Children’s Maps of the American Empire

MAHSHID MAYAR is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of British and American Studies at Bielefeld University, Germany. She is co-editor, with Marion Schulte, of the essay collection Silence and Its Derivatives: Conversations across Disciplines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), and is currently working on Erasure: Poetics, Politics, Performance, a book project that interrogates the politics and poetics of silence and silencing in contemporary US poetry.

Mayar’s research and teaching interests include historical childhood studies, 19th-century cultural history of the US, new empire studies, 21st-century protest poetry and political literature, the history of race and racialization, and critical game studies. In her first book, Citizens and Rulers of the World: The American Child and the Cartographic Pedagogies of Empire (University of North Carolina Press, 2022), Mayar deploys archival evidence to develop an understanding of turn-of-the-century American children as ambivalent cartographers. By focusing on the way children consumed, engaged with, and adapted the maps and mapping practices of the American Empire, Citizens and Rulers of the World endeavors to show how imperial pedagogy and cartography, once in children’s hands, became both a personal and a political site.

M. BUNA: Socializing turn-of-the-century American children into the ways of the empire relied on employing “home geography” as a pedagogical tool to underline the comfort and “civilization” of familiar spaces, as opposed to colonized or racialized ones. In Citizens and Rulers of the World, you contend that, far from being mere performers of adults’ scripts, “turn-of-the-century American children […] consumed geographic knowledge and produced spatial narratives and cognitive maps of their own.” What were the marks of the cartography they envisioned in response to inherited maps drawn by the imperial pedagogy of the colonizing machine?

MAHSHID MAYAR: Growing up at the turn of the 20th century, for many American children, also meant learning to view the world through the lens of “home geography.” While “home geography” had originally been developed in the earlier decades of the 19th century as a pedagogical method that promoted and prioritized a localized approach in school geography lessons, its late-19th-century drafts were a product of, but also in conversation with, a starkly different moment in US national history. As professional geographers such as William Morris Davis, Richard Elwood Dodge, and Clara Barbara Kirchwey re-popularized the method, they inevitably responded to the transnational whims of an empire that had stretched its dominion across the globe. Therefore, the drafts of “home geography” that I study in my book scripted far messier lessons in world geography as they recorded far more aggressive views of “home” in terms of what/where/whom it included and what/where/whom it excluded, both within and beyond the immediate borders of the United States. Thanks to “home geography” as an imperial pedagogic tool, white, well-to-do, literate American children not only lived in the safety of homes (housing their immediate families, but also, symbolically, the nation), but many of them also learned how to identify and imagine “homes” on the map of the world.

But what this duo of identification-imagination entailed was no less messy. On the one hand, as “home” became ever more closely associated with whiteness, literacy, hygiene, heteronormativity, and Christian values, the resident children of such “ideal” homes would look for spaces, both inside and outside the United States, that they could immediately, or after brief consideration, identify as comparable to the model. Such a comparative approach, which was strongly advocated by school geography teachers, was sure to result in an understanding of the world in which homes inevitably neighbored spaces that could be identified as non-homes. This turned school geography into a site where exclusionary, exceptionalist views of the world took root in childhood. On the other hand, children could also imagine what other homes and non-homes looked like, could fantasize about who lived in a home or was excluded from it. Consequently, the cognitive maps children developed, to which we have access through the scant archival records they left behind (i.e., geographical puzzles they designed and printed in juvenile periodicals), show great degrees of nativism and racism. As relatively marginal scraps in a multitude of records that I understand as scripts of empire, children’s cognitive maps further mixed nativism and the logic of colonization with playful, appropriative scalar confusion, and an intimate, often unquestioned sense of belonging to the global expanse of an empire that was no less saturated with the imperial views of those times.

Domestic playthings included dissected or “puzzle” maps that were more than mere educational toys provided by adults trying to administer children’s playtime. Writing that “dissected maps are both the ideological offspring and the material agents of colonial violence,” you bring up what you call reinscriptive cartography. How can this be a useful concept when trying to understand children’s pastimes in hindsight?

Dissected maps — that is, maps mounted on cardboard or wood and then cut into smaller pieces that children were to put back together — are a generative example of the ways imperial pedagogy (and the violence it promoted under the cover of such seemingly benign notions as “home geography”) found its place outside formal education, in children’s lives outside the classroom. I view these maps as “the ideological offspring and the material agents of colonial violence,” mainly because their very act of production — i.e., dissection of a larger cartographic whole into smaller units with a handsaw or scissors — most tangibly replicated the reckless violence inherent in the colonial practices of drawing up borders that resulted in displacement of peoples, cutting off their ties of kinship, and in genocide.

In return, playing with dissected maps was designed to keep children both silent and informed about the world the United States was keen on entering and colonizing; it invited children to assume a unique, complex role. Children would constantly vacillate between seeing themselves as cartographers in charge of the chaos of the various pieces and as reinscriptive cartographers who strove to restore the whole map out of its pieces. Therefore, in proposing to think of this pastime as reinscriptive cartography, I underline yet another clad-in-fun, innocent-looking aspect of imperial pedagogy that manifested itself in the form of playing with dissected maps (each consisting of smaller, cut-down spatial pieces), and amplified the colonial violence that defined any act of cartography in the age of empire. After all, it’s already a well-documented fact that, well before having been adopted as playthings in the United States, dissected maps had been designed to entertain and teach the children of King George III about the global spatial affairs of the British Empire.

As Robin Bernstein argues in her 2011 book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, “Most children — not just famous ones — are virtuoso performers of childhood, because most children understand with precision the behaviors that children’s things script.” Children devised their own geographical puzzles in order to develop their sense of belonging to a nation orchestrated by American adults. Is it fair to say, then, that children were not passive actors in this process?

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