When we talk about mapping people, not just places, what else is necessary?

Let me step back momentarily to the first instance of my involvement on this project: CURI summer 2015. My particular project on that larger endeavor was the composition of a short, installment-style, story which followed a fictional character around the city of Paris in 1924. This installment series, titled The Unsuspecting Tour Guide, was somewhat experimental in scope. For one, it demanded an awareness of not only the musical scene of the city, which had been the project’s goal to that point, but also of its society – down to the fashion, personalities, etiquette and conventions, and demographic spread. For a work of fiction, it required a surprising amount of research (never again will I look at historical fiction in the same way).

It is interesting, then, that the map on which I have been working for this incarnation of the Musical Geography phenomenon (I think it’s reached the point of a phenomenon) does not involve most of these things. On the one hand, deciding on how to describe the context has been more difficult; while I could simply give an overview of the Civil War and its aftermath, we mostly tell the history of the Civil War from the perspective of Union army versus Confederate rebels. That would miss the point of the map, in attempting to open a door into the experience of the freed slaves in the south.

On the other hand, I am still trying to determine what the relationships between and the movements of the different people involved in Slave Songs of the United States mean, and how they should be represented. One of the critical points made by Dr. Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit in their article “Mapping Movement” regarding the touring practices of 20th century dance companies is that

“analyzing movement in historical and cross-cultural contexts challenges digital humanities to grapple with the phenomenon of live bodies, which are not fixed in print or image, but carry, borrow, and share techniques, styles, theories of corporeality and composition, gestures, and ways of being as they travel”1

Dealing with live, changing bodies is in many ways a challenge best approached through fiction, or experiential mapping. What fictional prose or experiential maps such as those modeled on video and computer games bring best to the table is a sense of live context – not necessarily the most accurate, but one that permits the visitor or reader to engage with the way that historical figures walked, talked, and related to each other. In other words, they encourage spatial thinking, defined by Dr. Diana Sinton of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science as the “ability to visualize and interpret location, position, distance, direction, relationships, movement, and change through space and over time.”2 

What I’d like to propose by this post is that it can be a good idea to ruminate in a little fictional speculation on historical periods – very well informed, researched speculation, with the understanding that it is fiction, of course. Nevertheless, sometimes thinking outside of the box of facts and figures is more helpful in fostering historical spatial thinking. At the same time, the manner of speculating poses its own challenges, as “Mapping Slave Songs of the United States” demonstrates. Learning to grapple with the balance of fiction and known historical context (which is itself often biased and somewhat fictional) allows us to come to terms with the limits of our knowledge, and teaches us to respect the past for what we do not know.