Map of the Week: Starkey’s “How a coastline 100 million years ago influences modern election results in Alabama”

How a coastline 100 million years ago influences modern election results in Alabama

When looking at a map, we often take for granted the things that the map presents to us. Of course, we can shove a map to our faces to analyze all of its exact coordinates and geometry, travel to the space represented on the map, squint at the sun’s angle in the sky to certify that the tree is exactly where the map claims it is, and finally proclaim, “Nice”, but that really just defeats the entire purpose of the map, doesn’t it? More often than not, when using a map, we draw quick, general inferences between the imagery we see on the map to what we see around us; the map displays an intersection with street names, so we check if the street names and shape of the intersection we’re standing on matches what’s shown on the map. But such a relationship between maps and the reality they represent seems… shallow. From being confined to a certain range of time, to the narrow scope of the map’s purpose, maps really appear to serve a single, exclusive purpose. However, if we look at a map critically, catching ourselves right before the map tricks us into its clutches, we’ll find that, more often than not, a map will have plenty of layers to peel back, many of which we as the reader must decipher and contextualize on our own.

So Starkey’s map does us a favor by relieving us of any detective work, candidly revealing its layers and partialities by cleaving itself into six portions, each delineated by a distinct time period and subject matter. It’s quite refreshing to have a tangible, chronological timeline to follow, when compared to the typical mapping convention of cramming buildings, features, and monuments all belonging to distinct separate eras into the same space for the sake of brevity. Because of its chronological design, the reader is practically guided by hand on where to look and contextualize subject matter, allowing the reader to first build and then read the story the mapmaker wants to tell. And so, with its atypical and novel presentation, the map takes us on quite the journey through its sextuplet Alabama’s, first traveling back one hundred million years to the Cretaceous period to throw dirt in your face, stopping in the 19th and 20th centuries to report Alabamian demographics and farm sizes, and then finally returning to 2020 to smartly present voting preferences for each county of the state. Each of the six sections is focused, featuring an identical Alabama, forgoing any need for the reader to juxtapose maps of differing scale or adjust for continental drift in order to compare the map’s varying subject matters. As a result, only a simple change of color is needed between each section for anyone, from just a glance at the map, to instantly draw a clear relationship between Cretaceous-era sediment deposits to the voting tendencies of Black people in Alabama. 

“So what?”, you might say. True, knowing how the varying fertility of soil in Alabama due to the settling of sediment from the Cretaceous period affected Alabamian counties’ voting doesn’t exactly have a lot of practical applications. But the map, as a rhetorical device, does first and foremost remind us that the streets we walk to get to work, the governments that we pay taxes to, and the dreams that we aspire to achieve were all shaped and derived in one way or another from past wars, natural phenomena, and happenstances, all stacked upon one another as the pillar on which the present world stands on today. With this map and those like it, we are gently retold the stories that built our modern day, stories that we ought to know like the back of our hands. From a first glance, the map’s message behind its narrative is not immediately obvious. One can clearly see the relationships the map presents, but the map is subtle; it doesn’t outright say the underlying context. Well, the map doesn’t really need to scream in your face about why the slave population was most concentrated around that band of particularly nutritious soil, because as the map image is absorbed, turned over in the mind, and digested, everyone sooner or later recalls the reason. That reason alone is why there’s no need for a legend. We know what the colors represent; nobody needs to ask whether it’s the blue counties or the red counties that have the largest farms or the most number of Black people. From just a glance at the map, one recalls their history lessons, how tightly southern agriculture and economy were intertwined with the slave trade, the imagery of Black men, women, and children picking cotton as White men on horses look on forever woven into our nation’s history and culture. One cannot help but recall the abject horrors that are so well documented in our history books. 

Then comes the civil war of our nation divided, then emancipation, and then the long road of struggle that in many ways continues to this very day. The defeats, victories, MLK, race riots, Brown v. Board, all vaguely swim in the back of our consciousness as we look at farm sizes and demographics. As our eyes finally settle on the bottom right, we look upon the map’s curious decision to include which party each county voted for in the 2020 presidential election. The band of counties that just so happened to have the fortune of nutritious sediment deposited in their soil, the largest farm sizes, the largest populations of Black people, also by and large happened to have voted Blue. But why include this last point of information regarding voting preferences? Clearly, this choice alone shifts the entire narrative of the map towards a political tone. The map had just gotten done retelling that tragic struggle for freedom and civil rights, and with such a context fresh in our minds, it almost seems as if the streak of blue, who had fought so valiantly to earn equal footing and are continuing to do so, are encircled by a sea of red, a bastion of Democrats embedded deep within Republican territory. By contextualizing the voting preferences of Black people with such a dark period of history, Starkey transforms his map into something that’s as much of a political statement as it is a demonstration of intertwining relationships between various phenomena, which ultimately defines both the map’s narrative and underlying message. If the election portion was left out, the map would only be a showcase of cause and effect. Similarly, if it was simply a map of Alabama’s county 2020 election results, then there would be no context to build a narrative off of in the first place, and no subsequent message. Combine the two, and well, what we have is Starkey’s map: a story of how a natural phenomenon led to a centuries-long fight for equality that culminated in a distinct band of unified, unwavering Blue counties, and a nod of appreciation towards the Black Americans demonstrating their steadfast support for the Democratic party in the deep, red South.

After viewing Starkey’s map, we might momentarily forget that maps are rarely as interdisciplinary, covering such a wide range of subject matter across an equally wide range of time. Maps simply just don’t divide themselves into organized layers, neatly separated by distinct time periods, in order to tell a succinct story. But thanks to Starkey’s map, if we are to ever come across a map of Alabama’s voting preferences again, we’ll see a streak of Cretaceous-era sediment deposit and farm sizes rather than just counties colored red or blue. We’ll be reminded  that just because a map (e.g. “The Physiographic Map of Mars”) may only have one defined purpose (e.g. to showcase the riveting geographic features of Mars), it rarely, if ever, is confined to that singular purpose of visual representation. For all we know, a million years of rich extraterrestrial history and technology lie only a thin layer under tedious contour lines and dull, gray shading, patiently waiting for their story to be told.

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One Response to Map of the Week: Starkey’s “How a coastline 100 million years ago influences modern election results in Alabama”

  1. Matthew Boone says:

    I also appreciate how the author organizes the maps chronologically to tell a story. The map of the state is kept the same, while the colors change to reflect the data. I like your perspective on this map as a rhetorical device which tells a story to explain how a modern situation ensued. Each map taken on its own appears out of context, but the maps presented together reveal a compelling story. The maps do not need an individual explanation for the data because the previous map visually makes the narrative clear. Without this collection of maps, most would never consider how the location of cretaceous sediments in Alabama is connected to farm sizes, demographics, and election results. I like how you interpreted the author’s choice to include the map of election results to possibly be more of a political statement rather than to simply present a cause-and-effect relationship. As you wrote, these maps demonstrate a natural phenomenon while conveying an underlying message.

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