A few weeks ago, Melissa Harris Perry gave a segment on her show about the political, economic and historical significance of transportation in the United States. Transportation for Black communities, as well as other marginalized communities, historically have been modes of displacement and transcendence, and the lack of transportation for these communities has meant entrapment. For transportation, social mobility and social freedom go hand in hand.
When we think of transportation, human rights and freedom, the first image that comes to mind is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, these ideas reach further back in time and outside the boundaries of the United States. Being “carried across” or “carried away” is a sentiment that is embedded within the Black Atlantic, and humanity in general. For example, in Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, he recalls his own abduction:
“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board…I was now persuaded that I gotten into a world of bad spirits…”
For Equiano and other enslaved Africans, transportation resulted in a lack of agency and freedom. Yet they tried to reclaim it in two essential ways- the spirit and the feet. The runaway slave was person who took agency in carrying themselves away, not a piece of property suffering from what masters in the United states called drapetomania. If anything the madness was caused by their enslavement and they were escaping to find healing.
The most famous example is Harriet Tubman, our favorite afrofuturist navigator, who led the enslaved away on a secret network of paths and safe-houses called the underground railroad. Artist Sanford Biggers described her as “an astronaut, traversing the south to the north by navigating the stars.” But she did not do it alone. If we look at the spirituals, the enslaved were constantly creating codes and sending messages on how to escape. Songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Wade [walk] in the Water,” “Steal Away,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “The Gospel Train A-Coming” gave instructions on how to travel by land, water and vehicle.
Not only did the United States have runaways, so did the Caribbean, from where my family comes. They were called “maroons.” The word comes from the Spanish word for runaway, “cimarron,” which literally meant “living on moutaintops.” From Queen Nanny in Jamaica to Gaspar Yanga in Mexico, they would escape to hills and other hard to access areas.
Although spirituals existed in the United States, in both the States and the Caribbean, African descendents achieved a transcendence beyond their boundaries through spirit possession. For instance, in Haiti Voodoo, the participants in the possession are described as being ridden like a horse by a spirit, or Lwa. Instead of being carried away by an oppressor, they were carried away by a spirit.
As transportation and society changed, so did our relationship to transportation. At the beginning of the 20 century with inventions of the steamship, train, airplane, car and spaceship, migration and migration art also rose in popularity. Throughout the 20th century, the great migration in the United States of African-Americans to cities, to the north and to the west was an effort to escape the harsh Jim Crow racism of the South and find better jobs. Migration for a better life was also a desire for many Black people from the Caribbean and Latin America
The invention of records also led to the popularity of transportation songs, most notably in blues and r&b songs. Many of these songs expressed the notions of these vehicles taking people away to another world, whether it was heaven or just another part of country. During the Civil Rights Era and Black Power Era, these songs also expressed the desire to transcend boundaries. One early example is in 1927 record of Reverend Nix’s “White Flyer to Heaven” and the “Black Diamond Express to Hell” sermons, which could be controversial in his use of colors.
Some other examples include Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” about going to a Sugar Hill in Harlem; Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” was about the singer’s love for traveling as a means of escape from the world’s problems; The Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” was about boarding a train to heaven; Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary was a boat that went to other side of town; Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” was to the land of funk; and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” was a woman joining her man on a train to another world, Georgia. To bring this full circle, my favorite Parliament song, “Mothership Connection” alluded to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” connecting religious mythology of god coming down in a chariot from the sky, transportation and Black freedom, and alien spaceship during the space race era of the 60s and 70s.
The rise of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s also was affected by transportation. Robert Moses’ project for the the Cross Bronx Expressway displaced several U.S. Black, Caribbean and Latino communities as well as took away funding for subway infrastructure. In some ways the subway became a new type of underground railroad, but more as a way for youth to voice their discontent with music and graffiti in the underfunded subway system. The car cultures of West coast and Southern hip-hop came with spinning rims and hydraulics that bounced cars up and down so high to the point that they might blast off into the air. Bay Area hip-hop popularized “ghost-ride the whip.” Hip-Hop continued the fantastical and speculative approach to transportation as a form of free expression for poor, disenfranchised communities.
As we have entered the 21st century, how will our transportation stories change? The infrastructure in the United States is crumbling. In disaster areas, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2004, poorer communities lack of access to transportation leaves many trapped and left to die. Reverse migration stories are happening as some Black communities are moving back down to the southern United States or back to home countries. We will just have to see where the next voyage takes us on this wandering rock.