Amani Willett, A Parallel Road

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Overlapse (here). Softcover (12.5 x 17 cm), 112 pages, with 85 photographs, archival images, and digital screenshots. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by Tiffany Jones. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The road trip has long been considered part of the great American experience, offering a sense of freedom and exploration. In the 1930s, the spread of automobiles, disposable income, and leisure time motivated American drivers to take long trips around the country. The real joy of a road trip is connected to its spontaneity and unpredictability, yet for Black Americans, travelling during the segregation years was dangerous. Institutionalized racism was present everywhere: hostile towns; hotels and restaurants that routinely refused to accommodate Black travelers; gas station owners who would take money, but wouldn’t let them use the restroom. They had to carefully plan their trips and be ready for any circumstance, rather than go with an adventurous “let’s see where the road takes us” spirit. 

In 1936, a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green published the “Negro Motorist Green Book”, putting together a list of welcoming towns, hotels, restaurants, service stations, state parks, nightclubs and other businesses where Black travelers would not only be welcome but also safe. This guide became invaluable during the Jim Crow era. Green used his network of postal workers to learn where the safe places were, and travelers themselves often would submit information. It started with just 15 pages, and by the last edition in the late 1960s, it had expanded to nearly 100. Over the years, the legacy of the “Green Book” has been acknowledged in films, exhibitions, books, and popular culture. 

A new photobook by Amani Willett uses the “Green Book” to look at the complexities of the American road trip. Willett’s “practice is driven by conceptual ideas surrounding family, history, memory, and the social environment,” and coming from a mixed race family, he is particularly interested in the history and legacy of race. This project connects to the experiences of his own family members and friends. Willett uses the “Green Book” as a starting point for his project, and adds layers to visualize the evolving history of race in America.

A Parallel Road is a relatively small book, close to pocket sized, the same size as the original “Green Book”. It has a printed wrapper illustrated with a highway map; the book title and the artist’s name appear in the middle inside a route sign. The book itself has a hand-sewn single signature binding and is untrimmed. To build the narrative, in additional to his own photographs, Willett uses photos from his family archives, historical images and screenshots. Captions for all the photographs appear at the end as one continuous text block, with page number marks in red, an elegant design element. Overall, the book feels a bit raw – it is not a precious object, but the one that should be looked at and shared widely. 

A Parallel Road opens with photographs of Black Americans posing with their cars, the images placed against the background of the United States Highway System map. The first spread has five images slightly tilted and overlapping, reminding us of a family album. One photo, with visible fold marks, captures a big family with a car behind them, while the one above shows a man next to two little girls sitting on a car hood. There are a number of fun photographs, and collectively, they capture happy and proud car owners – owning a car was a source of pride and belonging. Willett also uses advertising images from the 1940s and 1950s to show the glorious side of the road trip as promoted to American families. A colorful full spread shows a happy family loading the car, and few spreads later, another smiling family talks to a police officer, as he helps them with directions. These images, innocent and undaunted, represent the kind of romanticized road adventure experienced by white families only. 

In reality, what the road represents depends on one’s perspective and history. A few spreads into the book, A Parallel Road switches to the original “Green Book” as a backdrop, with a photograph of a Black man (the artist’s grandfather’s brother) proudly posing with a car paired with its title page. Willett reproduces the pages, adding layers of information, and it now gets a second life serving as an index of other things. As the narrative moves forward and we get on the road, the atmosphere changes very quickly and the mood gets darker, with images of car accidents, warning signs, tire skid marks on the road, blood stains, broken glass etc. Signs, like the one reading “Black men don’t let sun down catch you”, reference “sundown towns” across the country that banned Black Americans from the streets after nightfall.

Inconvenience, humiliation, and fear weren’t the only obstacles on the road. Historical photographs, symbolically placed over the pages listing friendly businesses, document violence against Black people. One spread depicts members of the Ku Klux Klan surrounded by local people; another shows screenshots of a video capturing the beating of Rodney King by police, and then an arrest of a man during the Watts Riots. These historical photographs mark a long trail of violence and oppression. They are put in conversation with more recent images, reminding us that systemic racism is still very much present in everyday life. The shot of Rodney King is followed by a photo of a woman (the artist’s mother) in a car at night, her face is slightly lit as she looks in the rearview mirror – it represents the real fear and discomfort people have when being pulled over by police, and the constant worries they have about their loved ones on the road. As we turn the page, Willett’s photo of a dark street corner with a single street light is paired with a shot of police officers pointing a gun at a parked car, where Ryan Twyman was shot by sheriffs in 2019. A photo of a white woman with a gun in a parking lot is from 2020, and it is placed on the same spread as another infamous screenshot from 2014 showing a police officer punching a woman. This kind of violence is now transmitted almost in real time on social media. Willett brings together old archival images and more recent ones taken with a smart phone, exposing the arc of violence across time.

Willett also inserted short text excerpts describing incidents involving Black people, matching the design of the original book and blending in. “You shot four bullets sir. He was just getting his license and registration,” reads one of them. “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend went just like that,” reads another one. These heartbreaking words were recorded in recent years.

As the “Green Book” section ends, there is a spread with the names of Black people killed in the past decade, an illustration based on the project, emphasizing the scale of the contemporary issue. It is followed by a black spread, a well needed pause, which then opens to an image of a road captured on a sunny summer day, perhaps, a hope for change. The final pages bring back more recent shots of Willett’s family members with cars, and they are once again smiling and excited. The “Green Book” also stands as refusal to be denied, as a manifestation of Black determination.

A Parallel Road Willett creates a powerful multi-layered narrative capturing the psychological collective trauma of disproportionate danger on the road. It smartly reshapes the romanticized narrative of the American road trip, but also asks: when will this oppression stop? 

Collector’s POV: Amani Willett does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artists directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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