In Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Lauret Savoy takes readers on a journey through American landscapes as she strives to uncover clues about her personal, complex ancestry. Descended from multiple races—including white European colonizers, free and enslaved blacks, and American Indians—Savoy is attentive to the influence that race and place have had in determining whose stories are recorded and whose are erased over time.

Lacking complete historical accounts of her ancestors’ pasts, Savoy instead traces a broader pattern: the partial and inaccurate histories of indigenous peoples and slaves, enduring evidence of struggle and conquest. These histories are hidden in names, in the rivers, mountains, and cities she comes across, etched into the very founding of these places. “Place-names that might or might not have been bestowed by indigenous people for those places shimmer like mirages,” writes Savoy. As she works to piece together the forgotten histories of these former inhabitants, it becomes painfully clear that the histories that are recorded most often elide those of non-whites. She examines names that have origins in indigenous languages but have been corrupted by English-speaking settlers, as well as pejorative names given to places that serve as markers of the slavery of African Americans. In more “official” historical accounts, many of these people are effectively “silenced from public history.”

Savoy offers insight into the ways in which racial struggles change and inform our relationships to the places in which we live; and conversely, how different landscapes and locations (and the naming of those places) can affect our experiences of racial privilege. Quoting anthropologist Keith Basso, Savoy states, “Place-making is both a way of ‘doing human history,’ […] as well as ‘a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”

Trace demonstrates the life-altering effects that race and place can have on one’s privilege—the privilege to communicate one’s ideas, to remember and claim one’s past and heritage, and to live freely. In the following four pieces from The Common Online, Amy Halliday, Marian Crotty, Hisham Bustani, Jamie Edgecombe, and Stephanie Minyoung Lee examine the various places in which they find themselves and consider how race and location have affected their own experiences of privilege; to claim their heritages, to live free of discrimination, and to have their voices heard.

Reclaiming an “Exclusive” Birthright

In his 1838 “Essay on American Scenery,” Thomas Cole wrote that beholding such landscapes “with due reverence is the proper expression of one’s citizenship.” Yet, as Amy Halliday points out in her The Common Studio piece, “precisely who counts as American—and may thus freely partake of this natural patrimony—at this historical moment is distinctly exclusionary.” Halliday examines the work of African American painter Robert S. Duncanson, suggesting that, though denied legal citizenship as a black man, he “claims the birthright Cole invokes” through his exceptional landscape paintings of the Mississippi River. Yet, even as the paintings capture the beautiful, free essence of the land and country, they serve to remind us of the dark history of slavery these waters carry.

Living Amidst Racism

How long will it take for racism to disappear? Marian Crotty contemplates this complex/difficult question as she recounts her experience moving to Baltimore, a city “so racially segregated that it [feels] like two different places: one black, one white; one dangerous, one quaint.” Having grown up in a small, nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania amidst racism—and with a fiercely anti-racist mother—Crotty contemplates what it takes for individuals to change their minds. When she asks her students what factors rank, “personal experience” is overwhelmingly the most popular response. When “[r]eading about the issue gets [only] one vote out of 40,” she wonders whether language alone can truly persuade, or if environmental influence will always be more powerful.

Location’s Effect on Literature and Censorship

In The Common‘s Contributors in Conversation Podcast, authors Hisham Bustani (Jordan) and Jamie Edgecombe (England) discuss the challenges of censorship, especially in Jordan, where “main magazines and newspapers are controlled by regimes and governments.” Bustani and Edgecombe consider creative ways to convey suppression and oppression through art and literature amidst a larger conversation about poetic style and the ways in which writers can incorporate other cultures and art forms into their own work. Edgecombe incorporates a poetic style from Japan, while Bustani uses color to express the social, political, and economic oppression of women and men in Jordan.

Toeing the Line Between Freedom and Oppression

In her Long Reads essay, “Cease-fire,” Stephanie Minyoung Lee, an American of Korean descent, travels to Korea to learn more about her heritage—her first trip back more than 30 years after moving to Los Angeles when she was three years old. Lee contemplates the country’s history, remembering that her parents grew up in Korea before it was divided into North and South: a world completely different from the one she’s known in America. When she visits the Demilitarized Zone, “the true border between Koreas,” Lee feels the true weight of the fact that just a few feet can be the deciding factor between freedom and oppression.

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape was released from Counterpoint Press in November 2015 and is now available online and in stores.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.


About The Author

Diana Babineau
Managing Editor, The Common, Amherst College

Diana Babineau is Managing Editor for The Common at Amherst College.