Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been trying to up my game since the election, using reading to deepen my understanding of the America experienced by People of Color. If you’re doing the same or just looking for a great read, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
One section of this book hits particularly hard at the moment, as it concerns a road trip…by a Black man—or colored, as he was called in 1953—crossing the desert alone. Since we have recently, and frequently, traversed the region described in the book, I found myself sharply reminded of how even the simple act of driving contains an enormous racial divide.
Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, starting from segregated Louisiana, has crossed through Texas at last, and is ready to celebrate his escape from Jim Crow. But here’s what happens when, exhausted, he tries to get a motel room in supposedly un-segregated Arizona.
“I’d like to get a room for the night, please,” he said.
The man looked flustered. “Oh, my goodness,” the man at the front desk said. “We forgot to turn off the vacancy sign.”
Robert tried to hide his disappointment.
“Oh, thank you,” Robert said.
He climbed back in the car and drove away fro the motel and the vacancy sign that continued to blink. He had been in the South long enough to know when he had been lied to…
…He drove to the next motel in the row, a hundred or so yards away.
“I’d like to get a motel room,” he said, stiffer than before. He was cautious now, and the man must have seen his caution.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, polite and businesslike. “We just rented our last room.”
A third motel owner turns him down, “sweetly.” By now night has advanced; his is the only car left on the road. The doctor is on his last legs.
“He didn’t want to make a case of it. He never intended to march over Jim Crow or try to integrate anybody’s motel. He didn’t like being where he wasn’t wanted. And yet here he was, needing something he couldn’t have. He debated whether he should speak his mind, protect himself from rejection, say it before they could say it…
…He pulled into the lot. There was nobody out there but him, and he was the only one driving up to get a room. He walked inside. His voice was about to break as he made his case.
“I’m looking for a room,” he began. “Now, if it’s your policy not to rent to colored people, let me know now so I don’t keep getting insulted.”
A white woman in her fifties stood at the other side of the front desk. She had a kind face, and he found it reassuring. And so he continued.
“It’s a shame that they would do a person like this,” he said. “I’m no robber. I’ve got no weapons…I’m a medical doctor. I’m a captain that just left Austria…and the German army was just outside Vienna. If there had been a conflict, I would have been protecting you. I would not do people the way I’ve been treated here.”
The woman listens sympathetically, so Robert continues to plead with her, in all his dignity. She calls him respectfully by his title, and goes to confer with her husband. Robert’s hopes rise. And then…
“We’re from Illinois,” the husband said. “We don’t share the opinion of the people in this area. But if we take you in, the rest of the motel owners will ostracize us. We just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
Later in that interminable desert night, Robert stops for gas. The attendant asks him what’s wrong, and Robert breaks down.
“Yes, there was an evil in the air and this man knew it and the woman at the motel knew it, but here he was without a room and nobody of a mind to do anything had done a single thing to change that fact. And that made the pain harder, not easier, to bear.” (pp. 207-210)
This was ARIZONA. Not a Confederate state. Yes, Dr. Foster’s experience happened in 1953. But Black families continued to be rejected by motels and restaurants well into the 1970s, in Arizona, New Mexico, California…and probably every other supposedly integrated state…states through which the Mate and I, two generations ago, could have been zooming without a care in the world about where to lay our weary heads.
We’ve always been able to stay wherever we wanted. Because we are white.
Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, said you never really understand someone until you climb into his skin and walk around a while. Sometimes just driving a car through the desert, with an aching head and a full bladder, is enough. God bless America. She sure needs it.