In “Sanctuary,” Derrick Adams uses history, fashion, and architecture to examine the way black Americans traveled in a period of highway expansion and limited civil rights.
Travel has always been an integral part of America’s mythology. Manifest Destiny, the belief that colonists and pioneers were entitled to traverse and own all of the land between two shining seas, is our national origin story. But travel, much like the American Dream, has not always been equally accessible for all Americans.
For “Sanctuary,” an exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York City, artist Derrick Adams created pieces based on the Negro Motorist Green Book to examine travel through the lenses of history, fashion, and architecture. The Green Book, as it is otherwise known, was a compilation of businesses—gas stations, restaurants, motels, clubs—across the country that were willing to serve African Americans in the mid-20th century.
In the decades before the Civil Rights Act, businesses could discriminate along racial lines with impunity. African Americans relocating, traveling for business, or simply vacationing with their families could find themselves stranded in a sea of establishments that were whites-only. Along the storied Route 66, six out of the eight states that housed the road had official segregation laws on the books. There were also “sundown towns” scattered all across the country, which had explicit or implicit rules about non-whites leaving city borders before the sun set.
Which is why Victor H. Green, a letter carrier from Harlem, first published the The Green Book in 1936, tapping into his network of postal worker connections to find qualifying businesses across the nation. Green got the idea from Jewish guidebooks that were created along similar lines. By the end of its run 30 years later, The Green Book would span almost 100 pages and all 50 states, as well as international destinations including Canada and Bermuda. The first edition cost 25 cents; the last, $1.
Entering the exhibit on MAD’s third floor, the viewer becomes a participant in the world Adams has created from the moment they step out of the elevator. A wooden structure, designed to look like a road, creates a half-ring around the exhibit’s walls. It is broken up by four open doorways, and Adams says that watching the way people react to those doors—seeing how some pause to ponder their right to enter while others stroll right on in—is a revelation in itself.
When creating the show, Adams says, “The very first thing I thought about was access and boundaries. The way the exhibit was constructed, I want to have this fence going through the space to automatically stop the viewer and make them realize it’s something they have to go through to get to somewhere else.”
Once viewers step inside, there are multiple elements to explore. Wooden panels on the walls nod to different services readers could find in The Green Book, and Adams uses fabric and shape to explore the porous boundary between interiors and exteriors and the liminality of space. Rectangles and trapezoids cut out of hotel upholstery fabric are used to simultaneously represent the brick façades of apartment buildings and the exteriors of an old-fashioned handbag; an illusion aided by the use of bag handles, doors, and windows. Where the fabric swatches end, Adams says, the interior of a space begins. The doors and windows are a way of looking in and blue squares represent ways of looking out.
In “There’s More Than One Beauty School,” fabrics and wood are interspersed with the ornaments of a salon: a hair pick, a mirror compact, a comb. Adams said he was drawn to the constant mention of beauty schools in each state because of their prominence in black neighborhoods. To Adams, this was a clear sign that Green was “trying to cater to the consumer, realizing that the idea of a beauty school could be different things to different cultural groups and really capitalizing off of that.”
Much of Adams’ work in the exhibit is a nod to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, a collection of paintings about the Great Migration: the 20th century relocation of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban elsewheres of the country in search of better economic opportunities. Lawrence’s color palate of earth tones and blues, emphasis on baggage, and attempt to capture “motion and emotion,” are all echoed in Sanctuary.
Another, almost whimsical element, is what Adams terms “Beacons,” homes he crafted out of concrete, wood, paper, and light. The doors are open, the windows have no shades, and the roofs are translucent, shaped like the thin paper tops of milk cartons. As a result, light shines out in all directions. It is easy to draw the parallel to that of a lighthouse, to what Adams calls, “histories of letting people know that they are welcome.”
But Adams doesn’t believe that The Green Book was necessarily about creating some sense of hope. “It was about logic. It was data mining; they were finding people who needed business and wanted to cater to black patrons.” Adams likened the book to Black Twitter, a collective of active black users on the social media network who draw attention to a host of social issues, particularly those focused on race. “When you’re faced with opposition or oppressive structures, you could be upset about it, you could be destroyed [by] it, or you could create situations for you to feel empowered,” Adams said.
Inaccessibility for black Americans in public space was a loss for the progression of the country, Adams said. But, he added, “as African Americans, we have been able to adapt to the limitations of where we could go because we firmly believe that, collectively, wherever we are is where it’s at.”
Yet thriving black communities are seldom allowed to remain that way. In the 1950s, as part of the Federal Aid Highway Act, highways were built through prosperous, upper-middle class black enclaves such as Black Bottom in Detroit and Overtown in Miami.
While the days of massive infrastructure projects may be over, today gentrification creeps into black neighborhoods like Long Island’s Sag Harbor. “The idea of being prosperous has never been an issue with us,” said Adams. “Letting us remain prosperous has.” It worries him that people aren’t aware of these legacies, the histories of the nation’s proudly black places: the ways in which they were built and destroyed, and how a scrappy few have endured.
The Green Book stopped publication just three years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In its heyday, 20,000 of the books were printed annually. Part of what drew Adams to the book was the way it strove to become redundant: how the guide’s very creator wished for a day when it would no longer be necessary. “I don’t think the book is unique in its content,” Adams said. “It’s unique in its concept: who made it, and why he made it, and the fact that he didn’t think it should last for a long time.”
One of the starkest pieces in Sanctuary is part of a series of black cloth banners, hung from gloved wooden rods. Car doors, patterned in vibrant cloth, have lettering inside their windows asking questions and making observations that could come from an activist march or a family road trip.
Can We Get A Break?
We’ve Come A Long Way.
One simply reads: Are We There Yet?