An Interview with Mahshid Mayar about the American Empire’s Maps for Children
MAHSHID MAYAR is a postdoctoral researcher at Bielefeld University at Germany’s Department of British and American Studies. With Marion Schulte, she is co-editor of Silence and its Derivatives: Conversations across Disciplines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), and is now working on a book project that examines the political and lyrical aspects of silence in modern American poetry.
History of race and racialization, protest poetry and politics, and critical game studies are some of Mayar’s research and teaching interests, as are historical childhood studies and 19th-century cultural history of the United States. As a cartographer, Mayar uses archival data to construct an understanding of turn-of-the-century American children as ambivalent cartographers in her first book, Citizens and Rulers of the World: The American Child and the Cartographic Pedagogies of Empire (North Carolina Press, 2022). Through an examination of the ways in which children interacted with and adapted imperial cartography, Citizens and Rulers of the World aims to demonstrate how imperial pedagogy and cartography became a personal and political site for children.
M. BUNA: Using “home geography” as a pedagogical strategy to emphasise the comfort and “civilization” of familiar settings, rather than colonial or racist ones, was an important part of the imperial education of turn-of-the-century American children. You argue in Citizens and Rulers of the World that “turn-of-the-century American youngsters […] devoured geographic information and developed spatial narratives and cognitive maps of their own” rather than merely acting out the scripts of adults. Their solution to the imperial pedagogy of the conquering machine’s maps was to create their own cartography.
MAHSHID MAYAR: For many American children, growing up around the start of the twentieth century meant learning to see the world through the prism of “home geography. It was first conceived in the early 19th century as a technique of teaching geography in schools that supported and stressed a localised approach, but its late-19th-century versions were not only a product of, but also in conversation with, a very different time in American history. William Morris Davis, Richard Elwood Dodge and Clara Barbara Kirchwey re-popularized the approach as the transnational whims of an empire stretched its sway throughout the globe became more and more prevalent in the United States. “Home geography” that I examine in my book, on the other hand, was drafted to be a messier lesson in international geography since it included and omitted considerably more people and places, both within the United States’ local boundaries as well as outside of them. White, well-to-do, literate American children benefitted from “home geography” as an imperial pedagogic tool because they could not only live safely in their homes (which housed both their immediate families and the nation as a whole), but they could also learn how to identify and imagine “homes” on the map of the world.
However, the process of identifying and imagining oneself was no less complicated. For example, as “home” became increasingly associated with whiteness, literacy and hygiene and heteronormativity, the children of such “ideal” homes would look for places both inside and outside the United States that they could immediately or after a brief consideration identify as similar to the model. On the other hand School geography professors aggressively promoted a comparison approach that would result in an understanding of the world where non-houses unavoidably surrounded homes. School geography became a breeding ground for the development of excluding and exceptionalist views of the world. Other houses and non-homes were also imagined by youngsters, who may imagine who resided in or was excluded from a home. Children’s nativism and racism may be shown in their cognitive maps, which we can access through the few archival documents they left behind (i.e., geographical puzzles they made and printed in juvenile publications). Children’s cognitive maps, though small pieces in the vast tapestry of empire’s scripts, mixed nativism and colonial logic with playful, appropriative scalar confusion and an intimate, often unquestioned sense of belonging to the global expanse of an empire no less saturated with imperial views at the time.
There were more than just educational toys in the domestic playthings given by adults seeking to manage children’s playtime by adults who dissected or “puzzled.” Reinscriptive mapping, as you put it, is “the intellectual offspring and the material agents of colonial violence,” as you write. In retrospect, how can we apply this approach to better understand children’s hobbies?
Imperial pedagogy (and the violence it promoted under the guise of such seemingly benign notions as “home geography”) found its place outside of formal education, in children’s lives outside of the classroom, through the use of dissected maps, which were maps mounted on cardboard or wood and then cut into smaller pieces that were to be put back together. As a result, I see these maps as “the ideological offspring and the material agents of colonial violence,” because they were produced by cutting up larger cartographic wholes with handsaws and scissors, which tangibly replicated the reckless violence inherent to colonial practises of drawing borders that resulted in the displacement of peoples, cutting off their ties of kinship, and genocide.
For their part, children were encouraged to play with dissected maps, which were supposed to keep them both silent and knowledgeable about the globe the United States was interested in entering and occupying. Cartographers in charge of the disarray of the many fragments and reinscriptive cartographers who aspired to reconstruct the full map out of its bits would continually vacillate. To emphasise yet another innocent-looking facet of imperial pedagogy, I propose to call this activity “reinscriptive cartography,” which highlights the colonial violence inherent in any act of cartography during the age of empire but is disguised as a harmless game of cutting up maps into smaller, cut-down spatial pieces. After all, it’s well-known that dissected maps were originally created to teach and delight the children of King George III about the global spatial affairs of the British Empire long before they were popularised as toys in the United States.
“Most children—not just famous ones—are virtuoso performers of childhood, because most children grasp with precision the actions that children’s objects script,” writes Robin Bernstein in her 2011 book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. Adults in the United States encouraged children to create their own maps and puzzles as a way of strengthening their national identity. Surely, therefore, children were not passive participants in this process?
On the one hand, I argue that childhood is shaped by and is mapped as, an at once experienced and imagined space of endless exchanges; on the other, I argue that children, regardless of who they grew up to become, not only performed scripts of childhood (as Bernstein convincingly argues), but also complicated and added to the scripts of empire. Double scripting was marked by an excess of inquiry, misinterpretation, and inaccurate portrayal, as I believe (including misspelling place names or misplacing them on the map of the world).
Children created puzzles that sought out locations as disparate as Amoy and Zanesville, as the chapter’s title indicates. There was more to it than just a desire to impress their peers with their knowledge of geography, according to the regularity with which child-made puzzles were published in juvenile publications during this time period. So the study of children’s geographical puzzles as a collection of textual evidence suggests that, in addition to assuming such roles as reinscriptive cartographers, children also wished to appropriate and recycle cartographic matter that they were exposed to (as puzzle makers) and, as puzzle solvers, to navigate and observe spaces far from home — a process I refer to in my book as “finger-tip journeys,”
Fan letters to children’s magazines were another way for children to chronicle their experiences while they were away from home. As you point out, there aren’t many allusions in these letters to immigrants, non-white people of colour, the economically disadvantaged, or any other groups who share a place with the children who wrote them. Is there a way to see how children wrote about “others'” homes in terms of the American household in terms of boarding schools and tenement developments, as well as reservations?
This book argues that, more than anything else, “home geography” codified an academically sanctioned model of exclusion and liminality. In letters to Harper’s Young People and St. Nicholas, as well as to other children’s journals of the era (such as the long-running Youth’s Companion), this is best documented. Children in America write about their hometowns and the places they’ve been or studied while they’re away from home in these letters. Writing about such settings (homes and nonhomes), youngsters appear to have been aware of two spatial forces at work simultaneously. “(un)charted,” non-American spaces (both inside and outside the national borders) sought legibility as potential homes, entry, and inclusion in the American household, and if they did not, they were bound to recede into ruin/”savagery,” meaning that it would be the colonisers’ responsibility/burden to “restore” them through any means necessary. Just think about how often, hundreds of years before European settlers arrived, youngsters used to draw brown and black people in their letters. One either find no mention of Hawaiians in letters written by white children while going to or residing on the islands, or they are described as “pre-civilized,” child-like individuals that live in the void between other “homes.”
It is important to note that your work highlights that children’s awareness of geography is always conditional, provisional and plural notwithstanding adults’ nation- and empire-building endeavours. In light of the fact that “childhood has been adopted as a symbolic instrument to identify physical reliance, psychological weakness, or political immaturity,” why is it crucial for children to document their daily actions mapping out new worlds.
No one will ever be able to say for sure whether or not children wrote about their daily encounters with and speculations about home and the geopolitical realities of the American Empire solely at the invitation of adults or as an attempt to participate in the exciting “publics of childhood” that the juvenile periodicals had created over the 19th Century. In any case, it’s vital to examine these records to see how empires (what I call “multigenerational power constellations”) persisted by making accessible educational scripts that white and privileged children could learn from and adapt to changing circumstances. Historians frequently unearth early draughts of protest toward colonial brutality (even if playfully conducted), and of divergence from binary thinking about colonialism (even if designated as “child-like misinterpretation”) via their research. As a final but not least point, looking at childhood in the 19th century as an intensely politicised yet pre-political category of dependency opens up new possibilities for exploring how this supposed innocent, conflicted project of growing up inextricably linked to the imperial project of inevitability violence and racism.
According to Karen Sánchez-2005 Eppler’s book Dependent States: The Child’s Role in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, she uses the analogy of domestic spaces and national formation to explain how the processes involved in the rearing of 19th-century American children were replicated by nation/empire formation. An analogy between the intimate mapping of America’s country and empire that you use in your own job and the geographic information supplied in home and school settings. The cartography-in-progress begun by both adults and children in the early 20th century may be described as what?
When Sánchez-Eppler begins her research of Sunday school moral tracts for white, Christian American kids, she equates the extension of the United States’ economic and cultural empire to developing children as future citizens, warriors, and slaves (not the other way round). This is encouraging, since “Raising Empires like Children” focuses the study of the US Empire on childhood as an essentially political undertaking, rather than supporting viewpoints that dispute children’s political role in geopolitics. Empires are built on the foundation of childhood, according to the author’s compelling argument. This is where the prevalent 19th-century notions of the country as a domestic space (nursery, household, family) and the empire as the geographical and ideological expansion of the nation come into play..
White, middle-class American children (of both sexes, typically) learnt about an infinite number of borders that linked them to but also divided them from “others” as an intersectional image of home in my book. New maps had to be developed in cartography workshops but also in the imaginations of Americans, maps they relied on to navigate the ever-changing terrain of the nation and to find their way around the remote areas the US Empire was expanding into. Imperial identity, aggressive global outreach, geographic knowledge construction and racist spatial ideology are all at work in these mapping actions that are referred to as “cartography-in-progress.”