Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America

by Thomas J. Sugrue

"Drivin' down the Freeway:" Blacks and Car Culture

Whatever the hassles of driving, African Americans, like whites, shared a passion for cars. The automobile was, for most Americans, the most expensive item that they owned other than a house. In a status-conscious consumer society, the car became one of the most prominent symbols of "making it." The automobile industry, which developed some of the most sophisticated marketing and advertising campaigns of the twentieth century, appealed to consumers' desire to drive cars that played to their self-image. Auto manufacturers developed new models that were luxurious, sporty, sturdy, or family-friendly. As blacks moved northward and into the urban working class, their income grew dramatically. So did their demand for cars. Ebony magazine estimated that twenty percent of black households intended to buy new cars in the 1958 model year alone. Throughout the postwar years, car companies began to target black consumers, placing advertisements in black newspapers and especially in new magazines like Ebony and Jet that catered to the small but growing black middle class.

For many blacks, owning a car became a powerful status symbol. Starting at the top, black stars often appeared for photographs with sports or luxury cars. In a famous photograph, Motown singers Martha and the Vandellas struck a glamorous pose atop a Ford Mustang as it rolled off a Detroit assembly line. Singers Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and the Pips posed for publicity photos with their cars. And in a hit single, Detroit native Aretha Franklin sang of her "Pink Cadillac." Motown performer Mary Wilson recalled that "[a]s soon as a writer, producer, or performer got his first check, it was as good as endorsed over to the local Cadillac dealership." The Cadillac assumed iconic status among the black elite as a symbol of having made it. In 1949, Ebony magazine asked its readers "Why Do Negroes Buy Cadillacs?" In an irreverent spoof of the gospel classic, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," jazz musician Dizzie Gillespie sang "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac," a telling comment on the place of the car in black popular culture.

In the post-Motown era of "blaxploitation" films and, in the 1980s and 1990s, of gangsta rap and hip hop, cars continued to have special status in black popular culture. The heroes of black film sensations of the 1970s--Superfly, Sweet Sweetback, and Shaft--all drove specially designed, low-riding, hot rods that were decked out in chrome and gold trim. Cars also figured prominently in gangsta rap. Public Enemy, one of the most popular rap groups of the late 1980s and early 1990s, dedicated a whole song to the virtues of the Ninety Eight, the largest, most powerful, and most luxurious of the Oldsmobile sedans. Black popular culture appropriated the automobile--as both a symbol of the American "good life" and as a sign of a distinctive, separate black culture.

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The Car and Jim Crow
"Drivin' Down the Freeway": Blacks and Car Culture
Image Versus Reality
On the Line: Blacks and Auto Work
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