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Olmsted & Peters

Olmsted’s work impressed upon me the vast differences existing between our (and, specifically, my group’s) attempt at understanding the African American experience in antebellum Texas and his attempt at understanding the cultural experience of people in antebellum Texas. Largely his work wasn’t so much of an ethnographic study as it was more simply a travel writing piece where he listed his own experiences, assumptions, and opinions. This method of explaining Texas and advocating for abolition is markedly different from the processes my group and I are currently pursuing. My group and I are focusing primarily on asking ourselves questions about our question – mine, specifically, deals with the issue of defining “experience” and how to understand someone else’s experience apart from my own and my own preconceived expectations of another person’s experience. In this way, rather than attempt some version of ethnography or a throwback to our cemetery projects (where we largely detailed our own personal impressions and observations), I am trying to find a mindset that both acknowledges the bias of my own expectations and culture as well as sets it aside in order to objectively evaluate and analyze aspects of another person and culture’s experience. It seems to me that Olmsted never moved past the Cemetery Project, listing only his own impressions and observations.

However, this is not to say that he ever meant to go beyond these preliminary findings, and this is certainly not to say that what he did observe and how he reported upon it aren’t fascinating in themselves. What particularly captured my attention is what Dr. Stockton so eloquently called, “a geography of racism.” In reconsidering this concept, it occurs to me that – especially given Taylor’s assertion about the racism pitted against the Irish – perhaps we should further clarify by saying, “a geography of racism against Native and African Americans.” The racism (at least as they have been portrayed in Olmsted’s writings) against these two groups seems to be shaped a bit like a pine tree, covering a wide berth down south while petering off a bit more farther north. However, this seems, in my opinion, like it could be largely due simply to the fact that there weren’t as many African or Native Americans living in the Northern states during the 19th Century as were in the South.

I’ve heard it said by Deep South Southerners that “our racism is better than their [Northern] racism because at least we live next door to them [non-whites] and don’t hide our [non-whites] from ourselves.” Of course, this statement is to be contended on a number of fronts (primarily that ghettos are becoming much more prevalent in Texas than, I suppose, they used to be). But I think the message is clear in that racism isn’t purely a Southern problem, but one which is much brighter and easier to see than it often is up North simply because the Northern states and cities – New York City being a prime example – are so ethnically diverse that the racism against any one group is often diluted or diverted by the prejudice held against another group. These types of negotiations and ethnic hierarchies have been commented on in hundreds of thousands of texts from Olmsted’s letters to Puzo’s “The Godfather.”

And this leads me to the Peters World Map (http://www.petersmap.com/table.html) which, I think, eloquently displays the persisting geographies of racism. The Peters World Map is a group who seek to map the world as it “truly” is under a variety of perceptions and not simply as we modernly perceive it to be due to the ethnocentricity of early cartographers.

Example:

This new type of map reveals that because of Western biases, Europe and the United States are much smaller than we normally conceive of them in comparison to, say, Africa or Greenland – all because bigger translates to better. The same is also true of location because, as you can see, South America and Africa are actually much higher up on the map than we normally see them and the United States is less central – in this way, the cartographers of the Peters World Map are working to correct the assumptions made by certain geographical racisms. I agree with Olmsted in that people are deeply influenced by their environments, though not only their physical environments, but of how they perceive those environments to be (in the context of the rest of the world). This may be seen his constant references to how the climate of Texas may explain their actions such as seen on page 296:

“Nothing can be more lamentable than the condition of the wandering tribes. They are permanently on the verge of starvation. Having been forced back, step by step, from the hunting-grounds and the fertile soil of Lower Texas to the bare and arid plains, it is no wonder they are driven to violence and angry depredations.” (Olmsted)

Thus, I’ve looped myself back around to the beginning of this blog and my sub-question – given our preconceptions of the world and of others, how can I (and we as a group) work to explain or describe the experience of African Americans (enslaved and freedmen alike) without placing upon them our own cultural biases and assumptions (much as we often critiqued Galland of doing)?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 8, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I think your statement about racism in the south versus racism in a place like New York city is very interesting, but I do have a slight problem with it. You seemed to claim that Texas and New York breed the same amount of racism, it is simply more evident in Texas because in New York it is difficult to exhibit racism toward any one group due to the eclectic mix of people. I would argue that because of this eclectic mix in New York, racism has, in fact, subsided and that it is going to take not only population growth in Texas but multiracial population growth to see the same results as in New York. There is, of course, still a lot of racism in the north as well as in New York City, but I think that because it is more difficult to single one race out, it is more difficult to gang up on one race with a group of people, and therefore, it is not as easy to have your opinions validated and stretched. Instead, there is not always a safe place or group to address racial concerns so racist views are not corroborated and ultimately weaken. That might seem very jumbled. I apologize!

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