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A Parallel Road: A multi-layered exploration into the Black experience of the American road trip

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Far from romanticised depictions of the American road, Amani Willett presents an alternative experience, marked by fear, violence and death

Commonly associated with freedom, discovery, and the American dream, the road trip is a journey that has been central to the evolution of American photography, from the 1900s to the present day. Whether in pursuit of self-discovery, as an act of social critique, or a rumination on mankind’s relationship with the land, from Walker Evans to Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, and Stephen Shore, photographers have continuously taken to the road. Now, American road trip photography is often classed as a genre of the medium in and of itself.

Boston-based image-maker Amani Willett often encountered discussions about the road during his MFA in photography, completed in 2012 at the School of Visual Arts, New York. More often than not, the road was interpreted as an embodiment of liberty and “great American ideals”, a visual history that has, in large part, been captured almost exclusively by white men. “Everyone took that reading at face value, and I felt very uncomfortable by that, because it countered my own experience of the road, and the experience of my family and friends,” he says.

Every summer, Willett’s family gets together for a big reunion. “It’s a very close, supportive network of around 100 people,” he says. “We talk about real experiences and what we’ve been through… Hearing stories, throughout history, of people in my family who have been racially profiled, harassed, or had issues while driving; it really made me want to look at this ‘other’ experience of the road.”

© Amani Willett.
© Amani Willett.

“I wanted to create an emotionally resonant story that showed the scars and the trauma that oppression and racism have been inflicting on the lives of Black Americans”

Willett’s latest publication, A Parallel Road, explores the Black experience of driving in America over the last 85 years, since the first edition of Victor H. Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book – an annual travel guide for Black roadtrippers – was published in 1936. Layered on top of scans from the book are vernacular images, sourced from his own family archives, as well as Willett’s own photography reflecting on oral histories passed down from family and friends.

Willett first came across The Green Book while researching for a project about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the 19th century, offering shelter to enslaved people from the South. The initial idea was to photograph each of the locations listed in The Green Book, but “in travelling to the sites, I found that I was more interested in the psychological experience of being on the road, rather than actual places,” he says.

So began a five year process of researching, gathering images, and photographing. Among his own images are portraits of Black people sitting in their cars, parked at a location that has a “psychological relevance and trauma embedded within it”. These are places where his subjects had been racially profiled, interrogated, or arrested, intending to show the lasting isolation and trauma that the road can inflict on an individual. “I wanted to create an emotionally resonant story that showed the scars and the trauma that oppression and racism have been inflicting on the lives of Black Americans,” he explains. “But they are also portraits of defiance,” Willett points out. “They might carry that trauma with them but they’re also looking straight at you, saying ‘here I am’.”

From a Parallel Road by Amani Willett.

The Green Book is physical proof that the foundations of the American road trip were not built equally. “Black people had to get creative and find a way to be able to experience America by road in a safe way… the really sad thing is as I did more research, I saw that things have not gotten any better,” says Willett, referring to the Driving While Black app, released in 2014. “There is a continuum where Black Americans are still trying to figure out a way to be on the road safely.”

Meandering through archival images, fragments of history, and visualisations of psychological experiences, A Parallel Road ends with images from the present day, of Black Americans taking to the road. “While there is this horrific experience and trauma that can be triggered by the road, Black people are still gonna take to the road and have their fun,” says Willett. “As people, our community is resilient and hopeful, and we’re not going to let other people deny us our rights.”

A Parallel Road by Amani Willett is published by Overlapse.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.

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