Thursday, February 25, 2016

Phyllis May-Machunda - Becoming the Change We Hope To See: Building Our Common Humanity

Dr. Phyllis May-Machunda is a professor and former Chair of American Multicultural Studies, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and was previously employed as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist at the Smithsonian Institution. A graduate of the University of Iowa and Indiana University Bloomington, her research interests include African American cultural traditions and performance, children's folklore in the U.S., disability studies, multiculturalism, and anti-oppressive education. As a former board member for the Minnesota Humanities Center, she is passionate about the public humanities, engaged scholarship, transformed teacher education, and social justice. She is married to a regional economist and is the mother of a miracle daughter.

In reflecting in preparation for this blog post, I realized that I have been increasingly dedicated to a specific quest. Absent narratives infuse their wisdom into academic curricula, at least since my undergraduate honors research and teaching unit project on Black music several decades ago (when such knowledge was not part of public school curricula). However, I did not label these resources absent narratives. Instead, I have understood my work as restorative, extending my own knowledge base and voice as an African American scholar and educator to assert an often absented presence in arts and humanities discourse. I seek to create a more truthful and inclusive narrative for myself, and to infuse dominant discourses with the vibrant and multiple ways of knowing that exist in communities – ways of knowing that are too often ignored or erased from important conversations.

In fact, it is revealing that all of my professional fields actually address narratives of communities using authentic voice outside dominant frameworks: African American studies, American multicultural studies, folklore, ethnomusicology, women/gender studies, and disability studies. Each discipline presents and analyzes rich narratives and traditions commonly absent from or misrepresented in dominant discourses. Each has been structured to partially address aspects of the frequently unquestioned frames of dominance by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. This provides us with insight into the opportunities and challenges of living more inclusive, interconnected, and compassionate lives by recognizing the intersections of our identities and experiences in a multicultural world.  

At first I reveled in the richness of each discipline’s creative expressivity and the humanistic questions they explore: questions of life, difference, and humanity. After some time, however, my understanding of absence intensified, and I began to grasp how systemic, structural power creates or perpetuates absence. Knowing that the education system -- if left unchallenged by social justice praxis and perspectives -- will continue to leave out non-dominant narratives, informs my commitment to transform multicultural outcomes.

As we celebrate Black History Month, significant role models offer guiding wisdom about the importance of addressing absent narratives. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, as “father of Black history and grandfather of Ethnic Studies,” dedicated his life to making absent narratives visible and accessible, providing counter-narratives to nurture generations of African Americans with knowledge and understanding of their histories and humanity despite what gets taught in schools. Likewise, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I met as a child, summons us to invest in our human interconnectedness. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he contended, “Whatever affects one indirectly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Accordingly, we must engage with absent narratives to learn, understand, and care about the stories of others with varied experiences and continue building our common humanity. In that process, we can mutually grow. Are we willing to do the necessary work to become the change we hope to see? I truly hope so for the sake of future generations.

If you are interested in engaging deeper with the Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative approach, visit our website to learn more about our workshop Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives.

1 comment:

  1. "Living more inclusive, interconnected, and inclusive lives"--what a splendid riff on the Minnesota Humanities Center's mission statement--"to build a thoughtful, literate, and engaged society."