Professor traces the history of race.

By Keely Savoie

Mount Holyoke College Professor of Environmental Studies Lauret Savoy views the racialized history of humanity through the geological and physical traces it has left on Earth. Her latest book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, was released November 10. In it, Savoy discusses how the physical world we inhabit shapes—and is shaped by—personal, political, and historical human landscapes. She discusses here the origins of the book and how it is a continuation of the the rich vein of research that has captivated her as a scholar and writer.

Your book Trace is a continuation of your work on understanding the intersections between history and geology/geography. Can you describe the new themes you examine, and why?

Sand and stone are Earth’s memory. Each of us, too, is a landscape inscribed by memory. My skin, eyes, and hair recall the blood of three continents as paths of ancestors—free and enslaved Africans, colonists from Europe, and peoples indigenous to this land—converge in me. As an educator and Earth historian, I’ve tracked the continent’s deep past, yet my own familial origins lie largely eroded and lost. To live in this country is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, residues of silence and displacement across generations. Trace offers my search for and discovery of these marks, reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory—and to be one.

In a mosaic of personal journeys and historical inquiry across a continent and time, Trace explores how the country’s ideas of “race” have marked this land and me. From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from “Indian Territory” and the US-Mexico Border to the US capitol, Trace grapples with a searing national history to reveal the often unvoiced presence of the past.

How do the themes in the book fit with your past work?

Tracing memory has threaded all my work: unearthing what is buried, re-membering what is fragmented, shattered, eroded. Reading the land and interpreting, from rock and fossil clues, plausible histories of ancient environments based my efforts in graduate school and my first years at Mount Holyoke College.

How did you become interested in the history of race as it is physicalized in our geography?

At the College, I was able to explore across disciplines, and my focus turned to the intertwinings of natural and cultural histories. Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology (2006) is an anthology on the language of the Earth. It considers landscapes and geological processes in human imagination and experience. The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2011), which I edited with Alison Deming, is a collection of essays and poems by writers of color on the ties between culture, place, identity, and ecological awareness.

And while I worked on these edited collections, I was also writing the framework of Trace. These books are all part of the same cloth. I’ve always been drawn to the stories we tell of the American land’s origins and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land.

What lessons can we learn from the geology of our history?

Human experience in this land and the history of the American land itself have, in fragmented tellings, artificially separated what can never be disentangled: nature and “race.” I think it’s crucial to reveal often unrecognized connections and thus try to counter some of our oldest and most damaging “public silences.”

We can learn that the events of our lives take place. That the history of human experience on this continent owes much to the history of the land itself, to the land’s structure, materials, and texture. We can gain a fuller sense of place by understanding both.

How can we take these lessons into the future?

We all carry history within us, the past becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. Trace is a personal narrative that asks who we are in this place called the United States. All Americans are implicated in the nation’s history, told and untold. We are all marked by the continuing presence of past and by these landscapes, whether ancestors inhabited the continent for millennia or family immigrated in our lifetime. I may be a witness trying to re-member, but I am not alone—these journeys speak to common concerns. Anyone calling the country home might ask similar questions: Who are “we”? What is my place as a citizen in this enterprise of America? What is my place on this land? Any honest answers require acknowledging the place of race. Anyone wondering how to live responsibly on Earth might face similar conflicts.

Trace your history; find your future. Start here.