Giving Value and Thought to the Imaginary

July 17, 2020

Transcript
My name is Katelyn Campbell, and I’m a PhD student in American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And for my humanities moment, I wanted to start by framing my work. So I study intentional communities, most specifically these very specific radical feminist communities in the 1970s called Womyn’s Lands.

And my reason for studying those really stems back to a book that I read when I was a little kid. And that book is Roxaboxen. I first started reading Roxaboxen when I was about four years old. The book is about a group of kids in the Depression era who find a bunch of boxes, sticks, and rocks in the desert and use it to create their own imaginary town. And this town has all kinds of rules and processes for dealing with conflict.

And as a little kid I had a really active imagination, so I took Roxaboxen really seriously. My cousins and I, which where I grew up in West Virginia, we tended to have more of a kinship system than a nuclear family. My cousins and I imagined our own Roxaboxen, which we built from our own sticks, boxes and rocks and we played pretend at this game for three years. And sort of over the last couple months, it’s become really important to me to reflect on my time in Roxaboxen because in my view, that space was the first place I was ever in where power seemed fluid and where we had the space to imagine and create different worlds based on sort of what our fantasy would look like.

And this is particularly prescient for me after spending a month in the archives because when I was up in the archives at Smith College doing research for dissertation project, I stumbled across a bunch of drawings from a workshop led by the feminist architect Phyllis Birkby and a random flat file folder that I sort of wasn’t expecting to be full of these documents. But inside of the box there were all of these fantasy drawings that women who had participated in Birkby’s workshop, women in the built environment had drawn. And these drawings depict exactly sort of what the name would suggest. What these women’s ideals worlds would look like.

And for me, I am sitting in the archive looking at these, reading Phyllis Birkby taking taking these seriously as works of feminist architecture rather than just simple fantasies or doodles to be tossed away. I remembered my experience in Roxaboxen and the value that that had for me in terms of figuring out what type of world that I wanted to create. And even though Roxaboxen doesn’t really exist anymore, nor do the imaginaries that my cousins and I came up with, I think each of us would say that we’ve been changed by them.

And I’ve selected this as my humanities moment because I think what I loved about working in the humanities and particularly in American Studies is it’s a space where we’re allowed and encouraged to take our imagination and in the archive ephemera seriously as different ways of knowing and understanding the world. As a sex educator and certainly as a scholar, one of the questions that I’m always asking is, what would it mean to create a world that’s free from coercion and violence? And I recognize that our physical circumstances might prevent us from immediately doing that. But I think that space of the imaginary is a place where we can start to play out some of these ideas for what this world might look like. And perhaps realize that that world isn’t that far away. So thank you, that’s my humanities moment.