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Freeing the Selves: A Journey Towards Breaking Down the Boundaries Between My Scholarly, Political, and Creative Lives

By Imagining America | September 12, 2017

By Naomi Extra, a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, 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.

Last year, when Beyonce performed the song “Formation,” a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and also a call to black political action, lots of folks were confused. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani described the performance as “ridiculous,” “outrageous,” and “terrible.” He said he didn’t know “what the heck it was.” This confusion coming from folks like Giuliani comes in part from the disruption of encountering Beyonce’s politics in a space where she was meant to render that part of herself invisible. Beyonce was not supposed to be a black feminist at the Super Bowl. Her performance and the subsequent reaction by some, taught me a lot about the challenges and the potential of bringing multiple selves into a space.

I am a poet, writer and scholar. I am also a black feminist. I often think about the alignment of these identities as part of a process of “getting into formation.” Rarely, am I afforded the opportunity to be all three (poet, writer, scholar) in a serious way all at once. In fact, sometimes I choose to hide one of these aspects of my identity in fear of confusing folks. But most often this is because there is a clear hierarchy among these identities. Depending on where I am and who I am with, my being a poet is viewed as having little to no connection or value to my work as a scholar. Friends are surprised when I express a black feminist consciousness in leisurely spaces. There have been times when this has left me with a fragmented sense of myself and my work. And so, I have had to address the question of what do you do when your different selves are fragmented in this way? When they confuse people?

Part of my mission to “get in formation” has been an intentional freeing of these selves. Recently, I told a friend, “I am a black feminist both on and off the page.” I want people to know who I am and I find that saying it is a great way to achieve that. I share that I am a poet in scholarly spaces. I think this is where we can find a minefield of creative and intellectual potential—in the disruption of spaces and in reckoning with the personal meaning of our work. When I remind myself that my work is meaningful to me personally, I feel energized. It is then that I remember my allegiance to multiple communities and to social justice work. It is in these moments that the boundaries between my personal and professional networks disappear. When I became willing to admit that my research was a part of me, when I held myself accountable for being able to articulate why I was doing it, and to the people and communities that inform my work, I found a way to be more of myself.