Alvin Hall Interview

This award-winning broadcaster’s new work explores cultural and historical spots found in the 1936 historic guides.


Driving the Green Book by Alvin Hall. HarperOne. pp.288 $29.99


Konstantin Rega: Your new book is about travel; was the desire to travel the impetus for Driving the Green Book?

Alvin Hall: Well, I travel a lot. So I’m always interested in other cultures. But the book came about because I discovered The Negro Motorist Green Book when I was on a flight to London. And then, by utter happenstance, a guy in Wales—Jeremy Grange, who’s a producer at the BBC—had read about The Green Book as well and called me to ask if I would be willing to host a show in the UK on The Green Book. And I said immediately said yes. That program, though, never aired in America. 

And so many years later, I came up with the idea of doing another show about The Green Book, but this one is at the heart of America and the great migration. This was inspired by an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art—of Jacob Lawrence’s famous work called “The Great Migration.” There was an infographic showing how the population of different cities had changed during that time. 

And how did you find the Green Book exactly, on that plane ride?

It was like a pullout or sidebar in a magazine article that I first saw it mentioned. And I took notes and said, “Oh, good. I’ll follow up on this.” When I came back to the U.S., I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—which is part of the New York Public Library—and discovered that they had the largest collection of Green Books of any public institution in America. That started the research. 

So by the time Jeremy’s call came to me from Wales, I was aware of The Green Book. And then he and I came up with a concept for the first program, which was about a journey through space and time. After the BBC program, I kept developing more ideas around the book because I figured if I had not heard of it as a black man in the South, then I wasn’t alone in this. And so that became my motivation.

Where do you see yourself in the literary lineage of these guidebooks?

I see myself as a person helping America to rediscover a history that many people knew nothing about. One person I’d interviewed for a BBC podcast, a college administrator in Nashville, Tennessee, hadn’t heard of it either. She’d only found out about it through that recent movie, Green Book.

And with that, part of my mission became to unlock and let people know the real story. So I started this project by looking for people who had used the book, who knew the locations featured in it, the neighborhoods where those locations were in various cities around America, who had driven north or south to visit relatives, and what their road experiences were. That all became a driving force.

It’s like opening up the people’s eyes to this part of American history, which many people did not know, and many people only learned about from the film, which had nothing really to do with The Green Books. It was just the title that the producer, Peter Farrelly, chose to put on the movie. Only mentioned three times or so throughout.

It was very important for me in my book to include the stories that people told me while on the road. And I cannot tell you how many times during the road trip from Detroit to New Orleans, as well as from Tallahassee to Ferguson, people would say to me, “Let me tell you the story.”

And so, what initially got you into broadcasting and TV?

It’s not a career that I planned it. I just grabbed these opportunities, sometimes a little reluctantly out. After working on Wall Street in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and starting my own consulting company, I was in the UK with a friend who worked as a pilot for British Airways. And in a gallery in Leicester Square, we met this guy who asked me to do On Air tests. And though I wasn’t sure about it, I gave it a try and afterward my first BBC television show was Alvin Halls Guide to Successful Investing.

And people asked me if I would be willing to work to some television radio program. And I said, Sure, why not? When I did the program, “Jay Z: from Brooklyn to the Boardroom”—about his rise as a rap star—that changed my whole life, and built my radio career.

Because of that, one of my mantras has been: you have to break out of your comfort zone at some point, even if you fail at it, you have to break out of it. 

So would you say this book is all about telling it how it is?

I think that’s what I want people to see; I want people to have these real stories. To start a conversation, about how people think about it. These are not made-up stories that people think happen. This is not revisionist history. It’s just telling the true history of what happened.

And I don’t just remember or tell tragic stories. But all of the wonderful stories, the funny stories that people would tell about the resilience of the community. Many people talked about incidents with great humor. One that I was thinking about this morning, actually, was about Stuckey’s.

When I was a kid, we all wanted to go there and have a pecan roll at Stuckey’s. But, of course, it was segregated. So we couldn’t stop. But we didn’t know that at the time. Our parents would just say, “No, we brought our food,” and they never offered any further explanation. But when we all discovered the real reason, later on—why we couldn’t go in—we would all laugh, laugh, laugh at ourselves. We turned the external reasons around, making it something else, something funny. About having inside of us the grace not to be trapped by the horror of that truth, and to let it go and laugh at our memories.


Events:

Feb. 17 at Colonial Williamsburg


Get a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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