You may use Google Maps every day, but how often do you think about how that map was made—and more importantly, who made it? This week on Unpacked, we do just that. You’ll never again look at a map the same way.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, we are pouring over maps. But not just tackling the surface level, the thing that we all see in our day-to-day lives whenever we pull out our phone and bring up Google Maps. We’re going to look at how, and why, maps are made—and at the potential they have for real change, from advancing racial equity to helping us understand our world in a more nuanced way.
Our guide for this week is Billie Cohen, AFAR’s executive editor. Billie works on both the magazine and afar.com, but the one thing that unites her work, as you’ll hear in a moment is, deep, abiding, and (self-confessed) nerdy love for maps.
Aislyn: Billie, welcome to Unpacked.
Bille Cohen, executive editor: Thank you. It’s great to be here, taking a break from my regular work.
Aislyn: All things audio. You’re on audio island.
Billie: It’s a great place to be. The weather is wonderful.
Aislyn: Well, today you are going to be telling us all about maps and I was just curious to know, why did you want to do a story about maps of all the topics in the world?
Billie: I love maps. I’m, like, totally nerdy about maps. For me, they’re, they’re actually the inspiration of why I started to love travel as a kid. And I figure there are probably a bunch of other map nerds out there too. And since they’re such an integral part of the travel experience, I don’t know, I wanted to dive into that and find out more about them and how they related to how we think about travel.
Aislyn: What’s your earliest memory of a map?
Billie: Um, I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud. But my earliest memory of a map is the Lord of the Rings books, or The Hobbit, I should say. I used to take them out from the library all the time. And they have these beautiful maps in them, like so detailed and obviously fiction, but they just sparked this idea of adventure to me.
You know, they called to me, like, to leave my front door and do things. And I was like 10 but it stuck with me. And then and then my mom started to—so there were two things she did. She would draw maps so that I could bike to my friends’ houses in the neighborhood on my own, right? And and then I also have this very vivid memory of sitting in a pizza place in Manhattan— it’s like 8th Street and Broadway—and she flipped over the paper placemat that was there and she started drawing a map of what Manhattan looks like, the way the avenues and the streets work, so that I could figure out how to navigate it on my own. And it was so, like, empowering— like, “OK, [maps are] not just these cool, you know, drawings of mountains in a fiction book, but they’re tools that empower you to be self reliant and to get out there and navigate the world on your own.” And that was really cool to me.
Aislyn: I love that. So zooming to now, to the present time, how do you use maps these days?
Billie: The, the cool thing is now, we all are carrying maps with us all the time. We all have our phones, and there’s maps in the phones, and whatever we’re using it for involves something to do with geography, right? Like, we’re calling a rideshare app, or we’re seeing where our package is, or where our food delivery is.
All of that involves maps. So that happens every day. But, also, like, me, again, a nerd and also because of what we do, right, writing about travel, I look at Google Maps, like, at least a dozen times a day to kind of check where things are. But then I also just love to look at it, like, if I’m going to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner, I’m still going to look at the route on Google Maps, even if I know how to get there. Because I want to see, like, “Oh, did I drop a pin anywhere along the way that I want to stop?” Because I keep Google Map lists of, like, everything. I have a cookie trail—
Aislyn: Oh, wow.
Billie: —map and an ice cream map and, yeah, from, like, all over the world because I also really like desserts. And, and then I also, I drop pins, like, when I’m traveling to a place, and then that becomes a list that I can, and a map I can share with friends if they’re going somewhere.
So that’s actually a nice advantage over little paper maps, right? Because it’s a lot easier to share. And the other thing that I use them a lot for is sort of dreaming about where I want to go. Because now you can zoom in and you can see that place, you know, you can maybe do the 360 view of it. So it’s not just a picture of where things are. It is this much more interactive experience of what is that place like. And I find that—you know, apologies to Tolkien—like, even more exciting than the Lord of the Rings maps, you know.
Aislyn: Gasp! The sacrilege!
Billie: But it’s, it’s awesome. So yeah, so I use them. I use them a lot. And in fact, I’m planning a trip to Santa Fe right now with friends. And so last night we all spent a long time kind of looking at Google Maps to see where we wanted to go.
Aislyn: That’s such a great way to share, especially as a travel editor. And I feel like there’s going to be requests for your cookie trail um, map here, so just uh, putting it out there. I think you alluded to this a little bit but why do you think maps are still important. or what’s the value to a map in this moment in time?
Billie: Yeah, they’ve become even more important in this moment in time because I mean, obviously everybody needs a cookie trail map right now. But, like, on top of that, they’ve become much more integrated, I think, into the way that we are given information and the way we consume information. I’m thinking of like news, you know, throughout COVID, we were all looking at maps every day to see how that was spreading around. We also are all more and more looking at maps about the news, about real estate, about a variety of things. So I think they’re really relevant today.
Aislyn: All right. Well, let’s get into your episode.
Track: Music break
Billie: I started my journey, if you’ll forgive the terrible pun, by learning about maps that explain things. And for that, I turned to Evan Applegate. Evan is an editorial cartographer. Basically, he makes maps that explain things for news outlets like National Geographic and New York Magazine, and for big companies. For example, he’s made maps that show the history and location of oil spills, or where wolves can be found along the coast of British Columbia. But he is also interested in mapmaking as an art. He makes what he calls Radiant Maps—in other words, big, glowing, maps. They are 4-foot-by-6-foot backlit illuminated 3-D installations. They’re gorgeous. They have all the detail of a traditional map with this extra sort of magical glow coming through them.
He’s also the host of a podcast called Very Expensive Maps (because, as he says, great maps take a big investment of time). In every episode, he interviews a different cartographer. What’s cool about the show is that he often finds cartographers who are more like sculptors or artists. (Not exactly what you expect when you hear the word “mapmaker.”) The conversations range from the craft of making those maps, and what mapmaking can accomplish, to how to make your own maps, to how maps can make you feel.
Evan hadn’t always thought about stuff like that. In fact, he started his career as a graphics editor at a magazine. But things changed for him when, one day, his boss asked him to make a map.
Evan Applegate: And so I made a map and it was hideous. It was about half the size of a playing card. Just, you know, “Here’s a dot on a country and a label.” And then the next week, [I] made another map, and after 50 hideous maps, I thought, “Hey, these are getting better. I really like making maps.”
Billie: What was your relationship with maps before that? Did they have any influence on your life at all?
Evan: Just [an] enthusiast, like [when] I was a kid, I had a big, floppy Nat Geo atlas, and I liked to look at it. And I never thought I could make them. I liked looking at them and that was it. But, yeah, just the same relation anyone else has: You use Google Maps in your car and you’re a tourist, you hold a little paper map. But then once I worked at the magazine, I thought, “Oh, people actually need to make maps for news.” And that got my ball rolling.
Billie: That’s great for news, but what’s the purpose of a map?
Evan: Hmm. Mostly to situate yourself on the territory because maps are such feeble imitations of what they’re meant to represent. Like, I could hold a map of your neighborhood and miss almost everything. Like I always say, there’s more detail under the soles of your feet than you could ever put on any map.
And maps take something so infinite and compress it into something that is pretty familiar to you. Like, in my experience, people immediately recognize a map and can situate themselves on it. And that’s the fun part. People love putting their finger on a map and saying, “Oh, I like this place. I’ve been here. My parents live here.”
Billie: I heard—on one of your podcasts—you told a story about someone coming up to one of your maps and interacting with it in that way. Does that happen a lot?
Evan: Oh yeah. My father always says all maps are local. Because I would try to show people like, here’s maps I made of far-flung places like the Tonga National Forest in Alaska or Los Angeles, and they don’t care. They want to see, you know, the quarry where they jumped in when they were a kid, or where they got married. Like maps are just so personal while they’re trying to depict so much. And I think that’s a funny contrast.
Billie: Why do you think that is?
Evan: Mm, because the only way to really get your head around something as big as a landscape is to start with what’s behind your eyes and, like, your memories, what you have seen, and then kind of matching it.
Because all of the best maps that people really like to explore are just trying to include as much as possible that could have a hook into your own memory. Like that story about people putting their finger on the map and saying, “Oh, I did something here,” or “I was here.” Those all come from, like, very detailed maps and not kind of abstract representations.
And so I find the more detailed, and I guess the more attempting to represent reality, a map is the more people can find their own personal story in it.
Billie: So are maps, like, simultaneously a repository for our memories, but also, I don’t know, inspiring new ones.
Evan: That’s a good way to put it. I find they can inspire new memories by making you think, “Oh, I gotta see that. That’s cool. I like the way this looks on the, you know, the 2D representation. Maybe I should go see that with my own eyes.”
Some maps make me feel that way. Like Mike Hall, he’s a, a British guy. He lives in Spain and he makes maps of Spain that are illustrated. He’ll draw magnificent facades that I’ve seen, and I look at his maps and think, “Oh, I wanna see that.” And I’ve never, you know, been to Toledo, but after seeing how he represents it on a map, I think, “Oh man, I wanna make a memory there.”
Billie: So it sounds like cartographers, they hold a lot of power, right? Over our imaginations, over our interpretation of what a place looks like or what’s there. It’s a lot of responsibility.
Evan: Oh, absolutely. People have insane implicit trust in maps. When I was working as the graphics editor, it was a huge contrast. Like you show an editor a paragraph, they know how to chew that apart: “I don’t like this quote. Get another one. Where’d you get this source? This is kind of a reach.”
You show them a chart, they have less ability to interrogate it since they don’t look at Excel all day, but they’re still like, “Hmm, what’s your source? I don’t like the X axis.” You show anyone a map, people immediately accept it. Nobody feels like they have the tool kit or the standing to say, “What’s this doing here?” The one thing they will notice is omission, but not commission. Like they’ll know if you left off something they care about, but if you didn’t, that’s the end of their questions, essentially.
Billie: So should we believe maps?
Evan: I use Google Maps to navigate. I trust them because they spend a billion dollars a year to keep it updated and it’s a, you know, major technical feat and they have thousands of people checking it. But even then, like Google Maps exists to tell you where the Starbucks is first and tell you where your street is last. So, even the most authoritative maps have something they’re trying to sell you, essentially. So take them with a grain of salt.
Billie: That got me thinking about another kind of power that maps have: Maps can show us where places are, sure. But they also have the power to change things in those places. Because maps can tell people, companies, and governments where resources are needed. And since humans are usually the ones making those decisions, the data that they choose can make a big difference in the story that a map ends up telling. For better or for worse.
So I reached out to Clinton Johnson to talk about that. Clinton is a digital mapmaker, or what’s known as a geospatial architect, at a mapping software company called Esri. You may not have heard of Esri, but you have definitely interacted with its products. Esri creates mapping software (also known as Geographic Information System, or GIS) used by tons of companies, cities, countries, nonprofits—including FedEx, Amazon, the U.S. Census Bureau, and more. Clinton’s job there is to help humans (the people who work for companies, cities, governments, etc.) make better choices and use geographic data for the power of good.
Clinton Johnson: Cities and counties for decades have been trying to figure out how to right the wrongs of the past, and they’ve been advancing racial equity initiatives. So they’ve been asking for years for help from any kind of organization that could provide services and tools to help them figure out how they could use data and applications to first uncover where the problems exist, where the inequities exist for which groups, and then do something about it.
Billie: Clinton is at the forefront of providing that direction. In 2020, Esri made him their first Racial Equity & Social Justice Lead. He also founded a separate nonprofit, called NorthStar of GIS, which uses geography to advance equity in the fields of geography and STEM.
Because of those achievements, National Geographic took notice—and they just named him as one of the 2023 National Geographic Explorers—that’s a select group of leaders, thinkers, and innovators who are working in various fields to change the world for the better. And what’s funny is that his career all started with a city job that he got after high school. A job he wasn’t too excited about, because what he really wanted to be doing was electrical engineering. And this job was not electrical engineering, but—still—it forever changed the path of his life.
Clinton: So I was working at the city of Philadelphia in my first geo job, and I was responsible for creating and issuing permits for the use and occupancy of the public right of way. There were lots of maps behind me.
Billie: The maps showed the surface of the streets and everything underneath the streets. But Clinton remembers no one was working on those maps. Instead, he found out that there was a different floor of the office … where a growing team of digital cartographers was plugging away on something he learned was called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.
Clinton: Once I got connected with that work, I got really excited about how that intersection of geography and data and technology really could transform the way that, as a city, we thought about where we would deploy resources, how we thought about what neighborhoods looked like and what they needed.
Billie: While that was exciting, something else happened to Clinton on his first day at that job.
Clinton: Right next to me, there was a guy who was using racial slurs and was, was talking very negatively about black people in certain neighborhoods. And later on I found out that, that person made some of the maps. And that person made maps that allocated a, a resource that a lot of us take for granted.
Billie: That resource was paving. Years later, Clinton found himself taking a tour of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods with the mayor and the mayor’s team. And they get to this one street, where there’s a huge hole in the pavement.
Clinton: I don’t even know what to call this hole. This hole is so massive. There’s a kid playing in it. They were playing hide-and-go-seek in this hole. And this, this guy who was walking us around the neighborhood, he said, “That child represents the third or fourth generation of a family that played hide-and-go-seek in that hole in the street.”
Billie: Standing there, Clinton thought that didn’t make sense. He knew from his work with the city that they had funding to pave every street at least once every 10 to 20 years.
Clinton: And then I remembered that guy. And I thought through how lots of people could have lots of decision-making power and influence in spaces through the use of maps. And [I] felt like, we could now—here in the past people were using race as a reason to remove or restrict progress or opportunity or resources in certain neighborhoods—well, we could do something very different.
Billie: Clinton realized that GIS was the key. That it could be used to collect and display information that would make inequalities, like that hole, much more noticeable, much more quickly.
Clinton: We could, you know, use maps much more fairly and create different kinds of experiences for people and communities and neighborhoods and, and in some ways that was sort of at the backdrop of the rest of my career.
Billie: At Esri, Clinton works on ways to help cities, organizations, and federal agencies use GIS technology to make change—to identify and repair systemic racism, even. Because, as he explains, maps can be racially just or unjust depending on how they’re made—and by whom. And history proves that out.
Clinton: Some folks may or may not be familiar with the Homeowners Loan Corporation from the 1930s, an organization that generated maps that were used all the way into the 1970s and the 1980s. Some people may be familiar with Jim Crow segregation in the South and in some parts of the West and some parts of the North in the U.S.
Some people may be familiar with apartheid in South Africa and how communities were carved up and people of different quote unquote racial classifications were allocated to certain communities and their movements were constrained in others. Well, all of these are examples of how governments, communities, commercial real estate, financial institutions of all kinds, orchestrated efforts to constrain progress and to deliver better services to some communities and worse experiences to others.
Billie: Geography of course, is at the root of all of this. Clinton notes that you could go all the way back to the late 1800s and see it in the way colonial powers carved up the continent that we now call Africa and the way they made a new map for their own purposes and benefit.
Clinton: All of that were times when people were using geography in racially unjust ways, and because of that, we still see a lot of segregation of, of people in communities and we still see a lot of policies that allocate resources to communities based on place.
Billie: He points out that digital geography was used to figure out how Covid was spreading, where to put clinics and where to distribute vaccines.
Clinton: Geography matters in how resources get allocated, and so therefore we can use geography as a lens to understand where and how communities are experiencing the disparities, differences in outcomes, different patterns in what burdens or benefits are available to them or that they’re exposed to. And with that understanding, we can better allocate resources. Or when I say better, in this case, we can more equitably allocate resources.
Billie: Clinton shared an example.
Clinton: So if we find that historically marginalized Black and Latin American communities in a certain city are being systemically exposed to schools that intentionally under-educate their students, well, interventions and interveners providing, you know, after-school STEM programming can figure out where best to deploy those resources to, to best meet the needs of those households. By using maps, they can figure out where they need to add more of their services or how to redistribute their services using digital geography.
Billie: I understood how GIS tools could be used to improve things at what you might call a civic level, but I asked Clinton how he saw its potential playing out for the rest of us—just regular people interacting with, say Google Maps, or Uber on a day-to-day basis or when we’re traveling.
Clinton: There’s a common question that people ask on the Internet, and it begins, “Black in ...” And it might be “Black in Japan, Black in Nebraska, Black in London.” And for those of us who no longer have the Green Book, you know, we’re still sort of navigating our own Green Book experience by asking others on the Internet what their experience was like, and the reviews don’t cover it. You know, you can’t filter out, “Hey, I’m a Black trans woman. What was it like for other Black trans women or Black women navigating, you know, a given space?”
Billie: And that’s the area that Clinton wants to start exploring: trying to bring lived experience into the idea of mapmaking.
Clinton: Maps are not just these paper tools anymore. They’re these two dimensional, three dimensional, you know, XR and VR experiences. So how do we bring lived experiences, human sentiments, feelings, emotions—how do we bring that stuff into maps? And those are the things that I want people to think about, that the spaces that some of us navigate with maps, others of us navigate differently with the same maps and oftentimes seeking additional information and insight. And I wanna help bring some more of that information, insight, context into the interactive map experience.
Billie: Clinton is working on those ideas as independent projects, and he gave us a little hint into what he’s dreaming up.
Clinton: One of the things I wanna start experimenting with right away is like, “What do word clouds look like on a map?” So not just a simple five-star rating, but what are the things that people are saying? What about clouds of emotion? You know, if we were to light up a map with how people felt in spaces, we might see something completely different than just the name or the type of the restaurant.
You know, what if we did all of these things simultaneously? What if we did it in a 3D space? What if we did it in augmented reality? What if you were walking down the street and looking around and you could see the things that people are saying and what they felt?
Billie: Clinton also wants to hit the road himself for another independent project.
Clinton: Over the next few years I’ll wanna start taking underground railroad tours, interviewing people about their experiences along those journeys. Interviewing people about the migrations that they themselves have experienced, either through as individuals or through their families or through their communities as they understand it. And how do people feel as they’re moving through those spaces?
Billie: In the future, he wants to see all GIS tools incorporate that kind of multidimensional information. That way, no matter what destination we look up, a map can tell us much more than how to get there
Clinton: And I hope that one day the Expedia experience or the Google Travel experience can also inform us differently. So if I’m a woman or a Black person or an Asian person and maybe I’m trying to figure out where I’ll be safest, or maybe I’m just trying to find the cultural resources and experiences that connect with me differently. You know, I want us to have an easier time just navigating the world.
Billie: Cymone Davis and Dr. Atyia Martin want that too. They are the co-creators of an ambitious online, interactive map called the Black Towns & Settlements Project. The map shows where historically Black towns are located (or were located) across the U.S. and Canada. Towns like Blackdom, New Mexico, or the enclave of Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Click on each pin and you’ll see notes and histories, plus photos of real people who lived in these places. Their goal is to remind people about an important part of North American history. But more importantly, they want people to use the map to actually experience these places.
Apart from this being a pretty awesome map, the story behind it is great too. Because Cymone and Dr. Martin are not cartographers by occupation.
In fact, they’re both in a combo of public service and education. Which, turns out, is the perfect storm for mapmaking. Cymone is the former town manager of Tullahassee, Oklahoma, the oldest historically Black town in Oklahoma. She’s also a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. Once she completes her studies, she wants to create an all-Black boarding school.
Dr. Martin has also worked in government and academia: She was the chief resilience officer for the city of Boston and the director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission. She’s been an adjunct faculty in Northeastern University’s Homeland Security and Public Policy programs, and she runs a DEI consulting firm.
I know—it’s a lot and it’s so impressive!
My point with all those accolades is to say: These are busy women, with a lot on their plates. And they are already making a lot of positive change in the world. Yet, for some reason, they wanted to make a map. Why??
Well that idea came about because of something else Dr. Martin does. She is executive director of a nonprofit called Next Development Leadership. And Cymone was a fellow in one of their programs.
Because of her job as the town manager of Tullahassee, Cymone knew that Oklahoma has more historically Black towns than any other state. So she and Dr. Martin got to talking. Cymone tells us how it came about.
Cymone Davis: So ultimately the U.S. Black Towns & Settlement mapping tool came about with the, the brains of Dr. Martin and I, and wanting a central location to understand the U.S. Black townships and settlements and their historic relevance, their present ways of preservation and ways to rebuild.
Billie: Cymone explains that the definition of a Black township centers around Black governance: meaning, the town or settlement is mostly or completely Black and has its own Black government. She says the first recorded Black Town was created in 1793, in what is now Florida, when it was still a Spanish colony. And that historians estimate there have been as many as 1,200 Black towns throughout the U.S., and nearly 30 that are still operational. Fourteen  of those are in Oklahoma.
Cymone: Many do not know that they’re still in existence, but a lot of people do not know their historic context and how long they’ve been around and what it means to even have a Black town, and the resiliency to remain as a Black township in 2023. There’s a wealth of history and knowledge around Black townships that have yet to be discovered, or we are uncovering that history and creating a mapping tool to start your own journey of “What is a Black town? Can I drive to a Black township?”
Cymone and Dr. Martin launched their Black Towns & Settlements Project in February 2022 at nextleads.org/blacktowns. So far, they have 81 towns pinpointed on the map, complete with stories and photos and links to further history. It’s an ongoing project because historians don’t know exactly where all the towns were located. But with all that information and history to show and share, I asked Dr. Martin—why a map??
Dr. Atyia Martin: So I will take the blame for choosing a map. So I am lovingly and proudly a nerd.
Billie: Welcome to the club.
Dr. Martin: Yes, thank you. Go nerds. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of experience with geographic information systems, with GIS, so building maps, and I’ve been using ArcGIS since the ’90s.
Billie: GIS, if you remember, is the lingo for the digital presentation of geography. And ArcGIS, it turns out, is one of the mapping softwares developed by Esri (where Clinton Johnson works), a connection I didn’t know when I started the interview. Dr. Martin has used geographic data a lot in her public health career over the years—as a tool in preparing for emergency and recovery efforts.
Dr. Martin: But this, for me, as soon as we arrived at this concept of identifying these towns, it was, “Well, these are geographic spaces and there’s so many of them.” And as we’re validating and going through this list of potential Black towns, being able to show spatially where they were situated on a map, because it also creates—it makes it more real. To actually see them laid out across the United States without saying any words, communicates the geographic diversity of where Black towns were located.
Billie: The duo wanted to highlight Black towns because, as Dr. Martin says, that history is often obscured.
Dr. Martin: In school, we kind of learned the CliffNotes version and even then it’s a distorted CliffNotes version of the depth and breadth and nuance of our history as a country. And then within those distorted CliffNotes, you’re only getting a subset of distorted CliffNotes of Black Contributions to American history as a part of this larger narrative of American history.
And Black towns are such a unique series of moments in history in that they show both the resilience and strength and wherewithal of Black people across America while also reminding us about the challenges and realities of racism that we have and how that has impacted Black communities, and in this instance Black towns.
Billie: Dr. Martin and Cymone both talked a lot about stories. They told me the story of Black towns that were started before America was America. And Black towns that were started during the American Revolution. And Black people who fought in the American revolution and then started Black towns. I asked them what story their map tells. According to Dr. Martin …
Dr. Martin: At a high level, if you’re just looking at the map itself, I think what the map shows us is that throughout the history of America, there have been Black people and allies who understood the power and value of having spaces that, that are for Black people, where you are able to be yourself, be within your culture or among cultures, cuz there’s different black cultures.
And I think there’s a beauty in the larger collective story of people taking meaningful action, doing what they can with what they have. And for the Black towns that are still operational, the ability to hold on through so many historically and present day tumultuous moments, right?
Billie: Their map serves a larger purpose too. The two women also want to invite people to support the townships that still exist.
Dr. Martin: There are organizations who are made up of folks who are descendants of folks from these towns, or just really care about the history and have some emotional connection to these areas. But ultimately, they have taken it upon themselves to try to revitalize some of these spaces, keep the history alive.
Also, we as individuals can support these towns by donating to them and taking it in or making ourselves a part of a different story that we can tell in the future around when today becomes history, right? Where were you when today becomes history?
Billie: Clicking through their map, I started to see how it would help users make connections between places—and real people. And that made me think about how maps in general influence the impressions that we have of places—and of the people who live in them. And maps can influence where we decide to travel and why we may decide to go there. I asked them about that, and Cymone lasered in on the way a good map can do that—and how their map specifically is doing that.
Cymone: There’s black townships that are literally off of Route 66, and we’re in this anniversary of celebrating and, “Let’s take a road trip from Chicago to Santa Monica, woo!” Well, how many of you-all are going to visit a Black township along the way? If you know that they’re present, that can be part of your journey.
Billie: Maps, she said, are the jumping-off point for discovering what’s around us. Open your GPS, or the Black Towns map, see where you’re already heading on your vacation, and you can easily add a stop along the way to somewhere new-to-you and fascinating. Dr. Martin sees a magic in this.
Dr. Martin: Some of the wonder that I find in maps is rooted in making the world feel more accessible, being more closely connected to places that in reality are very far away but when you look at it on a map, it feels like it’s right there. And in the context of kind of Black history and Black history as a part of American history, I think the role of maps in shifting our thinking about the narratives we have about Black people and where they live and who they are and what they can accomplish. What I mean by that is oftentimes [when] people think Black, they think urban. They think inner city. And there’s a whole series of adjectives and tropes that come along with that.
Billie: As Dr. Martin explains, there’s an assumption that Black people in the U.S. live in urban areas, inner city areas. But the truth is different: According to Pew Research Center analysis of government data, there were 47.2 million Black people living in the United States in 2021. Forty  percent of them live in the suburbs, and nearly 20 percent live in a rural area.
Dr. Martin: There are towns in Mississippi that are predominantly Black towns that are a thousand people, 2,000 people, 3,000 people. And they’re not historic Black towns, but they are predominantly Black towns and as we think about kind of understanding the diversity within Black people, I think the, the spatial nature of maps allows us to see that diversity in a different way than how we’re used to seeing it.
Billie: After talking to everyone for this episode, I couldn’t agree with Dr. Martin more. Maps do enable us to see many topics and places in a different way than how we’re used to. They can explain things, they can change things, they can even revive things. But what stands out to me the most from talking to everyone is that the best maps—the ones we’re drawn into, that we love to pore over—they do all of that, all at once. Here’s Clinton again.
Clinton: When we think about how a picture can tell a thousand words, well, maps, they are dynamic. They are sometimes the best reflection that we have of the things that we experience in the real world, outside of a movie that tries to capture one story. They can share so many stories simultaneously and somehow can be configured to do it in ways that make sense to everybody.
Aislyn: I really can’t wait to see where Clinton takes his work. You can follow him on X @ClintonGJohnson, and we’ll link to his National Geographic Explorer profile, as well as a few other sites in our show notes.
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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.
And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.