By Jourdan Keith
About Lauret Savoy
Lauret Savoy is the author of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, in which she weaves personal experience and historical inquiry to explore how ideas of race have marked the American landscape. The book is a finalist for the 2016 PEN American Open Book Award. She is also the co-editor of The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World and Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology.
She spoke with me from the campus of Mount Holyoke College, where she is a professor of environmental studies and geology. We talked about the moments that shaped her personal and professional path—and what she calls the legacy of “human erosion.” Her work pushes back against silences, both in her family and in this country’s history, as a way of trying to discover how the past marks a person, a people, and the land.
As a woman of mixed African, European, and Indigenous ancestry, Savoy realized that one of those marks was a loss of “linguistic tributaries” or her connection to ancestral languages arising in Africa and Native America. “These languages informed how you met the world, how you were in dialect with the world,” Savoy says. The languages that were available for her as a student “kept her in Europe’s realm,” and so like many of us of African and Indigenous descent, Savoy says, “I don’t know what I’ve lost from Africa. I don’t know what I’ve lost from Native America. But the silences include more than loss of languages. What we are often left with are narratives of the past that are flattened and dismembering, that do not give a full dimension to ancestors, to our origins, to who we are to each other and to this land.”
The book Trace helps readers to understand, as the author puts it, not emptiness but elements that give more dimensions to who we are and what it means to be a citizen of this country. She is currently researching her next project, On the River’s Back, which explores the history of her father’s family and of the Chesapeake land.
Jourdan Keith: You work on campus with young people. What do you hope will happen to a young adult reading your book that you are looking forward to seeing in the future?
Lauret Savoy: That’s a great question. No one has asked before. They should have. I think there are many different things that I would hope a young person or a student here might take from this. Perhaps my story, or some part of my story, might remind them of some of what they have either questioned or felt unsettled about as a child, or what they might even be facing now, here in college. I think those who have had classes with me, or those who have read this book or are reading it, know that I am a woman who has taken many turns in her life, has made many mistakes. The path has never been straight and that’s hard to admit. But it is important to admit what was driven by fear, the expectations of others, by a felt need to prove that I was good enough, even at the same time I was fighting back.
And one thing I hope that not only young people hear and recognize, but that anyone reading the book recognizes, is that I may be a witness who is trying to remember—that is, who is trying to piece together a story—but I am far from alone. What I try to do in the book speaks to very common concerns, and one is that we all carry history within us. The past becomes present in who we are and what we think and do.
And the question that I ask in this narrative, and I ask many questions, but one of the overarching ones is: Who are we in this place called the United States? How are we all marked by this country’s history? And how does the past, and often a past that has been unvoiced—you know that Al Gore has used the term an “inconvenient truth”—how does an inconvenient past or an inconvenient history mark a person, an individual, that is, but also mark a society? And mark the American land itself?
And I would hope that young people and readers of all sorts would see that these are questions they are asking or might be asking.
Jourdan Keith: I was struck by the beauty of the language and your self-theory that “the beauty of golden light and deep blue sky made me.” It reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston when she said she thought the moon was hers. She also struggled with suddenly being perceived as colored. Where did that come from in you? When did you realize that colored was other to white world?
Lauret Savoy: When you mention golden light and deep blue sky, I can remember where I was, exactly, the time of day. The memory is sharp. I am five years old and it’s on the back porch, my bedroom porch in California in Los Angeles, late day and the porch faced west. And from there, with sun illuminating me, that golden light seemed to embrace everything. My skin color seemed to take on the cast of the sunlight.
And I believed then that, yes, sun made my skin, and at the same time I am looking out to the north, seeing the hills, seeing them take on that cast of light. It was as if we were twins at that point. And then, in that golden sunset, the northern sky is deep blue and I am looking again at the inside of my arms and seeing my veins coursing with blue, and I couldn’t think of any other way that I could have come to be—beyond being a child of sky, a child of sun. If I heard the term “colored” then, I know that I could only think that colored meant being made by sun and sky.
It was in second-grade recess on a gray day when I found out that colored meant something else. I was on the playground at Campus School in Washington D.C. and one of my classmates walked up to me and he said, “You’re colored, aren’t you?” And the tone he used was not a tone of golden light and deep blue sky. It was a very derisive tone, as derisive as a seven-year-old going on eight could make it. It was so troubling that I remember running to ask my teacher, Sister Mary Richard Ann, who couldn’t really say much and only made the mystery more troubling.
I asked my parents that night…. This was a time when D.C. had already been going through riots after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. And so at that point, “colored” became associated with race for me. At that time I was also spat upon while wearing my favorite dress that my mom had made. So all at once, a world that I thought I understood, that I felt self-possessed in, the way a child could only feel, just fell apart. Completely fell apart.
Lauret Savoy: They explained that “colored” meant different things to different people and that for some people, especially white people, “colored” meant that you were an other. That’s not the language that they used; it’s just how I am trying to articulate the moment through memory. I took from it that “colored” meant something that wasn’t beautiful…. It was also the time of the Vietnam War and so much violence. I not only lost sense of who I was but what the world was… the world became more of a trial than a home.
Jourdan Keith: You are a professor of environmental studies and geology. I know a lot of people have probably asked you this, but I would like to know the moment or perhaps it’s many moments when you knew, when you said that’s it, that’s what I want to do for my work.
Lauret Savoy: I would say that since childhood I have always been drawn to stories of the American land, of its origins. And I’m also very much drawn to stories that we tell of ourselves in this land. As a child, I wanted to do everything including being a park ranger, an interpretative ranger at national parks who gets to wear the cool uniform and the great hat and tell these stories to visitors. I wanted to do that. But I also wanted to be an artist, an artist who essentially narrates stories of Earth using earth materials: the clay, the mud, for sculpture, but also a photographer who photographs Earth’s patterns.
I graduated from high school when I was 17. When I went to college, it wasn’t long after my father died and to say I was lost or spinning or reeling is an understatement. Those were difficult years. Some older male faculty told me that I had no rightful place being there, at Princeton—that based on my skin color and based on my gender I was taking the rightful place of someone who deserved to be there. I didn’t trust in myself enough or believe in my dreams enough to resist their discouragement.
I had gone there initially wanting to pursue art. Then I thought of studying American history, because I wanted to learn how people lived on the land, how they interacted with it, how they defined themselves on the basis of the land. Finally, I turned to geology in part because I believed if I majored in a science—a science that allowed me to study the land and understand how Earth works—as a scientist I would be taken more seriously. And at the same time I believed that with a geologic background I could use it to reconnect with history, to reconnect with art and literature. That was my idea.
I should have prefaced my answer by saying that one of the early lessons I learned as a child was that the land didn’t hate, that people did. I sought refuge in wild lands. In the national parks we visited or even Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., or any place where I could interact with nature and not be judged, not be hated, not be spat upon. I also realized that Earth was much older than humans and that its antiquity preceded hate. So deep time became as much a refuge as any place. That also influenced my decision to choose geology.
Jourdan Keith: Yes, I remember them.
Lauret Savoy: Well, I have to tell you this story. On weekend afternoons, when I was a child in Washington, D.C., one of the local TV stations would show a marathon of old movies from noon to 6 p.m., movies that were made in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and 1960s. One of them was a movie with Lucy and Desi playing a newlywed couple who travel cross country for their honeymoon with this long, long trailer. That is the name of the movie, The Long, Long Trailer. So they stopped at all these national parks along the way and wherever they went Lucy would pick up rocks. Not hand-sized rocks. She would pick up boulders and collect them and put them in the trailer. So when they had to climb up over a high mountain pass with the trailer, Desi tells Lucy they will never make it with all of the boulders and that she must get rid of them. Knowing Lucy, of course, she doesn’t do it. She hides them. I won’t tell you the rest of the movie and what happens in case you want to see it. It was such a fun romp of a movie that I know it contributed to my wanting to collect rocks as well.
Jourdan Keith: I have to find this movie now.
When you are speaking, you speak in layers.
Lauret Savoy: I am?
Jourdan Keith: Well, I hear it in layers. You are speaking of the personal, the larger scheme of what’s happening outside. It’s like a personal geology. If you were to name one place, one landscape, that maybe others could see, that you feel in some way echoes who you are, a location—where would it be?
Lauret Savoy: That echoes who I am? Oh, my gosh, what a question! Of course, I cannot think of just one place. I write about the Devil’s Punchbowl, in the San Andreas Fault zone. It’s a place that shows deformation, twisting, dislocation—yet at the same time, it maintains an integrity, a wholeness, it’s a place unto itself. And the past, the movements, the dislocations, the erosion, the uplift, the twisting—the records of all that are still there. Yes, in some ways I would think of that place.
But at the same time, because you mention layers, of course, I return to one of the places that I visited when my parents moved from the West Coast to the East Coast. It’s a place that really opened my sense to grand possibility and to a way of seeing and being in the world that I couldn’t have imagined before. This is the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, standing at Point Sublime: seeing the strata, the strata of the canyon walls and the erosion that made the beautiful patterns there. So that erosion can take away, it can cause loss, yet it leaves a remnant. It leaves traces.
For the books that informed Savoy’s work on Trace, read Words That Fed Trace: Recommended Reads by Lauret Savoy.
Header photo of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon by Simmons B. Buntin.