Michael Ra-shon Hall, Ph.D., took advantage of the unprecedented break from normal routine during the COVID-19 pandemic to complete his book, “Freedom Beyond Confinement: Travel and Imagination in African-American Cultural History and Letters published by Clemson University Press.
An assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, Hall’s varied interests, ranging from contemporary 20th-century American and African-American literature to travel and tourism, helped lay the groundwork of his new book.
His interest in African-American travel began as a graduate student at Emory University while dealing with special collections in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
“I came across an issue of a rare travel guide specifically for African Americans, the ‘Negro Motorist Green Book’ (or simply the ‘Green Book’). A professor at Emory gave me a copy of Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s play based on this very historical guide. I was hooked on the possibility of a research program that concretely linked historical artifacts to creative works. I’ve been pretty much obsessed ever since,” Hall said.
While writing his book, Hall realized that few people are aware of how memorable travel experiences can spark the imagination, especially of artists. It’s just a message he hopes to convey to readers, he said.
“I think non-academics will learn a lot about how race, ethnicity, and gender affect people’s experiences of getting around the world, both literally and figuratively,” he said. “They will also learn a great deal about how individual and collective efforts to combat discrimination in travel have become central to a number of efforts to gain and protect civil and human rights.”
Hall has researched several archival collections, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and the National Archives and Records Administration, using both digital and physical research to gather information. .
“The rigorous attention to historicization in the book simply would not have been possible without robust use of archival sources,” he said.
Hall said writing the book showed her the need to develop a daily writing practice as well as writing goals. It also reinforced the need for time off during the process.
“I’ve lost count of the number of hours I’ve spent taking long walks and hikes or playing video games to maintain my holistic health as much as possible while remaining productive under rather difficult circumstances,” he said of writing during the pandemic.
He hopes readers take away a key message from his book regarding the cultural history of African-American travel.
“[It] was particularly fraught with racial and gender constraints on mobility, even though travel offered opportunities within and outside the context of leisure,” he said. “This paradoxical quality of travel experience for African Americans has left an indelible mark on the imagination of writers of fiction and nonfiction, in particular, and artists more broadly.”
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