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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review A Parallel Road Photographs by Amani Willett Reviewed by Blake Andrews “We live in a world in which we are bombarded by images. Thousands of them hit our eyeballs every day through various channels: TV, Internet, video games, print, vernacular reality, and good old-fashioned photographic prints. The deluge is so constant that it might be hard to remember a time when reality’s mediation was less pervasive..."

A Parallel Road. By Amani Willett.
A Parallel Road
Photographs by Amani Willett

Overlapse, 2020. 112 pp., 5x7".

As I write this, my family is preparing for our annual spring break road trip. We have made such a journey almost every spring since the kids were small (the 2020 trip was cancelled by the pandemic). Each year we choose a new destination somewhere within driving distance, pack into the mini-van, and then spend a week making a slow loop there and back, exploring along the way.

Many other American families engage in something similar. The U.S. is a huge contiguous canvas. Cars are endemic and the highway system penetrates into every corner. Road trips have embedded themselves deep into the national fabric, almost as a rite of passage. This is especially true of photographers, many of whom have used driving expeditions to scaffold important projects. Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Justine Kurland, Alec Soth, Bernard Plossu… the list goes on. There are enough examples to fill an entire book, as David Campany ably demonstrated with his compilation The Open Road.

All of the examples listed above (including myself) are white. But for Black Americans, road trips can present a more foreboding prospect. “Driving While Black” has long been a health risk, as Black people have been disproportionately subjected to traffic stops, harassment, profiling, and sometimes worse. Although the situation has improved since the Jim Crow era, it still holds true today. If you are white, you may have only a hazy realization of the hazards. But for Black American travelers, the threats are concrete and ever-present. Coming from a mixed-race heritage, the photographer Amani Willett has a view into each world, and he found the disconnect striking. The title of his recent book A Parallel Road is an explicit reference to the divergent experiences of Black and white road trippers, who may start out pursuing a similar goal but encounter different circumstances along the way.

The book opens, as all road trips do, with a tantalizing sense of possibility. An old roadmap depicts a web of highways crisscrossing the Eastern U.S. Against this backdrop, Willett uses the first few pages to lay out a spread of archival road trip photos. They show Black families and white ones (many comically caricatured) hanging out near their cars, filling the tank, or peeking at the map ahead.

All is fine and dandy for a few dozen pages, until two dark spreads mark an ominous turn. It’s here that we first encounter The Negro Motorist Green Book, in the form of a 1940 facsimile cover and its opening pages. A crowd-sourced compilation edited by Victor H. Green, The Green Book was a popular travel guide for Black motorists, listing various businesses, inns, and restaurants along the highways which were known to be friendly to Black people away from home. Listings were organized by state and city, soliciting input from readers, and revised annually to maintain currency.

Pages from The Green Book (tinted appropriately in faint green) form the backdrops for A Parallel Road’s middle passage. This is the book’s primary and largest section. In fact the physical form of the entire book is modeled after The Green Book. Both are smallish paperbacks, easily transportable, and saddle stitched by hand, with a measure of healthy defiance baked into the structure. “If you put the book down you will notice that it won’t stay closed,” comments Willett. “The book literally won’t let the viewer put these issues aside any longer.”

Against the backdrop of reproductions from The Green Book, Willett scatters photographs. Most are archival, some are shot by him. If the business listings provide a glimmer of promise, it is quickly quashed by the photographs. Pictures of proudly segregationist signs set the initial tone. Then we see auto accidents, Klansmen, police shootings, and headlines describing racial profiling. A picture of Sandra Bland is followed by nasty footage of a Freedom Rider bus under attack, more Klansmen (from Charlottesville, 2017), a cop beating a motorist, and worse. The U.S. has a long and appalling history of racial disparity. Willett recontextualizes its imagery to great effect, rubbing the nation’s brutality right in the reader’s face. If the book stirs conversation and reassessment, which it surely will, the shock value is justified.

This middle passage is emotionally charged. For many it will be hard to stomach. Thankfully A Parallel Road’s coda offers a glimpse of reconciliation. The Green Book facsimiles end, and are replaced with a few spare pages of color, a short poem, and a wall of names reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. There is some breathing room here, where the reader can let the previous photos sink in and meditate on their meaning.

The final image is improbably upbeat. A dirt road receding into bright trees seems to offer a ray of hope, portending a more positive future for those who do the hard work of internal reflection. “I hope this work encourages engagement and dialogue,” writes Willett in the afterword, “surrounding the ubiquity of violence toward Black Americans on roadways that has persisted alongside the romantic depictions of what, historically, the road has purported to offer.”

This is the third monograph so far by Willett, and it builds on the tradition of his previous titles Disquiet and The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer. In both earlier books, Willett used family photographs and relationships to explore social issues with universal resonance. A Parallel Road follows a similar track, using a mix of material, including photo contributions from family members, archival news footage, and Willett’s personal images, to create a thought-provoking study. The scrapbook style helps the pictures flow into a cohesive work. None are captioned in the main body, but a handy list at the end helps to sort everything out. It is a marvelous book that fits easily in a glove box. I think it will accompany my family on our upcoming road trip.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at