ARE WE THERE YET?
"Don't you dare say a word." Ron was sitting in the back seat as his father pulled the car to a stop at the side of the road. His father had told him to be quiet before, but this was the first time Ron felt the words reverberate to the pit of his stomach. Moments later, the sheriff stood over the well-appointed 1953 Chevy sedan complete with all the modern features you read about in the magazines.
"Where did you get this vehicle? What are you doing here? And who are these people with you?" the sheriff asked.
Ron's father answered, "It's my employer's car." He pointed to his wife, sitting upright and expressionless in the passenger seat. He pretended that she wasn't his wife and said, "This is my employer's maid, and that is her son in the back. I'm taking them home."
The sheriff took a long, hard look at Ron's mother and then angled his eyes to the back seat. A young Ronald sat tight-lipped, too afraid to turn his head or even take a breath. "Where's your hat?" the sheriff barked at Ron's dad.
"Hanging up right behind me in the back seat, officer."
The sheriff waved. "All right. Move on."
As they drove north across the Tennessee border, a sad, eerie silence hung in the air. The jovial conversation they were having right before the sheriff pulled them over had stopped dead. And although there was no discussion about what had just happened, the gravity of the situation was clear. Ron watched Daddy and Mama exchange knowing glances and then turned his head to look at the black, unassuming cap that had been hanging next to him in the back seat ever since he could remember. It wasn't until that moment that he realized why he had never seen his father wearing it. Mama wasn't a maid, and Daddy wasn't a driver. He had a good job with the railroad, and this was their family car. Until that day, Ron never paid attention to that cap, but now he realized that it wasn't just any hat. It was a chauffeur's hat. A ruse, a prop—a lifesaver.
During the Jim Crow era, the chauffeur's hat was the perfect cover for every middle-class black man pulled over and harassed by the police. If Ron's father had told the sheriff the truth—that he was driving his own car and that they were a family on vacation—the sheriff wouldn't have believed him. He would have assumed the car was stolen. In the event that the sheriff did believe it was Ron's father's car, the rage and jealousy he might have felt at the thought of a black man owning a nicer car than a police officer might have triggered a beating, torture, or even murder. From that day on, Ron noticed these hats strategically placed, like unarmed weapons, in the back seat of nearly every black man's car.
Standing in the kitchen between the sage-speckled countertop and the wall-mounted oven, I listened to Ron's story, stone-faced.
"Everybody had one," he said, referring to the chauffeur's cap. "And you always kept it in the car." And then, without any provocation, other stories about his days growing up in Tennessee tumbled out. Ron talked about his cousin slipping out of town in the middle of the night because the Ku Klux Klan was set to lynch him. I listened with a knot in my stomach, trying to swallow my rage and sadness before tears filled my eyes. I didn't want my emotions to distract him from telling his story.
Ron Burford was my stepfather. I had known this man for more than thirty years, but this was the first time he had told me anything about the pain of growing up in the Jim Crow South. And it's not that he was a quiet man; Ron loved to talk. He could talk for hours. My mom and my sister and I would try to scoot out of the kitchen before he started in on another one of his long Southern yarns, ones that we had heard before. But it wasn't until I started this project that he shared these stories with me. It was only then, at the age of forty-six, that I realized I had earned his trust. This was a huge accomplishment, because after what he and most black men of his generation had lived through in this country, he felt he couldn't trust anyone.
I think Ron started to trust me around 2014, soon after I called home asking about the Green Book. I had just seen a copy of it for the first time, tucked away under glass at the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles. It was a travel guide that was published for black people during the Jim Crow era. I'd never known such a thing existed. Right after leaving the Autry, I called my parents in Columbus, Ohio, and asked Ron if he had ever used the Green Book. He said, "I'm not sure; probably. There were a few black guides back then."