Long road to freedom;Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00
NO PLACE LIKE HOME. By Gary Younge. Picador pound;16.

In Black History Month, Reva Klein follows one man as he retraces a historic journey of liberation

It takes a certain kind of person to survive 60 days of travelling on Greyhound buses. Especially when the route is through the American South, incorporating some of the meanest and most racist towns on God's earth, and the traveller is a lone black man.

But Guardian journalist Gary Younge wasn't making this journey as part of an endurance test. He was retracing the steps of the Freedom Riders, a group of 13 white and black civil rights activists who made history before the author was born.

In May 1961, they too travelled by Greyhound from Washington DC to New Orleans. Their mission was to uphold a newly passed federal law that flew in the face of custom and practice and everything held most dear by racists in the southern states. That law banned the racial segregation of interstate transportation and facilities such as toilets and restaurants. The Freedom Riders set themselves the task of challenging segregation wherever they found it.

White group members sat at the back of buses, used "negroes only" washrooms, drank out of "black" water fountains and sat in the "wrong" section of lunch counters. The black members did the same, but in reverse.

The response to their Gandhian-style civil disobedience was violent. The Freedom Riders were beaten, fire-bombed and stoned by Klansmen and rednecks. One was so severely attacked that he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. A Greyhound bus was burnt, its occupants barely escaping with their lives. Reinforcements from the north were sent for and flooded down south by bus to keep up the momentum. In all, 355 Freedom Riders were arrested. But in the end, they won. The national and international coverage of these bloody events forced President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to enforce the laws that would ban segregation on buses and terminals forever.

Gary Younge's motivation for this trip is as interesting as the experiences he recounts. He, too, comes from the south: Stevenage in Hertfordshire, a commuter-belt town which, in the Seventies, contained precious few black families. Growing up in the Home Counties, with parents from Barbados whose emotional ties to their home country far outstripped their connection with England, it's no wonder that Younge identified with America - black America - rather than Britain or the West Indies.

He didn't have to look hard for its icons and messages. African-American popular culture was spreading across the Atlantic. There was blues and soul, black street fashion, Muhammad Ali speaking to him in a language that excited and beckoned. There was Alex Haley's Roots on the television, which he was forced to stay up and watch. And there was literature, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Alice Walker's The Color Purple, a repertoire that has illuminated black slavery and its legacy. It was that grim legacy which fuelled the civil rights movement 100 years after the abolition of slavery and bequeathed it dignity and determination.

For Younge, living in Hertfordshire, this became a magnificent obsession. "It was the South that spoke to me urgently about the things I instinctively felt I was lacking," he writes."A sense of place and history, a feeling that the collage of insignificant experiences that made up my everyday life was in some way linked to a broader 'whole' that existed before me and would continue long after I was gone."

Younge's documentation of his journey south is redolent of place and history, interweaving narratives of the Freedom Riders' confrontations with racism with his own. His honesty and self-deprecation are endearing, no more so than when he finds human warmth and openness in the place of the coldness, or worse, that he'd anticipated.

But the strongest message of No Place Like Home is less uplifting. Despite his English accent, which charms the pants off some people and induces befuddlement or hilarity in others, Gary Younge is a black man, and being black in the American South, for the most part, carries a price, as he learns time and again. Whether it's the way he's openly stared at when he unwittingly enters a white church or restaurant, or the way he's bluntly told there are no vacancies at a motel, or the way he's ignored or misinformed by Greyhound baggage handlers, this young man from Stevenage is never allowed to forget he's black.

While his black identity is affirmed many times over on his journey, through his relationships and conversations with black people (both middle and working-class) and with some of the original Freedom Riders, it's with an odd kind of relief that he comes back to what is, for better or worse, his country. As he clears the immigration obstacle course that is reserved for all non-whites at Britain's airports, he can relax. "I was back home," he writes, "to a bigotry I understand."

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