I owe this framed map of the post-colonial United States, which hung in my parents’ den for many years while I was growing up, an immense debt.
For starters, it invokes happy memories of my parents and of a secure, childhood of storytelling and enriched learning. The prominent place this map once occupied in our ranch-style home speaks speaks volumes about them – their training as public school teachers as well as their profound sense of patriotism. Indeed this map arguably embodies the immense pride that many Americans, particularly in my hyper-patriotic native region of northwest Alabama, took in their country in the years following World War II, as America ascended to the pinnacle of greatness.
These sorts of images, which were routinely displayed in medical and dental offices all over the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, not only were intended to invoke national pride but also served, however unintentionally, as a reminder of the protracted human struggle involved in settling this vast continent. For many Americans, most assuredly my parents, these sorts of images stirred memories of accounts that had been passed down by their pioneering forebears.
Incidentally, I find it interesting that this image, which is at least 55 years old, also paid homage to the many indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent.
Aside from invoking happy memories of my parents and childhood, I also credit it with instilling me with a life-long passion for history and geography. And in roughly the mid-Seventies, after Mom replaced this map with something else, I ended up displaying it prominently in my bedroom in close proximity to my model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which I suspended from my ceiling.
Looking back, it’s amazing to me how this depiction of post-Colonial America provided a conceptual scaffolding for subsequent learning. Case in point: I remember reading about the conquest and division of Germany after WWII and how only its western half – a part that not considered as the historical defining core of German national identity – carried on as the only fully sovereign German nation from its establishment in 1949 to German reunification in 1990.
Indeed, reading about all of this for this first time brought me back to this old map. I related Germany’s post-war plight to a scenario in which the United States was conquered by some foreign power, which, after a period of time, allowed only the section of the country west of the Mississippi to reorganize and govern itself as as a reconstituted American Republic.
I could picture this truncated western American republic just as it appeared on this map, boldly asserting its independence and marshaling its resources to reacquire sometime in the future the section of the country that had once defined American nationhood, much as Soviet-dominated Prussia once represented the bedrock of German identity. This comparison helped me understand what a psychological burden this conquest and division must have imposed on the Germans.
And, of course, I drew similar comparisons from my reading of the conquest and division of France into Nazi- and Vichy-occupied regions in 1940. Relating France’s conquest to that old map helped me understand immense sense of dispossession and shame that Nazi conquest imposed on them.
Needless to say, the map’s depiction of the rich matrix of Native American cultures that occupied the the vast North American continent underscored the massive dispossession and relocation that followed European settlement of the so-called Back Country in the 19th century.
Little did my folks know that this display of a map would prove to be such an invaluable aid for visual learning.
Small wonder why I feel such a strong sentimental attachment to this old map. It ended up providing me with a trove of lessons related to history, culture, geography and geopolitics. And I am grateful to my parents for displaying it in a prominent place in our home.
I just wish that more kids had exposure to this sort of rich visual imagery at a young age.