It’s Shameful That We Still Need a “Green Book” Today Just as Dr. Don Shirley Needed in 1962
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It’s Shameful That We Still Need a “Green Book” Today Just as Dr. Don Shirley Needed in 1962


Based on the rave reviews that a friend of my wife showered on the movie ‘Green Book,’ my wife and I decided to watch it. I was, however, a little skeptical about how the movie would turn out, given the fact that many film critics had panned it and compared it to past Oscar winners such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Crash,” both of which have been accused of trying to capitalize on outdated racial attitudes. But boy what a soul-stirring movie it was, I left the movie theater lachrymose.

And so I asked myself why did the movie critics, who pretending to be experts, almost always have something to comment on everything, fail to recognize the significance of a white man driving a Black man in an era when race-based discrimination was the way of life, unlike the “Driving Miss Daisy” reference. Maybe Hollywood’s glitz has made them blind towards the racial bigotry of the bygone era, an era when a black man could have everything but not respect, an era when a white nobody would be respected but not a talented Dr. Shirley.

Shirley during his lifetime tried to bridge this racial gap. He tried to tear down the walls of bigotry and xenophobia that are as present now as they were then. He epitomized why immigrant parents come to America—to give their children the opportunity not just to be dreamers, but to change the world and leave a footprint of theirs, maybe not a footprint like Neil Armstrong’s, but a footprint nevertheless. The blacks saw the American dream thanks to him. With determination to  solve a problem he saw everywhere around him, and by virtue of hard work, talent, and the resolve to excel, he managed to get an invitation to study music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music at age 9, and went on to earn doctorates in music, psychology and the liturgical arts. The trip that he undertook, which is shown in the movie was his humble attempt to change some minds with his performances and prove that the black race is better than the stereotypes that unfortunately were attached to it.

Did he not know the challenges that he might have to face? Yes, he did, he was not naive, but for him his mission was more revered.

Let’s now come to the present day and ponder whether the portrayal of racism as shown in “Green Book” is still relevant? Is racism still a problem like it used to be back in the day when the Jamaican American first-generation immigrant Dr. Don Shirley embarked on his trip to the South.

One would argue that we have come a long way from our past when treating blacks as slaves was normal, and even America’s founding father George Washington was a slaveholder with over 100 of them at his disposal.

However, the vantage point from where I look at it, the movie is still as relevant today, if not more, as it was in 1962.

If anyone thought that racism died one idyllic snowy Christmas Eve when black virtuoso pianist Don Shirley accepted the dinner invitation of his white Italian American driver, Tony Vallelonga; I would say he suffers from the ostrich syndrome. Look around, and you will know how far from the truth this assumption is.

More than 150 years have passed since Abraham Lincoln delivered the now immortal Gettysburg Address. But in the nation that gave birth to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, and recently people like Janet Mock or Laverne Cox, color-based discrimination still persists, and off-late seems to be spreading its poisonous fangs again and sadly rather fast.

According to research from YouGov Omnibus, more than 71% of Americans think that racism is still a grave problem in the US. Black Americans (85%) are especially likely to believe this, while 68% of whites also hold the same opinion. According to statistics, in the year 2017, the number of white people shot dead by cops was 457 while the number of people-of-color shot dead was 530. While the difference in the numbers might seem insignificant, we must keep in mind that in the US 72.4% people are whites while all other races combined make up for only 27.6% of the population.

As Joseph Stalin allegedly once told the US ambassador Averill Harriman, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” so let’s keep aside statistics for a moment, instead let’s just look around, and trust me when you will see the atrocities and discrimination the blacks and people of color still face—from the police brutalities to the abominable behavior that they encounter daily from their white countrymen, you will be appalled. Flip through any newspaper any day, and you will surely find news about a black man being discriminated upon just because of his color, albeit the story will be hidden in some corner, far away from the front page because our media no longer thinks that black lives matter. For the press, White House is America, and only what happens there gets any mention.

As democracy matures with time, it gets rid of societal divisions. However, that is not happening in the US. The racial divide instead of narrowing is slowly widening. Recently there have been multiple instances where the police have attacked and even shot-dead unarmed black people.

The title of the movie “Green Book” is a reference to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a real-life guide for black travelers in the segregation-era United States written by African American postal worker Victor Green. Editions of the book were issued annually from 1936 to 1966.

The fact that even in 2019, black travelers still need some version of the “Green Book” to navigate our country safely is a matter of grave shame. Dr. Shirley’s courage and dignity in the face of such hatred is as relevant today as it was then, let’s not try denying it.

Most Americans do not understand what racial discrimination means because of the lack of exposure to black realities — contemporary as well as historical. The things they know or care about or are affected by are too often limited to their own circumstances. They don’t know about the systemic racism or the implicit bias that people of color have to face or the school-to-prison pipeline because these issues don’t even exist for them.

As an optimist, I wish Victor Green’s dream that “there will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published; that is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States,” comes true.

Movies like Green Book, howsoever cliched the ending might seem, serve the society by bringing the conversation back to the table.

Author: Pradeep Banerjee