Tech Tuesday: Virginia Community Center Offers an Immersive Viewing of ‘Traveling While Black’

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A community center in Virginia is offering its visitors the chance to view an immersive virtual reality experience detailing the racism Black Americans have faced throughout the country’s history.

McClean Community Center has set up free posts mimicking Washington D.C.’s historic restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl, throughout their lobby to give people an immersive viewing of the 2019 VR documentary, “Traveling While Black.” The film, created by Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams, has viewers use headsets to virtually take them to a seat in the restaurant where they can hear stories about racism in America aided by visuals of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the virtual restaurant, visitors sit with and hear experiences recounted by civil rights activist Courtland Cox and Washington D.C. historian Sandra Butler-Truesdale. Listening to Cox, viewers learn about his experience riding a bus after the 1963 attack on civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and other fellow activists. 

On a bus ride from South Carolina for a conference, Hamer and the other civil rights activists protested by sitting in the “white only” seats of the bus. Upon entering a Mississippi restaurant, they continued their protest and were eventually arrested, specifically after trying to get the license plate number of the police officer harassing them to get them to leave. In the country jail, Hamer and the others were physically assaulted by the police officials, leaving Hamer with a blood clot in her eye and permanent damage to her kidney.

Scared and traumatized by this event, Cox avoided getting off a bus journeying to the south for 10 hours, choosing to eat his own lunch from home rather than risk getting abused in a restaurant. 

“I also was in my head saying, “What am I going to do if these people come on the bus and try to treat me like Ms. Hamer?” said Cox in the film. “And one of the things I was very clear about is that I was not getting off the bus and going to any of these places.”

Butler-Truesdale also talks about traveling in the 1950s. She remembers having the opportunity to sit wherever she wanted to on the train when it was in Washington D.C. but having to move to the back once they crossed into Virginia. 

“I remember being so frustrated because we could not eat on the highway if the train stopped. When the train stopped, you would get off the train and you would relieve yourself outside almost as if you were a dog,” she said in the film. “Right now, they treat the dogs better than they treated us as Black Americans.”

The film follows their experience into the present-day racism that still lives in America. Political advocate Samaria Rice talks about her son, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a white police officer on November 22, 2014, and his last moments.

“I will never get that vision out of my head,” she said in the film. “I play it over and over again.”

In total, the film runs about 20 minutes, but visitors to the centers have an hour to explore. The exhibit will be available for a few more weeks until Feb. 12. For those who are unable to make it to the VR exhibit, the New York Times gives people the chance to view the 360-degree video for free. 

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