'Driving While Black' reveals personal story for author

Greg Klein | The Daily StarGretchen Sorin shows her book, ‘Driving While Black,’ in this photo taken Monday, Feb. 17.

During the two decades Cooperstown Graduate Program Director Gretchen Sorin worked on her book, “Driving While Black,” she said she knew she was writing about an American story. However, she said she didn’t realize for a long time she was also writing about her family’s story. 

“It wasn’t until I was deep into it that I realized it was about my own experience traveling,” Sorin told The Daily Star in an interview Monday, Feb. 17, in her CGP office overlooking Otsego Lake on state Route 80 just north of Cooperstown. “Suddenly, so many my father’s travel habits made sense to me.”

Sorin’s book, which was released this month by Liveright, is subtitled, “African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” It explores how America’s burgeoning car culture of the 1930s through 1960s lifted middle class African American families, and gave them freedom of mobility. However, because of segregation, a subculture of businesses sprung up dedicated to serving African American customers. Represented by plain listings in a small paperback known as, “The Green-Book,” those business were ironically hurt by integration. 

“It is a bittersweet story,” Sorin said.  

A New Jersey native, Sorin said her family would travel to see her maternal grandmother in North Carolina. Her dad had travel rituals that confused her until she saw the larger context. He liked to drive during the night and early morning. He never stopped at a restaurant or motel. “We had one of those green Coleman coolers, filled with food,” Sorin said. “Everywhere we went, we had picnics rather than eat in a restaurant.”

Sorin had a book launch last week at The Green Toad in Oneonta, and she said it was so packed, the store sold out of the book. 

Her schedule is packed, too, including talks with NPR and CSPAN. The New York Times had a favorable review of the book last week. “I am pretty much booked through the semester,” she said. “I tried to schedule the travel during the break, but it is a big tour. ... Seattle, California, St. Louis, Atlanta.”

Sorin said she started the book as an oral history, not long after she learned about “The Green-Book,” which was published for nearly three decades by Victor H. Green. She said she spoke with hundreds of people, eventually seeing how the car represented something larger for African Americans. 

Sorin’s book has led to a documentary, also called, “Driving While Black,” which will be released this fall, she said. The film is directed by Ric Burns, brother of famed filmmaker Ken Burns, and a co-producer of “The Civil War” series.  Go to www.dwbfilm.com/about for more information. 

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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