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Redeeming Cultural “Monsters”

By Imagining America | September 13, 2017

By Lauren O’Brien, a Ph.D. student 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.

Literary author Junot Diaz once said “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Diaz’s words truly resonate with my navigation of cultural institutions as a black woman and public historian. From a young age, I have always sought reflections of myself within American history, art, and popular culture. Unfortunately, I have encountered many silences due to the fact that the stories of marginalized individuals are often ignored, trivialized and at worst, undocumented. In this sense, history and cultural institutions can inflict harm on individuals/communities of color, as important aspects of their history and culture are erased. One way to attempt amends for such harms and to make public scholarship more restorative is by creating an intentional and reflexive learning environments. Whether in the classroom or a museum, public scholars should attempt to establish an “active” space that welcomes and supports the diverse identities, experiences, and learning styles of all participants, especially those whose voices are traditionally underrepresented. 

Public scholars must push themselves outside of fixed agendas and traditional boundaries to address and fulfill the diverse and multifaceted needs/interests of the public. As bell hooks explains in her book Teaching to Transgress “our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing each other’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (hooks 8). For me, hooks’ emphasis on excitement and reflexivity in learning environments highlights the significance of relationship building within education and publicly engaged scholarship. A successful relationship requires reciprocity. Transformative socially engaged work must should not solicit public input and participation as just a supplementary measure but instead as an integral means to activate projects. By considering socially engaged projects as active or “live” we prioritize the engagement of diverse publics within our work, uncover new layers and perspectives of history/culture, and most importantly, provide opportunities for reconciliation and healing to the many communities/individuals that have been made to feel like “monsters” by non-inclusive retellings of the past.