Author and Historian Candacy Taylor Wows Audience During Talk On “Overground Railroad”

Museum News
Article photo

By Michael Coleman, writing for Sac Cultural Hub
March 18, 2022

Events also featured keynote address by California’s Secretary of State Dr. Shirley N. Weber, and musical and spoken word performances.

There was a beautiful yet haunting irony that was apparent within seconds of the start of my recent chat with author, historian, and curator Candacy Taylor.

I caught up with her by phone as she drove down wintery backroads to Wichita, Kansas, for a stop during her wildly successful book tour. It was the second of two conversations, with the first having been in front of a near-capacity audience at the California Museum in Sacramento last month.

“I don’t take a lot of freeways, so it’s not stressful driving,” Taylor shared, adding that her biggest worry was beating the worst of the winter weather that was pummeling so many midwesterners that day.

A century ago, the time frame that “Overground Railroad” brilliantly explores, the weather would have been the least of Taylor’s worries while navigating those rural backroads, alone, in her car.

Taylor is promoting her new Young Adult edition of her bestselling 2016 book “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.” Taylor kicked off the book tour last month at the California Museum, which was the only northern California stop of a riveting exhibition that’s on loan from the Smithsonian, also in support of the book.

The Green Book was a directory of businesses that were open to African American travelers, during a time not all that long ago when a seemingly innocuous stop at a gas station, restaurant, or hotel could have threatened — or ended — the life of a black motorist. During much of the 30 years of the Green Book’s publication, if you were of African decent, you were risking your life when you took the wheel of your car — and I’m not referencing hazardous driving conditions.

The Green Book was referred to as “The Bible of Black Travel.” It was promoted with an ominous tagline: “Carry it with you — you may need it.”

Taylor shared stories from “Overground Railroad,” and the behind-the-scenes of writing it, with a rapt audience in Sacramento last month.

“Sacramento was amazing,” Taylor enthused of the California Museum event. “To have this content that I chose for the exhibition, displayed in such a beautiful space, was so emotionally satisfying. And I had a great time on stage there.”

“My project director at the Smithsonian saw the recording from Sacramento,” Taylor added. “She’s heard me talk about this project for years, and she still found things in our conversation that she found new and interesting. It was a highlight for me, also, because after I’d driven across the country, it was my first event, and the kickoff of the tour. So that was really exciting.”

For Taylor to drive to Sacramento, alone, in February, across the country from her home in New York, you might assume that she really likes to drive.

You’d be right.

“Driving is a meditative practice for me,” Taylor shared. “The road gives me time to just be alone and be quiet. It forces me to be kind of internal.”

I took advantage of catching Taylor during one of her introspective sojourns and asked her how the book tour was going. She’d just spoken to a group of 400 middle school students in Denver.

“I asked how many of them had heard of sundown towns [cities where black people couldn’t stay after the sun set during the Jim Crow era] or redlining, and just a handful of hands went up,” Taylor remembered. “At least 75% of what I said to them was new to them, which was stunning.”

“But then, even when I’m in front of adult audiences, I hear from people who studied black history and still didn’t know a lot of the things I was talking about. I learned a lot of the stuff when I was writing the adult book.”

You’ll learn a lot from that adult version of “Overground Railroad,” too. As I mentioned during the California Museum’s event, it’s the best book I’ve read since Michelle Obama’s 2018 bestseller “Becoming.”

And if you missed our conversation and other accompanying events at the California Museum last month, including a keynote speech by California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley N. Weber and a variety of musical and spoken word performances, you can watch those videos here. The events were among the highlights of the Sacramento’s Black History Month this year.

Watch videos of the conversation with Candacy Taylor and all associated events at the California Museum here.