Lessons from the Green Book

I first learned about the Green Book in 2014 when I visited Denver’s Colorado History Museum, where a copy was on display in an exhibit honoring Lincoln Hills, the only African-American vacation resort west of the Mississippi. When Lincoln Hills opened in 1922, it was only the third resort in the United States where African-American families could vacation in safety. Getting from their homes to Lincoln Hills, though, was rife with danger and the Green Book offered insights on where folks could safely to eat, sleep, and refuel.

Learning about the Green Book opened my eyes to the privilege of traveling safely I enjoyed and began an inward journey to understand how systemic privilege pervaded my life. I grappled with not knowing, not realizing, and seeing where in my life I might have unknowingly perpetuated inequality. Becoming aware was the first step, but it wasn’t the last. In addition, it showed me how clearly perception is everything.

Based upon a true story

This weekend, I watched the Oscar-winning film Green Book, which was based upon the true story of Dr. Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallalonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip. Picture that it’s the summer of 1962. President Kennedy just experienced Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to him but has yet to discover Russian missiles in Cuba. Little Eva’s Loco-motion was at the top of the charts. Segregation and Jim Crow laws still existed. Lynchings were a real possibility.

Dr. Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who lived in opulence above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, was headed to the deep south for a series of performances. He hired Tony, an Italian-American bouncer from the famous Copacabana, as his driver and bodyguard. The two developed an unlikely friendship as they confronted head-on the racism and dangers associated with segregation.

A lack of understanding

At the beginning of the film, Tony declared he was “more black” than Dr. Shirley, who had never tasted fried chicken or lived in the modest circumstances Tony and his family did. Despite his elite status and genius, Dr. Shirley was forced to stay in run-down motels, which were listed in the Green Book as welcoming to Blacks. We’re confronted with the hypocrisy of the socialites inviting Dr. Shirley to perform, yet denying him the privilege of using their indoor bathrooms, forcing him to choose between relieving himself in a dark outhouse or returning to his squalid motel.

Through a series of insults against Dr. Shirley, including randomly being pulled over in a hostile sundown town, Tony began to understand what it really meant to be Black, especially in the south. As he witnessed example after example of systemic racism, Tony began to react in the way he learned in the Bronx: with his fists. Dr. Shirley reprimanded Tony, saying, “You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity.”

It takes courage to change people’s hearts

Tony questioned why Dr. Shirley would put himself in harm’s way when he could have easily chosen to stay safely in New York, where he was appreciated. He’s told, ”…it takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

What truth! It does take courage to change people’s hearts, and that courage begins with changing our hearts first. How many times have you insisted that your beliefs were absolutely true, going to the mat for a T.K.O.? (For me, there are too many instances to count.)

Consider that perception is not reality and, even if we have a shared experience, what we each recall and feel will happen through the lens of our own history. Knowing something intellectually is not the same as living that thing. We can empathize when someone shares, but it’s important to understand that empathy isn’t the same as experience.

What’s my point?

Your story is my point. How you experience situations throughout your life can be—and mostly are—different from even those who shared those experiences with you. What you believe to be true is based upon what you know. That doesn’t make one of you right and the other wrong. And that’s especially important to understand when writing a memoir.

I get asked all the time, “How do I write about something that happened if my [fill-in-the-blank] will read it?” That, my friends, is the Fraud Flag flying high. What if your family and friends remember things differently than you do? What if they challenge you? What if your truth hurts them? None of these questions matter. Focusing on them will stop you from sharing your truth, the value of your learning, and your perception.

If you’re tired of waiting, let’s chat about the book inside of you and how to finally get it out into the world.

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