While many people may associate maps with being mundane or conventional, many are unaware of the underlying power mapping has had to help combat racism. In a lecture titled “Black Mapping Matters,” Derek Alderman, a professor in the department of geography, was welcomed to the Current Trends in Anthropology class on Thursday to discuss the immense role mapmaking has had, and still has, on Civil Rights struggles.
Alderman began his lecture by recognizing how mapping, like most other fields, has been used to perpetuate stereotypes, and in this case, has previously reduced human life to mere dots on a graph.
In order to deconstruct any preconceived notions infused by these stereotypes, Alderman decentralizes the white perspective and places more focus on the extensive emotional and intellectual labor contributed by African Americans to combat white supremacy.
Alderman accomplished this by bringing attention to the vastly-used art of counter-mapping, which refers to geographic efforts made to battle pre-existing structures to advance social justice. This practice had not only been used to track segregation and lynching, but this was also one of the few ways to determine the location of safe spaces for people of color for many years.
“As we are trying to take on issues of racial inequality, there were things I needed to do to question the way my discipline of geography does things and specifically look at how we can use maps to bring awareness to racial injustice,” Alderman said. “Then, I realized there's been a whole generation of activists who have used maps to address inequality. I started doing research and went into archives and found examples of this counter mapping and of civil rights campaigns."
Numerous historical examples were given to support these practices, such as the visualizations by Louise Jefferson and W.E.B. Du Bois. These infographics showed the lives and accomplishments of African Americans post-emancipation in the face of rampant Jim Crow laws, which not only humanized Black experiences, but also proved the sophistication and endurance of Black communities.
Junior anthropology student Grace Messmore said that Alderman’s lecture was helpful in connecting a supposedly neutral subject like cartography to social justice.
“I think it’s really helpful to talk about these things because they are usually overlooked and aren't public knowledge,” Messmore said. “I think we often take humanity out of these instances when discussing them to distance ourselves from it, so it was really eye opening to see actual physical evidence of these movements.”
Alderman also provided various present-day uses of counter-mapping to bring light to current activists, such as the North Star Campaign, which uses mapping to educate Black individuals on their ancestry and assist racial minorities in networking and career navigation.
Another example he provided was the Stealth Sticker Campaign, which marks New York street names and monuments named after enslavers in order to educate people on the prevalence of racism even in modern times.
Despite the strides people of color have made with the help of counter-mapping, Alderman believes universities are not yet ready to question the prominent white privilege on campus.
While there is still a long way to go before universities are as diverse as possible, Alderman still urges UT faculty and students to be more actively committed to creating equity and belonging for people of color on campus.
“We need to do more than just clicking the box for diversity,” Alderman said. “I think one of the greatest skills students can foster is engagement. It’s not always necessarily about leading the movement, but being an ally, actively listening to Black experiences, and lending privilege or expertise to certain struggles.”