Lauret Savoy signing books at the Providence Athenaeum.
Not far from the building where she teaches environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, Lauret Savoy once had these three hurtful words yelled at her as she attempted to cross a busy crosswalk: “Nigger, go home.”
It’s not uncommon, even today, for Savoy, a woman of mixed heritage, and other people of color to be on the receiving end of similar words of hate in the neighborhood that surrounds this liberal-arts college in South Hadley, Mass. That doesn’t make this western Massachusetts town unique.
Born in the early 1960s, Savoy grew up knowing racism, even if she didn’t recognize it as a young girl. During a recent discussion about her latest book, held at the Providence Athenaeum, she shared a story, long ago burned into memory, from her childhood.
When she was 7, Savoy’s family moved across the country, from California to Washington, D.C. Along the way, the young girl collected postcards to document her adventure. At one particular stop, Savoy recalled taking her “selected treasures to the cashier.” The cashier ignored her until there was no one else to be helped. When the 7-year-old reached out to pay, the cashier made sure not to touch the tiny, brown hand.
“When you experience racism, contempt, as a 7-year-old, you don’t know what it really means,” Savoy said. “But your foundation is rattled.”
Her new book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, is a response to her foundation being rattled. The book traces her Native-, African- and Euro-American ancestry across the United States in the hope of learning what her extended family experienced.
Savoy’s father, a “fair-skinned” man who died when she was young, introduced her to few relatives and spoke little about growing up in a segregated city. Her mother, a “dark-skinned” woman, was reluctant to share information about her experiences working as an Army nurse during World War II.
“I grew up not knowing where my parents came from or about the generations before them,” Savoy said. “I wanted to find my home. I needed to know, or I would continue to feel the emptiness I grew up with.”
The Leverett, Mass., resident is a self-described “Earth historian” who enjoys investigating the contours of the land to examine how the past helped shape the present. “Trace” combines cultural history, Savoy’s personal history and geography to tell a story about race in the United States. The book explores the way landscapes feature both broad national dialogue and voices that have been silenced by dominant culture.
Savoy said the book helped her answer questions that had “haunted me over time.” “We have quite a searing national history, and that past lives with us still,” she said.
During the March 11 discussion of “Trace,” Savoy read, beautifully, from a few chapters. She recounted the checkered history of Washington, D.C., reminding the packed room in the Providence Athenaeum that the country’s first president chose a location for the nation’s capital that would perpetuate slavery. For many years, she noted, a slave market was a common sight in the political center of this new “land of the free.”
“Washington wanted the capital near his plantation in Virginia,” said Savoy, noting that the White House was built on a tobacco plantation. “It had to be where slavery remained unmolested.”
She spoke about the things her childhood textbooks taught her about America — Native Americans, although in her books they were called Indians, for example, were useless, and blacks were once slaves. As a child, she wondered, “Will I be a slave?”
After the race riots of 1968, Savoy, then a young girl, wondered, “Should I also hate?”
Savoy noted that before 1963 the names of some 200 places in the United States contained the word “nigger.” The offensive name still lingers in places today — for example, the family hunting camp of Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas who ran for president in 2012 and 2016, is called “Niggerhead.” Visit the U.S. Bureau of Geographic Names Web site to find others.
Christina Bevilacqua, the Providence Athenaeum’s director of public engagement, bought “Trace” on a whim during a visit to New York City in December. She described Savoy’s book as a memoir, an explication of geographical history of the American landscape, and a personal excavation of the histories that have been erased from that landscape. She said it’s written by a geologist, but reads like something written by a poet.
After reading it, she reached out to Savoy to ask her to speak at the Athenaeum.
“I was especially happy to be able to present Lauret in our lineup ... she’s writing about a dimension of the national conversation on race that I haven't seen in any of the many incisive books and articles examining this national moment, namely the way that the history of race can be literally traced in the land,” Bevilacqua told the audience. “By the end of the book, I was seeing the world around me in a different way.”
A teacher, earth scientist, writer, photographer and pilot, Savoy’s courses at Mount Holyoke College explore the stories told of the American land’s origins, and the stories told of people on this land. The author of several other books, Savoy is a past winner of Mount Holyoke College’s Distinguished Teaching Award, has held fellowships from the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University, and is a fellow of the Geological Society of America.
Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.