Fame and notoriety are circling the Golden Globe-winning film “The Green Book” as it prepares for more attention at the upcoming Oscars. It’s the story of a real-life bromance between a white bouncer and a black musician driving through the racism of the Deep South in the 1960s. The white driver was Tony Lip, the real father of writer Nick Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen). The black pianist, Don Shirley, is portrayed by Mahershala Ali, a Muslim. Shirley’s current family claims the movie is wildly inaccurate. Controversy still swirls around the movie as inappropriate words have also been uttered in interviews by both cast and directors.
The latest controversy comes after the re-emergence of the tweet the younger Vallelonga sent following a rally in November 2015, where Donald Trump (then a presidential candidate) said: “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [in the 9/11 attacks of 2001] was coming down.” Vallelonga wrote in response: “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City were cheering when the towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news,” reported BBC News online.
It is true that white-on-black racism raged in Southern states prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Black musicians (especially blues players) could find very few venues in which to perform, except on the Chitlin’ Circuit (a string of black-owned juke joints). Even if famous black musicians were allowed to perform at a white venue, they were usually not accepted as overnight guests at hotels or inns in that city or town. This gave rise to the need for black performers (and other black travelers) to have a road map of places where they would be welcomed to stay the night.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as The Green Book, was an annual travel guide catering to Black travelers in the 20th Century. Considering the deep racial divides caused by Jim Crow laws, the Green Book provided black families with a resource to navigate potential dangers in America at the time,” states the website www.blackamericaweb.com. “Postman and activist Victor Hugo Green began compiling data in his native New York regarding establishments that were friendly to Black patrons. In 1936, the first issue was published and its popularity skyrocketed in just four years’ time. After a brief hiatus during World War II, the book returned in 1946 with Green later changing the name of the book to The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.”
The book was offered via a partnership with the Esso Standard Oil Company and other sponsors. The book’s tag line was “Now We Can Travel without Embarrassment.” It effectively listed homes that individuals and families could rent out, typically owned by other black families. Hotels, salons, garages, grocery stores, and restaurants were also listed, including those owned by white people who didn’t turn away black patrons. Just about every black musician (or black traveler) carried a copy in his back pocket or her purse.
Nothing lasts forever, not even Jim Crow laws. So as the civil rights movement began to take hold in the late 1950’s and onto the mid-60’s, the necessity of the guide began to lower naturally and the Green Book published its last issue in 1966.
Note: Also see Chapter 8 of Blood on the Cotton, entitled “The Chitlin’ Circuit.”