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The “We of Me”: Keeping Community in Public Scholarship

By Imagining America | September 11, 2017

By Gale Greenlee, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a 2017-2018 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 12-14, 2017, in Davis, California.

Black woman.
Daughter/Sister.
Womanist.
Southerner.
Globetrotter.
Lover of animals
big books
#Blackgirlmagic
& beauty.
I am a deep feeler
who fiercely believes
“Y’all means all”
and who knows
we understand others
only when we open
our eyes to see.

I am one of Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Nepantleras” – one who lives in the space of the “in-between.” My life has been one of crossings – of travels between the U.S., the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, and of frequent movement between academia and community. Shifting from public librarianship, community literacy work and immigrant advocacy to graduate school was unsettling. Negotiating academic culture seemed anything but intuitive. I constantly questioned, “Where am I in this?” “Where is my community?”

So I welcome this (re)turn to public scholarship and engagement. As an African Americanist, I see my discipline as rooted in anti-racism and liberation. I situate my own work (on Black and Latina girlhoods in kids/YA lit and popular culture) at the intersection of Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies and Girlhood Studies. This is a dynamic intellectual and political space that’s always-already connected to social justice education and community.

But moving as a publicly engaged scholar can be challenging. The Academy privileges publication and praises academic superstars. Often, community-oriented work is an appendix to the “real work” of the mind. But my community commitments led me here, and they remain lifelines in what can be a solitary and glaringly white space.

Since I work with words, I ask myself this: How can my work be of use to my community and girls/women of color? Words will not erase violence against communities of color. Words will not dismantle structural inequity or crush systemic oppression. But I believe our stories can be tools for transforming individuals and communities. My work to center girls of color as change agents may not be a product of community creation (just yet). But many remind me that writing is resistance. So I continue to write and teach, exposing students (who are part of the public too) to experiences and realities that often sit at the margins. These stories can shift the canon and the culture.

As I move forward, I look back to my work as a literacy advocate: teaching adult ESOL, co-producing reader’s theater, and leading writing groups with middle schoolers. I am returning to my home – creating online curricula, contributing to public history projects, supporting local theater, and organizing community literary programs. And I constantly hear the sage Toni Morrison in my ear: “If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything.” That is my benchmark for success – keeping community at the center of the work I do.

(*Blog title adapted from Pat Mora’s “Bienvenidos” in Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1993, p. 7.)

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. “now let us shift…the path of conocimiento…inner work, public acts.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, edited by Gloria E. Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating, New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 540-78.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: Ancestor as Foundation.” What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn C. Denard, University of Mississippi, 2008, pp. 56-64.