TracePosted: June 20, 2022
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret E. Savoy
Counterpoint (November 1, 2015), 256 pages
reprinted with a new preface by the author in 2021
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $15.94
I suppose one might classify Trace as a memoir, but there are a lot of moving parts in this book. It contains travelogue, history, geography, geology, and genealogy. Savoy is on a quest for her roots.
She opens the book with a recollection of a childhood visit to the Grand Canyon. Her parents incorporated this visit, as well as visits to other national parks, as part of the family’s move from California to Washington, DC. Her father decided he would be in a better position to fight for racial equality if he were based in the nation’s capital.
Savoy’s story is centered on the fact that her parents were both of primarily African American background, but her father was light-skinned and could (sometimes) pass for white, while her mother was dark-skinned and never had that luxury.
The author writes about Oklahoma’s geography, mentioning the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, two rivers which I knew well back in my Oklahoma days of the 1980s. She writes about how the five civilized tribes (she uses lower case and quotes in naming the people) could own Black people as slaves, a background from which her mother might have come. She says that while only an “elite few” did so, “more than seven thousand people with African blood lived in bondage in Indian Territory on the eve of the Civil War.”
Savoy offers a history of the early days in Oklahoma when free Black people founded towns in which they thought they could create productive lives for themselves. This was before the territory became a state governed by white men.
As a nature writer (at least in part), Savoy appreciates the nature writers who came before her. As a teenager she read the iconic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and wondered how, as an American author, his only mention of slavery could be in reference to ancient Greece. She writes, “I so feared that his ‘we’ and ‘us’ excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America.”
Savoy describes the Washington, DC in which she lives as a youngster. She also delves deeply into the history of the city. It seems that it was located where it was partly because George Washington didn’t want to be far from his slave holdings or have the nation’s capital in a city (Philadelphia) that was antagonistic to the idea of enslaving people. Further, slave owners were a powerful lobby, and that helped ensure that slavery was legal there. (I recall Michelle Obama’s reflection in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”)
The author offers a brief history of the Southwest and notes how the original agreed-upon border between Texas and Mexico was the Nueces River. The government in Washington, however, decided that the proper place for the border was the Rio Grande, fifty to a hundred and fifty miles to the south.
Savoy paints a vivid portrait of a military base in Arizona where her mother served as a nurse. During World War II the base held prisoners of war, including Nazis. In that era, in that environment, the white Nazi prisoners had more rights and privileges than the African Americans on the base who were United States citizens and officers in the US Army.
Laurent Savoy has much to say about American history, identity, and racism. We need to listen to her.