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Helen Gibson



Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Joyriding across the Color Line: Automotivity and Citizenship in the United States, 1895-1939

Dissertation in History

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Sebastian Jobs
Second supervisor: Prof. Anke Ortlepp
Third supervisor: Prof. Grace Elizabeth Hale

Despite having driven cars from the advent of the automotive century, Black motorists continue to face both terror in the routine act of driving and erasure in the historical record. This is especially significant because driving is an essential component of American citizenship. While the phrase ‘Driving While Black’ has been circulating since at least the early 1990s, the targeted policing of Black drivers is a phenomenon as old as driving itself, with roots in the chattel slavery-era policing of Black mobility. This dissertation analyzes the (metaphysical) violence of driving. It is an appeal to consider the phenomenological realm of emotions (terror, humiliation, anger, joy) as an alternative epistemology. My analysis foregrounds the everyday experience of driving for Black Americans between 1895 and 1939, from the racializing, criminalizing discourses of ‘joy riding’ to analysis of the history of access to cars for Black motorists working as chauffeurs, redlining in automobile insurance issuance, and the affective possibilities of escaping the Jim Crow emotional norms of humiliation and terror in speeding vehicles.

The experience of ‘Driving While Black’ is inherently mired in questions of subjectivity and critical phenomenology as well as what I identify as a Jim Crow economy of emotions that helped determine the emotional and affective horizons of possibility of the experience of driving for members of Black communities. From the theoretical juncture of Afropessmism, planetary humanism, and Black mysticism, I analyze speculative historical possibilities with the help of the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Library of Congress, historical newspapers and periodicals. My analysis is national in scope, starting in Fort Worth, Texas and traversing such settings as Miami, Florida, Kansas City, Missouri, Bakersfield, California, and New York, New York. This geographical scope is profoundly significant, both as a contribution to the reframing of civil rights historiography and because the handful of extant histories of driving written about Black motorists in the early twentieth century have focused almost exclusively on the city of Miami.

I posit that automobiles both helped constitute and exceed the violence of ontology. I show that race was made and felt on public transportation in the Jim Crow era, and that early-twentieth-century Black Americans sought refuge in cars. I analyze Black chauffeurs’ establishment of ubiquitous unions in response to racism from white chauffeurs, and the fact that access to mobility in cars was violently contested by white terrorists who sought to secure not just professional advantage but also exclusive access to pleasure in mobility. This dissertation elucidates evidence that Black motorists transgressed limits on their mobility by speeding outright, and that white police officers drove head-on into and shot at Black motorists to prohibit their automotivity. I demonstrate that cars beckoned to African American motorists in spite of racialized terror, and that cars have historically helped delineate practices of consumption and of citizenship along racial lines.

This dissertation contributes significantly to recent interventions in the fields of both Black history and mobility studies as well as to ongoing debates on the interrelatedness of critical theory and new materialism. At its core, this dissertation explores the question of whose humanity was recognized under what circumstances in the semi-private space of the car and through such supporting infrastructures as public liability insurance in the first several decades of American automotive life. I demonstrate that cars complicate teleological understandings of material, technological sites of mobility such as ships and trains. The history of Black motorists’ dignity, refusal, fugitivity and stasis in automobiles recounted in this dissertation raises important ethical questions about how to reimagine our world from the perspective of access to labor, to leisure, and to material resources.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft