American Panorama is a digital atlas of United States history created by the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. Cosmologics spoke with Robert K. Nelson, one of the co-editors of American Panorama, and Eric Rodenbeck, CEO of Stamen Design, design and technology partner for the project. Together, we explored the role that maps can play in transforming the way we imagine and visualize American history.
—Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: Do you hope that people think differently about American history after looking at the maps you’ve created? What new things do you want them to think about? How would you want their imagination of American history to be reshaped?
Robert K. Nelson: One of the motivations we had for mapping in the first place, is that it allows us to paint a portrait of history, in the case of the immigration map, that includes essentially the histories of everyone (with the exception of Native Americans) that lives in the United States. They can see themselves or their ancestors in that map—there is a quality to maps that lends itself to a democratic treatment. Obviously, you are looking at it at a particular scale and not in depth, but you can show, literally, tens of thousands, even millions of people, and something about their histories on the map.
We’re particularly interested in the history of race in this country, and in representing the exploitation and appropriation of black labor and black wealth during the course of American history. That’s most visible, in the “Forced Migration of Enslaved People” map and the “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America” maps that we’ve done. Although one is about the institution of slavery and the other is about real estate in the 20th century, they are both part of a larger story about white wealth being at the expense of the material welfare of African Americans.
Cosmologics: I was immediately struck by the focus on race. When you built these maps, did you think of them for classroom settings, for researching academics, or for the general public?
Robert K. Nelson: It’s for all three. I would put “the public” as the first audience. The nice thing about maps is that people seem to like them. After I worked on an earlier mapping project, I was struck by, and I wrote a short piece, about how people were calling historical maps, “map porn.” Now, we didn’t set out to develop “map porn.” At the same time, it’s a recognition that maps have an aspect of play and curiosity that evokes people’s desire for interactive experiences. The maps that we’ve put together are pretty, and if that evokes a kind of visual pleasure for people, that’s fine, and if they learn something about American history along the way, that’s all for the good.
We definitely see these for classroom use, particularly for high school and college. And I would love for my fellow historians to find these things of interest and useful. But they’re really the third audience we’re focused on. So far, none of the maps we’ve made have enough of an argument or an interpretation in them for historians. I think that they are great maps, but no one who works on the slave trade is going to learn anything from them that really transforms their understanding of that phenomenon. They’ll learn details, but the maps are not enough of an intervention in the questions currently preoccupying historians for us to think of them as a primary audience.
Cosmologics: Yes, you might think of the “Foreign-Born Population” map as an assertion that everyone in the United States, besides Native Americans, originates from someplace else, which undercuts any group that might claim to be “more American” than other groups in the country.
Robert K. Nelson: You’re exactly right. The way we tried to hint at that is the subtitle of the map, in which we call America a “nation of overlapping diasporas.” That was partly to make the point that immigrants maintain material, emotional, and political ideological ties to their homelands, and their descendants do as well. These descendants sometimes consider themselves to be part of a diaspora. There is a geographic element to that, that this overlapping does not create a melting pot which becomes racially homogeneous, but that even dating back to the nineteenth century, the descendants tend to be concentrated to the parts of the country to which they migrated.
Cosmologics: Yes, there’s a continuous flow represented by the map—the countries change—but it’s a statement that at the end of the day, everyone originates from someplace else.
Robert K. Nelson: Yes, but the map also shows the drop off that happens over the twentieth century due to early twentieth-century nativism, in which quotas were set that prevented people of color from Asia or Africa from immigrating, as well as groups from Eastern Europe. So, you can point to the “Foreign-Born Population” map and say, “yes that this is a nation of immigrants.” But you can also point at that map and see that the ebbs and flows are not just related to the desires or needs of people from other parts of the world emigrating to the United States. The shape of the map is driven by US policies and whether they were welcoming or not welcoming to groups of immigrants.
Eric Rodenbeck: For instance, in that map you can see the rise of Chinese immigration to places like Alameda, San Francisco, and Nevada that rises throughout the nineteenth century, and then around 1900 vanishes entirely. And then there is a gap between 1910 and 1960 where, at least according to the census records, there are no Chinese people living in San Francisco at all. In looking at the data, Rob told us it was due to the Asian Exclusion Act, right Rob?
Robert K. Nelson: Yes.
Eric Rodenbeck: One of the side effects was that not only was immigration severely restricted, but that foreign-born non-whites were not included in the census. This really only changed after the Civil Rights Act.
For us, the exciting part as designers and story tellers is that omissions in the data can be as telling as the actual stories. I have a little different view than Rob, because I’m not an academic, but for me these maps are a tool to give people specific things to point to when discussing these histories. When I tell this story, it really takes people aback, that we had such a racist immigration policy that you weren’t even allowed to count the yellow people.
There is where maps and good design enable a storytelling that is not just about academic arguments. That’s not to say that it’s not important to make academic arguments, but it’s also important to tell stories of American history that resonate deeply with people.
Cosmologics: Would you talk more about how you went about doing this collaboration?
Robert K. Nelson: All this was funded by a grant by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which allowed us to work with a commercial partner like Stamen. It’s been a great experience from my perspective. We presented them with some prospectuses and early sketches for the maps that we envisioned. Those have some resemblance to what ended up being released, but our sketches were certainly not as visually engaging. They were somewhat flat, design-wise. So working with people who have a great eye for user interface, for visual design, and who are familiar with the most cutting-edge cartographic techniques, that certainly substantially elevated the end product. They would have been fine if we had done them ourselves, but they wouldn’t be the same. We’re definitely much improved by working with the smart people at Stamen.
Eric Rodenbeck: It’s been a wonderful partnership. For us, for me, it’s hard to work without an expert on the other side. I’m not an expert in American history: I mean, I’m a child of immigrants, and I have that perspective on that, but it changes the character of the project to work with expert historians. For instance, in the enslaved Americans map, you can see the relentless logic of the sale of excess human beings. I was able to see the patterns by which slave counties that were importing slaves twenty years prior flipped after they reached peak slave saturation and became slave-producing states. And for us, to translate the stories that Rob is so deeply invested in—the imperatives of cotton picking and the brutality of slavery—that brought home to me what an incredibly exploitative enterprise slavery was for so long. That children were seen as a resource to be sold off—it’s horrible. On the one hand, it’s this incredibly dry set of data: birth rates, important rates, tariffs and such, but on the other hand, it’s the complete commodification of an entire class of human beings. It’s shocking. I wasn’t expecting to be as personally affected by it as I was.
Cosmologics: It seems to me that your partnership shows how powerful collaborations between people with different skill sets and expertise can be. In other words, when we think of digitizing the humanities or making the humanities digitally conversant, we don’t insist that humanists necessarily take on new technical expertise in computational modeling or programming, for instance.
Robert K. Nelson: It is the case that we certainly learned a lot from the partnership, and the cartographic design and programming expertise that Stamen brought definitely elevated the project. At the same time, we do a lot of stuff in house here. The most recent map we did, on redlining, we did post Stamen, using the tools that they built and building on top of them. I’m hedging here a little bit, because I do think it is helpful for people who are going to bring computational techniques to any humanistic disciplines to have more sophisticated tools or techniques. It’s not requisite by any means, I would never say that. At the same time, the people who are doing the most interesting work in digital history or digital literary criticisms are engaged with those tools. That said, there are certainly some great projects that have involved collaborations between academics and software developers. I would point to Vince Brown’s Jamaica’s slavery vault project, for instance, as an example.
Eric Rodenbeck: From our perspective, working with academics is incredibly satisfying. If I have any sort of mission, it is to tell real stories, and this is about as real as it can get. Especially in this new reactionary weird age that we’re heading into, I think that public/private partnerships like this are actually really important. I’m hearing a lot from other academic groups that when they are looking for federal aid and grants that it’s important for them to have a private partner.
Cosmologics: That’s very encouraging to hear. And I think that you’re right that there is a kind of collaboration, but also a solidarity, that can come from these types of partnerships.
Eric Rodenbeck: These are dangerous times that we are moving into, and I think that presenting history that has some resemblance to what actually happened, rather than some vague fiction, is important. And it’s important to be very up front about that. The Civil War was not about states’ rights. It was about slavery. You can see that in the maps. And we’re not a nation of natives, we’re a nation of immigrants, you can see it in the maps. I don’t want to want to make a claim that there is nothing to argue about, but we need to be on the side of what is true, and not the fictions of this kind of nativist bullshit.
Cosmologics: I would describe the histories that you have put together as data-heavy, well-evidenced histories. Do you see these histories as directly intervening in the political moment we’re in?
Eric Rodenbeck: It would be for me.
Robert K. Nelson: I don’t know if I would put it quite that it bluntly, but I do think that we are pointing out aspects of history that have to be reckoned with; you can call that politics or you can just call that learning from the past. The past can have direct or indirect bearing on the situation that we’re in today.
For instance, we’re still grappling with the wealth inequality between families of color and white families, and part of that is the legacy of redlining, and the continued disparities and access to financing, that people of color continue to face in the US.
I’m glad that people get it viscerally when they look at the redlining map—they’re often struck by the close resemblance to the cities that we live in today, and you can see how little has changed in terms of the landscape of inequality in American cities. So many of them are shockingly recognizable, and you see that the way a city is, is not an accident, it was made by policy.
Cosmologics: If you want to ask why a certain part of town is poor, and the people who live there are poor, rather than asking: what are their actions, what have they done, what are their insufficiencies; you instead see a set of top down decisions that created the space. It’s shocking, actually.
Eric Rodenbeck: I think it is really shocking. In the redlining maps that Rob put together you can see the forms that real estate people used to fill out when describing the health of a neighborhood; on the form there’s usually an entry that says “percent negro.” And that wasn’t written by a racist outlier real estate agent, that was part of the forms that the feds sent. It was considered important enough to track. Put it this way, it was considered a fact about the neighborhood in the same way as elevation and population. There’s questions on it like occupation, and and a lot of times people will fill out “negro.” In that moment, in that small bit of bureaucratic functioning, is the whole apparatus of racism, and oppression, and of systematic exclusion. It’s not merely you got passed over because of affirmative action. Rather, throughout the whole history of the country, they were tracking the percent negro of a neighborhood. How does it get clearer that people have systematically been treated differently? I don’t see how it does.
Cosmologics: And maps are a unique way to deal with the whole weight of data in a form that someone can experience very quickly. There is a weight of evidence, but then also, an ease of imagining.
Finally, are you making more maps?
Robert K. Nelson: Yes, we’re working on one about urban renewal. It’s really a sequel to the redlining map, because in some cases urban renewal was called “negro removal.” We’re also working with one of our collaborators on the history of Congress. And we’re potentially going to be thinking about one with some students, it would be a very modest one, but a map of the foreign travels of presidents and secretaries of state. So yes, there’s a lot in the hopper.
Robert K. Nelson is the director of the Digital Scholarship Lap at the University of Richmond.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor of Cosmologics and Assistant Professor in Classics & World Religions and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Ohio University.