On an episode of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta, during a tour of Savannah, Georgia’s historic First African Baptist Church, cast member Porsha Williams once inquired with her tour guide about the physical location of The Underground Railroad’s tracks, and the trains that ran atop of it. While the inquiry would surely not assist her with finding the invisible train tracks (there was no tangible railroad for anyone who’s still questioning), if she needed answers about American slavery she should have instead sought reference on the side of a U-Haul vehicle.
The American truck rental company wants the world to recognize their knowledge of Black history in a very proud and public display. Branded largely across the side of 800 moving U-Haul trucks, a black female slave draped in untraditional slave fashions, is illustrated running away from her master’s quaint home with lantern in tow. Where is the female slave going? It would appear Ontario, Canada, and she’s been doing so since the company revealed its abolition-themed truck collection in 2009 as a part of their SuperGraphics campaign. The summary finely printed below the life-size image states:
Did You Know…
Abolishing slavery decades earlier than the U.S., Canada became a haven for enslaved people seeking freedom. How did "conductors" assist thousands?
Upon reading the brief statement, some could assume that the wagons containing thousands of runaway slaves hidden beneath floor boards, risking their lives to escape the brutal oppression of chattel slavery, were sponsored by U-Haul (“U-Haul trucks, big enough to carry 50 slaves, big enough to carry your couch”). Despite the company’s willingness to embrace the audacious tasks of promoting Black history, the visual representation of a slave woman, located in an area typically reserved for paid advertisements, appears inappropriate and disingenuous. Nevertheless, the trucks can still be seen on the road today.
The SuperGraphics campaign demonstrates the continuous animation and glorification of slavery for capitalistic purposes by those whose ancestors enforced oppression (think Jamie Foxx as Django). Its clear attempts at self-promotion are placed below the truck’s historical briefing in the form of a link to the company’s website; a website that upon viewing does not easily refer you to the missing facts of Black history, but instead displays deals and pickup locations for truck rentals.
An older post on the official U-Haul blog explained the trucks creation as a way to honor the legacy of the “individual sacrifice and heroism among the enslaved, and the people helping them gain freedom.” The blog post documents the unveiling of the SuperGraphic in August 2009 at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Ontario. One caption beneath a photo of a black female honoree attempts to establish a purely artificial relationship between U-Haul and The Underground Railroad.
Ruth Dudley, chair of the Advisory Committee, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site signs the truck after explaining that U-Haul today, like The Underground Railroad did years ago, takes people to new-found freedom and on their journey through life.
U-Haul’s eagerness to establish a genuine connection between The Underground Railroad and its services is no more apparent than it is in this statement. By comparing the freedoms of moving to a new home with the freedoms of despondent runaway slaves, the company’s ignorance of the severity and seriousness of the subject beams with potency. As a moving company its core initiative and brand does not align with the historical legacy of slavery, nor does it relay much more information about abolitionism than the inside of a Snapple cap.
Another grave misstep the SuperGraphics campaign reflects is corporations’ willingness to solely praise and reflect accomplishments spurred by black crisis, aided by white benefactors. Non-violent resistance during Civil Rights Movements, the birth of hip-hop in a burning borough, dangerously escaping a life of involuntary servitude—these are all achievements continuously recognized to commend and honor the legacy of Black America. This is exemplified in the tale of a boy in the projects turned boy in Harvard quad, another singular narrative that continues to discount the fuller narrative of black life, culture and history.
The narrow characterization of black people by foreign storytellers leaves a significantly wider impression than companies like U-Haul anticipate. A life-size portrait of a black slave on the side of a moving vehicle will naturally evoke a different response from black individuals than it will for non-black individuals. Whether the reaction to the image is negative or positive, the digestion of the imagery itself in an usual setting will assist with the internalization of a singular view of black heroism and history. The multiple images displayed on U-Haul’s blog post of a white man dispersing honorary plaques to both white and black recipients in celebration of the reveal is no different.
There is a clear disconnect in how corporations should properly engage black Americans and a more liberal generation. Though brief, the featured fact across the truck is of great value in helping its audience better understand how such a large portion of the African diaspora arrived in Canada. However, it is only an afterthought once the shock from the offensive image sinks in. It is time that corporations approach celebrating the culture of people of color in a way that not only enhances representation, but furthers a necessity for genuine enlightenment.