How U.S. history makes people and places disappear


Aileen McGraw writes: When Lauret Edith Savoy first heard the word “colored” at five years old, she saw herself as exactly that — full of veins as blue as the sky. Not long after, she learned another definition, steeped in racism. “Words full of spit showed that I could be hated for being ‘colored,’” she writes. “By the age of eight I wondered if I should hate in return.” Out of this painful history, Savoy has created something rich and productive — a body of work that examines the complex relationships between land, identity, and history.

Today, Savoy, who is of African American, Euro-American, and Native American descent, works as a geologist, a writer, and a professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her writing — described by New York Magazine’s “Vulture” as John McPhee meets James Baldwin — straddles science and the humanities.

Her most recent book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape explores the tendency of U.S. history to erase or rewrite — both literally and in memory — the stories of marginalized or dispossessed people and places that have been deemed unworthy, unsavory, or shameful. In eight densely researched, ruminative essays, Savoy uses her own family histories to trace moments in American history that have been largely forgotten: for example, the history of segregated Army nurses, like her mother, during World War II, or that of Charles Drew, the African-American physician who developed the first blood bank and was fired for trying to end the federally sanctioned policy of segregating blood. Savoy approaches the “environment” in the broadest sense: “Not just as surroundings; not just as the air, water, and land on which we depend, or that we pollute; not just as global warming — but as sets of circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live and die — in which each of us is intimately part.”

Nautilus recently spoke to Savoy over email about this relationship between landscape and identity, the meaning of biodiversity, and the power of the stories we tell. [Continue reading…]

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