Professor’s new book explores African American travel and imagination – VCU News


Michael Ra-shon Hall, Ph.D., used the unprecedented pause from normal routine during the COVID-19 pandemic to finish 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 College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Hall’s varied interests, ranging from 20th-century and contemporary American and African American literature to travel and tourism, helped lay the foundation for his new book.

His interest in African American travel began as a graduate student at Emory University while processing special collections in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

“I came across an issue of a rare travel guide specifically addressed to African Americans, the ‘Negro Motorist Green Book’ (or simply the ‘Green Book’). A professor at Emory gifted me a copy of Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s play based on that very historic guide. I was hooked at the possibility of a research agenda that concretely connected historical artifacts with creative works. I’ve been pretty much obsessed since,” Hall said.

The cover of \"Freedom Beyond Confinement: Travel and Imagination in African American Cultural History and Letters\" by Michael Ra-shon Hall
“Freedom Beyond Confinement: Travel and Imagination in African American Cultural History and Letters” illustrates how the travel experience has left an indelible mark on the imagination of Black artists. (Clemson University Press)

In writing his book, Hall realized that few people are aware of how memorable travel experiences can spark the imagination, particularly of artists. That’s just one message he hopes to convey to readers, he said.

“I think nonscholars will learn a lot about the ways race, ethnicity and gender affect folks’ experiences of moving through the world, literally and figuratively,” he said. “They’ll also learn a lot about how individual and collective efforts to combat discrimination in travel became central to a number of efforts to gain and protect civil and human rights.”

Hall 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 background.

“The rigorous attention to historicization in the book would simply not have been possible without robust use of archival sources,” he said.

Hall said that writing the book showed him the need to develop a daily writing practice as well as writing goals. It also reinforced the need for leisure time during the process.

“I lost count of the number of hours I spent on long walks and hikes or playing video games to maintain my holistic health as much as possible while remaining productive under rather straining circumstances,” he said of writing during the pandemic.

He hopes readers take away one key message from his book regarding the cultural history of African American travel.

“[It] has been uniquely fraught with racialized and gendered constraints on mobility even as travel provided opportunity within the context of leisure and outside it,” he said. “This paradoxical quality of travel experience for African Americans has left an indelible mark on the imagination of fiction and nonfiction writers, specifically, and artists more broadly.”