Thursday, January 15, 2009

The South, Wrapped in Darkness

My brother and sister and I as children used to play, with great enthusiasm, "the map game" with my father. He had a world map, and a box of file cards with the names of countries, cities, rivers, islands, mountain ranges, lakes and oceans -- color coded, so which knew when he drew a card whether we'd be looking for a mountain range (yellow) or a body of water (blue). We each had a pointer, made from slender sticks that had once held the balloons they used to give away at Pietro's Pizza. He would draw a card -- we'd all note its color -- and then he'd announce, in his careful teacher's diction: "Atlas Mountains," or "Caspian Sea," or "Czechoslovakia." The first of us three to point to the place on the map won an M & M. We each of us had specialties: I specialized in mountains, so my heart leapt each time I saw a yellow-bordered card come out of the box.

In high school and college I played the marvelous historical games created in those days by Avalon Hill and SPI, played on beautifully rendered maps with superimposed grids. I was as familiar with the military problems and opportunities presented by the Pripyat Marshes of the Soviet Union as I was with the local bus routes.

But there are fuzzy areas in my geography. the places that have changed significantly are murky to me. It's hard for me to believe in the countries created in eastern Europe by the collapse of the Soviet Union: learning their boundaries and capitals seems to be beyond me. And then there's my ignorance of what by many standards is the heartland of humanity. China and India are simply huge blocks of land, to me. I know almost nothing of their provinces and geography. It's ludicrous that I know the exact shape of Idaho, with its handful of people, and nothing about the most populous lands in the world.

Prejudice creeps in. An inability to take people seriously results in an inability to learn their geography, and vice versa. I know the outlines of the states of western Europe by heart: given time I could draw them freehand with fair accuracy. Africa? Not a chance. I don't believe in the African nations, at some deep level. I think of them as made-up. It's partly a legacy of colonialism. As nation-states most of them were, of course, in some ways, made up. But the places are real enough, and so are the people who live there. I decided recently to force myself to learn the places. There's a certain circularity to this sort of insidious prejudice. If you don't know exactly where the place is, when you read about it in the paper, you take it less seriously. And then you're less likely to learn exactly where it is, because you don't take it seriously. And so on. I need to make Africa, eastern Europe, and the interiors of India and China real.

But what got me thinking about geography was reading about the Civil War, and realizing how sketchy my geography of the American South is. The rest of the country I know pretty well, but not the South. It's not an accident. The South made me deeply uneasy, as a child. I knew we'd fought a war with the South to destroy slavery. That stood clear in the light. But what had come after that was in pitch darkness. There was something that made the South impossible to speak about. I recognize it now, of course. Guilt. There were two pieces of it: one is that we held the South against its will. We were, or at least had been, an imperial power there: which called in question everything that America was supposed to stand for. And the other piece was that we had failed the slaves. Set them free and abandoned them. As the civil rights movement grew, that gradually came into focus. Light began to leak in. Memphis and Selma erupted into the news. But -- not so far as to illuminate the map. I didn't go to find them in an atlas. They were different. Not places that I wanted to exist.

So my geographical knowledge of the South remains stubbornly bad. I've tolerated a vagueness about it that I would never have tolerated about the rest of the country. I do not, for example, know which state Memphis is in, though the refrain of an old song comes to mind ("something something something, in Memphis Tennessee") which suggests it's a lot further north than I thought. There's a city of Columbia (unless it's Columbus), which is the capital of some southern state -- I think -- but I don't know which. All I know is that Sherman either burned it or tried to prevent it burning, depending on who you ask.

Of course, there are many people whose geography of everywhere is vague. My ignorance of these places only signifies because I have loved maps and pored over them all my life. And I have read detailed histories of the Civil War, complete with maps, and I still can't hold the places in my mind's eye.

So it's time to get some file cards, and drill myself a bit. By this time next week, I solemnly swear, I will know whether Columbus is actually Columbia, and what it's the capital of. And I will know where Memphis is.

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