (who resolves them with formulations like: 'We have come a long way ... But we still have a long way to go'11) in what is still essentially a teleological view of history (where a bad past and a better present justifies a faith in the future), Younge dwells on contingency and unpredictability. Most strikingly perhaps in his memories of a school trip to Germany where he looked at people above a certain age and wondered what atrocities they might have been involved in thirty years before - partly to remind the reader that a good person 'one day' might turn out to be bad one 'another' and vice versa.12

Here he is in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This town was not on the route of the first Freedom Ride, but Younge's journey deliberately took in other sites significant to the civil rights movement, in this case the police killing of three students protesting against a segregated bowling alley owned by Harry Floyd in February 1968.
The bowling alley still stands there, tucked into the corner of an L-shaped row of tumbledown shops offering what looks like charity bric-a-brac and cheap clothes. Inside, past the trophy cabinets with bowling paraphernalia on one side and local newspaper clippings of when All Star made the news on the other, lies a huge vista of bowling lanes. The entire room was empty, bathed in a painfully bright artificial light. And I was handed my bowling shoes by Harry Floyd himself, a small, poorly shaven man with a cigarette and a brown jumper. As I took the shoes to my lane I was at a loss as to what to do. I had not counted on his being there thirty years later. [...]

The fact that he was still there denoted a lack of progress for me. I know why he did what he did, and to my knowledge he has never apologized for it. The 'punishment' for his obstinacy was to allow black people to boost the profits of his bowling alley. I didn't want to talk to him. I wanted to yell at him, spit in his face and trash all of his vending machines.

And since I couldn't do that either, I turned around, put the shoes on the counter and walked out of the door.13
Younge doesn't expect to encounter Harry Floyd himself, even though the 'still' (echoing Lewis) prepares us for it. His presence serves as a reminder of 'a lack of progress' (like the scene in the Birmingham waiting room) but his interpretation is complex, His account conjugates different responses, inviting the reader to imagine what he wanted to do (yell, spit, trash) as well as what he actually did (leave quietly), the narrative, for a moment, teetering between possibilities.

In a passage near the end of the book - it's a kind of footsteps-within-footsteps moment - he is forced to return to the bus depot in Roanoke, Virginia the day after he arrived. There is more uncertainty here, as he tries to find out what happened to his luggage.
When we arrived in Roanoke, I made the futile gesture of waiting for my luggage to be unloaded, and then went and told the man at the ticket desk it was not there.

'Where did you lose it?' asked the man.

'I didn't lose it, you lost it. But the last time I saw it, it was in Jackson, Mississippi.'

He told me to come back the next day.

The next day, another Greyhound employee was at the desk, and I had to tell the story all over again. Two sailors were also waiting. 'Lose your bag?' they asked, with big smiles. I handed the woman behind the desk my ticket, and she disappeared into the back. She came back with my bag. I had a quick look through and found a shoe was missing. She asked if I was sure it had been in there in the first place. I told her that it is a rule of mine never to travel with one shoe. She asked me to empty out my rucksack. I told her the shoe had been right at the top. She said unless I emptied my rucksack, she could not sign the form saying that the shoe had been lost.

'You lose my bag, you lose my shoe, and now you want me to unpack my whole rucksack?'

'I didn't lose your shoe, sir,' she said.14
In Orangeburg he suppressed his anger, choosing to vent it later on the printed page. Here, he answers back, challenging the refusal of Greyhound to accept responsibility for their actions, but remaining calm (at least, he admits, until he begins swear loudly as he reluctantly agrees to empty his bag). This second scene is just one of several that highlight the company's appalling customer service: a recurrent motif that implicitly counters that 'lack of progress'.

After all, if inconvenience is all he experiences in several months of Southern bus travel then, compared with the verbal and physical abuse that the 1961 riders faced, this must surely be an indicator of a marked change, although Younge does not choose to spell this out.

But what leaves a stronger impression, I think, is anger and frustration that is evident in both passages. The expression of strong emotions in travel writing is something that may have been rather neglected by critics. It is true that the dominant mood in contemporary travel writing is one of detachment - not always cynical, but certainly world-weary. And this is - to take up my main theme - (partly at least) tied up with a sense of historical inevitability. Which does mean that footsteps travel books are not generally full of surprises.

There is passion in Lewis' account too - not anger, so much as determination, represented most often by the motifs of walking and running, which suggest an urgency, a need to keep moving, to stay on track. But wth Younge that confidence in the future seems misplaced.

You will have noticed that shoes figure in both episodes I have selected from his book, not entirely at random. They are items which - dare I say - carry a little more weight in footsteps narratives than elsewhere. And in each case the anger that is associated with them is born of a sense that things don't have to be this way. The shoes - unworn - call up other histories, alternative futures, where they would be worn, where bus companies and bowling alleys would not insult and dehumanize their customers. They signal vigilance not detachment, the need to take sides rather than resignation or apathy.15

Notes

This is a revised version of a paper delivered at The Politics of Travel, the Seventh Conference of the International Society for Travel Writing (Georgetown University, Washington DC: 30 March to 1 April 2012).

1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, 'Introduction' to The Slave's Narrative, edited by Charles T Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), xv.

2. The best history of the movement is Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). This formed the basis for Stanley Nelson's excellent 2011 documentary film, Freedom Riders.

3. Gary Younge, No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the American South (London: Picador, 1999).

4. John Lewis, with Michael D'Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).

5. Tom Fremantle, The Road to Timbuktu: Down the Niger on the Trail of Mungo Park (London: Constable and Robinson, 2005), 114.

6. Michael Palin, Hemingway Adventure (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), 158-9.

7. Nathaniel Parker Willis, Pencillings by the Way (London: 1835), I, 149.

8. Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 145.

9. Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 150.

10. Younge, No Place Like Home, 19-22.

11. Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 443

12. Younge, No Place Like Home, 123.

13. Younge, No Place Like Home, 141-2.

14. Younge, No Place Like Home, 266.

15. See also interview with Gary Younge by Tim Youngs, Studies in Travel Writing 6 (2002), 96-107, and Tim Youngs, 'A Personal Journey on a Historic Route": Gary Younge's No Place Like Home in Hagen Schulz-Forberg (ed), Unravelling Civilisation: European Travel and Travel Writing (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2005), 323-339.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Sat 14 Apr 2012 4:26 GMT+0100
 

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