The National Geographic Magazine

I subscribe to three magazines: Parabola, Opera News, and The National Geographic Magazine. That's what it was called in 1911. I'm currently up to October of that year, scanning a piece on Brazilian coffee farms. Oh, I've got the latest issue on deck too - September 2012. But a few years ago, I saw an ad for the complete National Geographic. From 1888 to the present. The present being, at the time, the year 2000.

Since falling for that one, I have read or scanned every single issue from 1888 to October of 1911, and intend to keep on keeping on. The thing has me in its thrall.

National Geographic
holds a unique place in American culture. It rides the crest of a wave that rises between actual science and popular culture. If I were to return to graduate school, it would be to pick a topic - almost any topic - racism, environmentalism, feminism - and trace its journey in popular and intellectual consensus through the pages of National Geo.

It wouldn't always be a sunny trip.

Here is Victor Maria Concas, commander of the caravels, replicas of Columbus's ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, that sailed to Chilcago in 1893, and a member of the Geographical Society of Madrid:

A great day was the twelfth of October; a day that placed the name of Columbus and the flag of Castile in the book of immortality; a great day that opened this immense continent to Europe, already threatened by reform under the weight of religious intolerance; a great day, that one, when the gun of the Pinta proclaiming Land! the cry answered from the tops of the Andes and the Rocky mountains, "For the White Man!

That one is from the Proceedings of the International Geographic Conference in Chicago, July 27-28, 1893, Vol. V, pp. 180-187, The Caravels of Columbus, January 31, 1894 - the meeting was held at the World's Columbian Exposition. It was a statement that would not have precipitated so much as a gasp from the audience. The link to Concas is to a Spanish language site. Interestingly, he later served in the Spanish-American War and had a run-in with an American lieutenant, apparently as a prisoner-of-war.

Subsequent issues have described most of the sub-Saharan natives of Africa as being among the "lower races." African-Americans are depicted as comic figures with Uncle Remus speech patterns. "Colored children" are called, almost without fail, "pickaninnies."One guy, describing his experience in China, claims that there will be no understanding the "yellow mind."

Reading these unsettling, and uncontested, accounts in a magazine known and loved by most of us is painful, but instructive. They are reminders of how not so very long ago, this was the perceived wisdom of the day. The grandparents and great-grandparents of my readers of European ancestry were doubtless quite familiar with them and, unless those antecedents of our were extraordinary human beings, they very likely read these words and nodded sagely that it made good sense to them.

Perhaps, however, they paused for thought when they read Harriet Chalmers Adams, writing in the April 1908 number, in "Along the Old Inca Highway." Adams had a discerning eye uncharacteristic for her time.

On this main highway Spanish is now the universal tongue, although the Quichas cling to their own expressive language, and their sullen demeanor shows their hatred for the white man and the half-breed.

As she travels, she observes

each church tower, each touch of a more modern civilization, reminded me of one of the saddest histories ever told, of the downfall and slavery of a once contented and prosperous people, now broken in spirit, degenerated; yet in their hearts there remains a love for their lost idols, a reverence for their old religion. When we at last reached the heights overlooking Cuzco, the sunset glow was gilding its many towers, and near us on a worn spot on the highway stood a group of poorly clothed Quichuas, with sad, unenlightened faces, forgetting their cruel Spanish masters, forgetting their Church and their Cross. With heads bowed and uncovered, they stood as in the long ago, greeting their beloved capital - Cuzco, Sacred City of the Sun.

I don't know if I'll get through them all before my own end, but knowing what National Geographic is today, seeing how far it and the perceptions of its editors have come, is a picture of how far the rest of us have come as well. That's an evolution in consciousness that I can follow in the annals of one of our longest-lived and most popular magazines. And wait for the glimpses of a deeper understanding from writers like Harriet Chalmers Adams. Who has become another heroine of mine.