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The Cadillac Chronicles

March 30, 2011


Photo: Bill Gaskins

Before Mercedes, Lexus and Audi… the standard for luxurycars was the Cadillac. For decadesCadillac represented lavishness. The brand introduced the electric starter, leather upholstery, and the world's first limousine. But the Cadillac was also an icon of American success… especially for African American men.

WDET’s Martina Guzman spoke to photographer and scholar Bill Gaskins about a series he’s developing called the Cadillac Chronicles, recording the relationship between African American men and Cadillacs.

SOQ

The Cadillac is an American automobile synonymous with luxury… and for decades General Motors ads referred to the brand as “The Standard of the World.” The car has appeared in dozens of films and music videos and has been driven by countless movie stars. Songs have been written about the Cadillac…and for many…the car is inextricably linked toAfrican American’s. Photographer Bill Gaskins is working on a photo series about Black men and Cadillac’s that goes beyond a stereotype perpetuated in popular culture.

_I’m challenging the stereotype of the African American male Cadillac owner as primarily preacher, player, or professional athlete….or pimp…let’s not forget the pimp. _

Gaskin has been working on this series since 2006. His photographs are portraits of African American men with their Cadillac’s. They are large 6-foot images placed side by side to form a single artistic statement. As Gaskins built a relationship with the men he was photographing, he began to understand that the connection to the car was deep and originated almost one hundred years ago.

_A relationship that begins with Black Chauffeur…and these men were more than people driving an automobile. They were databases, they were social secretaries, they were lookouts and they were trusted servantsof the captains of American industry. _

Althoughblack men were allowed to drive Cadillac’s for their employers, they were not allowed to buy one. In the 1920’sGeneral Motors had an unofficial policy that forbade them from enteringCadillac dealerships.

This was perfectly standard in the 1920’ and 30’s in the high days of Jim Crow…that blacks weren’t allowed to do all kinds of things.

That’s John Steel Gordon, a business and financial historian and author of the book, The Business of America. He says the desire to own a Cadillac was so entrenched that African American men found creative ways to purchase the luxury car…

The manager of Cadillac service throughout the UnitedStates…in other words he supervised every service department of Cadillac dealers noticed that while Cadillac wouldn’t sell to Black men that Black men were always coming in to have their Cadillac serviced and he did a little investigation and discovered that what they did was hire a white man to buy theCadillac for them.

In 1933…at the height of the Great Depression…the Cadillac brand was dying. General Motors only sold five thousand cars that year. In an attempt to save the brand, Cadillac dropped its policy of not selling to African Americans. Gordon says that without African Americans … Cadillac would have vanished.

Black men certainly saved the Cadillac brand name because General Motors was about to shut it down and the only question was whether to simple stop production and wait for better times to simply kill the brand. In 1934 Cadillac broke even and by 1937 it was General Motors most successful car in terms of profit per unit.

Lifting the policy increased sales of Cadillac one thousand percent. Gordon says that by 1940… the Cadillac was the luxury car ofchoice for African Americans.

The Cadillac meant a lot to Black people because it was a status symbol and it was one of the few status symbols that Black people in the 20’s and 30’s when Jim Crow was still in full feather, could avail themselves of. They couldn’t live in Park Avenue Apartments, They couldn’t join fancy clubs, they couldn’t eat in fancy restaurants but they could have a Cadillac and this was a ways of expressing their success and that’s why it was very important to them.

(Cadillacblues – music)

Having a Cadillac represented prosperity and upward mobility. Johnnie Bassett is a Detroit Blues musician… he comes from a family of Cadillac owners, has owned seven himself, and even named one of his albums… Cadillac Blues.

He tookme for a ride in his Deville one afternoon and told me about his history withthe car.

I started off with a 1941 Cadillac…my brother had a 41Cadillac convertible. I was jealous of his so I went and bought me one. The next one I had was a 63…and it just went on from there. I’ve owned a 74, 75 , 76…My dad owned 3 Cadillac’s, my brother owned Cadillac’s, two of my sisters owned Cadillac’s, my brother in law owned two Cadillac’s so it been in my family.

Bassett says he loves how his Cadillac makes him feel.

I like pulling up in a Cadillac…and people look…it catches the eye of everybody when you pull up in a Cadillac, people notice. They say OH, HE’S DDRIVING A CADILLAC… there’s a difference…a noticeable difference… It’s a prestigious thing…when people buy Cadillac’s it denotes that they appreciate the quality of the automobile the luxury of it…it’s supposed to be the standard of the world…

But thelove affair between black men and the Cadillac ended started to wane in the 1980’s. Photographer Bill Gaskins.

Cuz when they started to shrink the car the majesty of it shifted and it became homogenized with other American automobiles. 2:04 The import has definitely taken over… the Maybach, the Bentley…that’s the status car among African American men.

DonButler says that won’t be the case…if he has anything to do with it. On the 34th floor of General Motors world headquarters… Butler sits in a corner office overlooking the cityof Detroit. He’s the Vice President of Marketing for Cadillac. Butler is Harvard educated, a smart dresser and has an easy smile. And I felt a sense of pride well up inhim as I told him the story of how Black consumers saved Cadillac in the1930’s. He says Black men buyCadillac because they identify with the brand.

We sell a higher proportion of our vehicles to AfricanAmerican men than we do to the general market… I think some of the appeal that Black men are seeing and have seen in Cadillac’s through the decades are part of what makes our brand really resonate. First is that Cadillac is dreamed inAmerica…it is uniquely American in a way that no other brand can really be…and not in the sense of wrapping yourself in the American Flag but with a spirit and ingenuity and creativity that’s American …People that are self made gravitate to Cadillac’s because it a way for them to demonstrate and validate their success and it becomes a social passport.

Many of the men Gaskins photographed had arrived socially and economically… while others were still getting there. The Cadillac Chronicles allowed Gaskins to photograph African American Cadillac owners who were executives at IBM, entrepreneurs as well as sanitation workers.

It was the breadth and depth of humanity.

Blues singer Johnny Basset says he isn’t really sure about the stereotype involving Black men and Cadillac…He says he’s just in love with his car.

As long as I am able I will drive one and own one.

Bill Gaskins photographic series, the Cadillac Chronicles, is a work in progress. Detroit is the third chapter in the series, which chronicles seven cities.

I’m Martina Guzman, WDET News.

Bill Gaskins is the Elaine L. Jacob Endowed Chair in the Visual Arts department at Wayne State University.