Lauret Savoy, the author of “Traces: Memory, History, Race, and The American Landscape,” shared her revelations when she uncovered parts of her family legacy and lost memories from United States history.
As part of the Keene Is Reading program, author and professor Savoy was invited to read parts of her book and incorporate a discussion amongst faculty members and students. This year, the program is focused on environmental writing, involving the history of New England communities and exploring the region’s place in a wider context.
Savoy began her speech by asking the crowd two questions: “What keeps you up at night?” and secondly, “What dreams haunt you?” Evidently, Savoy explained that is how she began her journey, trying to dig up the hidden secrets of her past, exploring both her white European ancestry and her African American one.
She struggled to find her place in the world, even to this day, because she couldn’t come to terms with what is home and where is her place in the world. Then, she went onto ponder, “Over time, over history, what do generations of instance mean?” Not only did she ponder her originality and her place in the world, but she called upon others to answer that question for themselves as well.
A adventure of self-discovery
Savoy shared her personal journeys through a tough childhood upbringing, traveling to various continents and uncovering hidden documents — even researching the history of American landscapes, ancient burial grounds and the origins of last names. She said she was able to gain an in-depth understanding of why she is here and why certain traditions have come to be.
“All of these journeys grapple with a bigger picture — trying to understand much of the unvoiced past,” she said. This included discovering the beginning of the U.S. – Mexican border and the origin of the United States Capitol.
In an excerpt from her book, Savoy shared a glimpse of her past from a chapter called “Postcards.” As a seven-year-old girl, Savoy walked over to a shop’s postcard rack and observed the beautiful national parks and landscapes with childlike wonder. “She seeks for home beyond California’s coast, to canyons, deserts and mountains,” said Savoy.
Savoy remembered approaching the register and the clerk stared at her with impatience and discontent. With her own money, she paid 60 cents for all six postcards, then brought them back to her shaggy motel room and displayed them on top of her bed, Savoy explained. “That night, while she stared at each postcard…she wondered if each bright place was enough,” said Savoy, quoting her book.
This story subtly hints at some of the issues Savoy struggled with throughout her life: racial disparity, a poor upbringing and a struggle to find her own identity.
During the presentation, Savoy went on to explain the decision to place the White House in current day Washington D.C., wedged between Maryland and Virginia. Public History described the founding of the Nation’s Capitol in generic terms. The Residence Act of 1790 determined that George Washington could choose a place of residence to establish the federal government’s permanent seat, along the Potomac River.
Savoy said the then-president, George Washington, wanted the placement to be in the south — not too far from his slaves and plantations. In those times, many depended upon the labor of their slaves to make a living, especially federal officials who could not be bothered with the brunt of the work.
In her words, she described the U.S. Capitol as always being tied to slavery. “Nearly half of the nation’s slaves, 700,000 souls, were held in bondage in just Virginia and Maryland,” Savoy cited from the Federal Census of 1790.
Getting to know her father
A man from the back of the crowd, who has read Savoy’s book, “Traces,” asked about the significance of finding her father’s box, which hid his old writings and a few novel manuscripts that were never published.
“My father was a very silent man,” she began to explain, “but at the time, I couldn’t understand that.” He died when she was only 16 years old, and long after his death, 10 years ago, she discovered a box with his handwriting on it. “In that box, I found a father I never knew,” she said.
There was a collection of writings, old letters and photographs as old as the 19th century by William Savoy. “My father was a man who dreamed himself a writer, but by the time I was born, he didn’t — he didn’t do anything that seemed to give him joy.” But alas, she discovered her father’s inner desires and internal conflicts by reading his writing; from there, she began to understand the reason for his suppressed nature and almost bitter resentment.
Some KSC English major students attended Lauret Savoy’s presentation, among other “Keene is Reading” programmed events.
KSC first-year Kiana Wright said she attended the event not knowing what to expect. “At first, I didn’t fully understand what Traces was about, but her speech was really inspiring and it made me look at the world in a new way,” she said.
English professor and program coordinator, William Stroup, said a few in regard to The Keene is Reading program and their theme this year, environmental writing. “I want to introduce authors that haven’t been represented nearly enough in American and world literature,” he said. “Her work spreads across threads of cultural identity, describing their relation with and dislocation with the land. She brings her geological training to each new project.”
The story wrapped up the evening’s event and the audience was left with a call to action: to find the why’s, the how’s and the when’s of our placement in the world in order to find our own identities.
To find out more on Keene is Reading, visit their webpage on the keene.edu website. In order to become a more productive reader, students can read recommended novels from their professors and come to see these authors speak on campus.
Katie Jensen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org