For those of us who are Baby Boomers, or born at the beginning of the Baby Bust in the 1960’s, we have fond recollections of trips in the family automobile or memories of dads working under the hood of the car in the driveway on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is of my dad hanging out at his good friend Eddie’s service station and the two of them in mechanical bliss as they dissected automobiles that were in the shop to be serviced. Dad simply loved cars – he was an Army mechanic in World War II – and in Eddie he found a soul mate. He, a white man, and my father connected in a way that made me understand that race should not be a barrier to friendship.
For my father, his automobile, a 1958 Oldsmobile Delta 88, was the epitome of workmanship; a workhorse that always came through. It was indeed a lot like him. In his eyes, that car and the Ford truck he used for his work as a fence contractor, represented real progress for a Virginia boy with only an 8th grade education. He was the master of that domain and reveled in his ability to unravel the pings and knocks of an errant engine. I would delight in hearing him “car talk” with friends or my uncles, but confess that little of that skill passed down to me. I was happy to oblige his request for companionship on rides but cared little about what was under the hood that made the vehicle go. He knew that and didn’t mind; just being behind the wheel with me riding shotgun brought a smile to his face.
My father’s passion for automobiles was truly symbolic of the Black community’s love affair with the industry. After all, as result of the Great Migration, many southern Blacks wound up in Detroit and from there made their way to automobile plants. It was not an easy transition into the industrial world as Blacks faced initial resistance from organized labor, but in time the industry would become the pathway to the middle class for many Black workers. Many Black children went on to become the first generation of their family to attend college because one or both parents worked for an auto manufacturer or an affiliated industry. The presence of many Black professional today is because they are the beneficiaries of the benefits derived from the good wage jobs the auto industry provided to many Blacks for decades.
Our connection to the industry extends beyond the workforce. Cars have been an important symbol of Black success. When we had little else in terms of material possessions to show our progress, it was the automobile that became the benchmark for Black success. It is why the imagery of the Black preacher and shiny new Cadillac is so much a part of our lore. While it is depicted today as a sign of excess, it was once a symbol of success in a much respected profession that was middle class, if not in reality but in aspiration. It is why the neighbor with the new Oldsmobile, Buick or Pontiac was the envy of the block. It wasn’t just the beauty of the automobile; it was the sense that one of us had climbed one rung higher on the ladder of equality. I can still recall the countless photographs in Jet magazine or Ebony of Black entertainers and sports figures posing next to their shiny new luxury cars, and picturing myself behind the wheel.
So, the demise of the U.S. automobile industry turns a page on our own history. The decline of an industry that so marked our progress, including the election of the first Black mayor of the Motor City, is looked upon by me with sadness as we see historic names like GM, Chrysler and Ford struggle to survive. Like Dad’s sturdy old Oldsmobile, Blacks have endured great changes and still kept rolling along. In many ways though, we too left the industry behind at some point. Our progress in this country became such that the mere ownership of a new car was not the symbol of success it once was. In fact, in some instances, like drug dealers sporting expensive luxury vehicles, the automobile lost its “glamour” as a symbol of success. Soon, professional positions, homes, vacation residences, and trips abroad replaced the automobile in the pecking order of conspicuous consumption.
I for one will miss the day when the car was king. For me it recalls a day when Black progress was like new car smell, something we could not get enough of.