Photographer Amani Willett was documenting former stops on the Underground Railroad when the link to the past hit him. Black Americans still travel almost like fugitives, constantly aware of dangers on the road.
“The American road trip was always talked about as this ideal of ultimate freedom, the American dream, exuberance,” said Willett, who teaches photography at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
“For me,” he added, “the road always had very different connotations.”
It’s a modest seeming book, modeled after the design of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which directed Black drivers to friendly businesses around the country from 1936 to 1966. But that modesty tees up a searing message.
Against the backdrop of Green Book listings, Willett first uses his family’s archival snapshots, then his own pictures and images from the news to consider what the road trip means to Americans, and how that dream can turn into a nightmare.
It starts out innocently enough.
“You see these joyful and proud people standing next to their cars,” said Karen E. Haas, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, which last summer acquired two prints from “A Parallel Road.” “And then you read the text below, and realize maybe motels were few and far between, or gas stations.”
“What a feeling,” she added, “to have your whole family in the car, and not know where the next gas station is.”
From the happy family snapshots, “A Parallel Road” veers to tire tracks, a taped-up taillight, images of Ku Klux Klansmen, and stills of Rodney King being thrashed by Los Angeles police in 1991 after being pulled over for drunk driving. More contemporary pictures follow — of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail in 2015 after a traffic stop; of Diamond Reynolds, who livestreamed the 2016 killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, after they were pulled over outside St. Paul.
Why are traffic stops such flash points? “I think with the [invention of the] automobile, all of a sudden you had this weird space that’s created where you’re in your car, but you’re in a public space,” Willett said. “There were a lot more interactions between white people and Black people in public spaces. And police and Black people in public spaces.”
Willett, who is biracial, grew up in Cambridge. He has been stopped by police, he believes, because of his appearance — he’s light-skinned, but he wore dreadlocks in college.
“Family members talk about being racially profiled or pulled over for not having a taillight,” he said. “Friends have been violently beaten. Friends have been detained for no reason, separated from their family in two different police cars.”
In the 1980s, when Willett and his brother were small, his mother, Gail, unable to find children’s books about Black or biracial kids, opened Savannah Books, a bookstore in Central Square dedicated to children of color.
“From a very young age, I was aware that representation matters, that seeing yourself reflected back to you in society matters, that having stories about your experience matters,” he said.
Gail appears in one of Willett’s photographs in “A Parallel Road,” barely lit in a darkened car at night, looking up at her rearview mirror. This is one of the prints the MFA has acquired.
“You realize where she is,” said Haas. “And then you realize maybe a police car has pulled up. And you feel this ominous, insecure feeling.”
The snapshots and the family connections imbue the pictures that follow — of Bland, of Castile’s bloodied T-shirt — with a familial intimacy.
“It hits you in the gut,” Haas said.
“A Parallel Road” gathers many strands: The history of Black Americans on the road; the trope of the American road trip, which is a photographic genre in itself (Robert Frank’s “The Americans” was published in 1958, the year after Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”). Then there’s how the camera lens changes the way Americans see themselves — most recently with social media’s wildfire spread of images of violence against Black citizens, which nudged the sleeping giant of white America awake.
Willett found plenty to be discouraged about as he put “A Parallel Road” together.
“As I was working on this, something happened every day that I could add to the project,” he said. “It was exhausting.” Scores of Black Americans killed on the road are listed near the end.
But he also found hope.
“People are going to take road trips. The Black community is going to take road trips. Even if it takes more courage,” he said. “They’re going to experience that American road trip in whatever way is safe, and in whatever way they possibly can.”