Building Community through Acknowledgements

by | Jun 2, 2021

Almost every scholarly text has an acknowledgements page or section—and I always read it first. Whether I’m starting a novel, scholarly monograph, or journal article, I begin with the author’s gratitude for others.

Even though we expect scholarly books (and sometimes articles) to include an acknowledgements section, we don’t necessarily view it as part of the work. Many readers assume that the acknowledgments section is separate from the story or not really written for them and thus dismissible, like film credits.

Acknowledgments, however, are so much more than an expression of gratitude; they address what made it possible for a work to exist. As both readers and writers, we can reframe the act of acknowledging as a practice of community building.  

Recognizing labor

Acknowledgments, which range from single paragraphs to multiple pages, can either be in the front matter or back matter of a book. They are less common in articles, but when they’re there they tend to be a few sentences at the end, right before the endnotes.

In these community-building sections, authors recognize individuals such as colleagues, teachers, friends, relatives, and ancestors who helped shepherd the text into being. They also thank the institutions that have supported the text’s development and completion (e.g., residencies, grants, fellowships, and even previous publication platforms). For example, in ‘“Wild Tongues Can’t be Tamed”: Rumor, Racialized Sexuality, and the 1917 Bath Riots in the US–Mexico Borderlands,” an article I have coming out soon in Latino Studies, I thank librarians for their research labor and reviewers for their editorial labor as well as two specific conferences where I received transformative feedback.

Recognizing labor is a form of community building through appreciation for how others’ skills have enriched your work. It centers collaborative relationships without falling into self-effacement.

No text is self-contained

Acknowledgements pay tribute to the fact that we do not think, write, or create anything on our own—even if we might be alone while putting words on paper. “There are no new ideas,” as Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde states, “only new ways of making them felt.”

Knowledge production is a collective, rather than individual, undertaking. Consider all the supportive elements that brought your ideas into the world, from past mentors and scholars to the chosen family who held you throughout the often-emotional process of writing.

Consider too the many places in which you wrote. You can make a ritual of returning to these places and sustaining the communities you built along the way.

In my dissertation acknowledgements, I went so far as to thank the public library because, when I was living with and caring for my father during my final semester of grad school, it was the only accessible space for writing. The library became my sanctuary while I was away from home and deserves to be acknowledged as a crucial site of comfort—and community. Those same acknowledgements also included two café baristas who became dear friends, cheerleaders, and interlocutors.      

Communities across time

In addition to the present-day people, spaces, and activist groups that make our writing possible, acknowledgements also uplift the genealogies of scholarship and struggle that have shaped our work.  

In a recent Instagram post, Boricua writer Elisabet Velasquez names what she calls her “artistic lineage,” the interconnected network of folks, communities, and organizations that led to her debut novel. Naming her artistic lineage is how she “honor[s] everyone who lived in their truth so that I could live in mine.”

Herein lies one crucial overlap between acknowledgements and the politics of citation. As Frances S. Lee reminds us in their article about activist writing, “citing (and not citing) is an exercise of power.” Similar to citations, acknowledgement is a way of both honoring these lineages and situating ourselves within legacies that have been systemically erased and excluded, building communities across time.  

When we explicitly acknowledge the lineages and legacies that provide a foundation for our visions, we are mobilizing the politics of citation as a practice of building community and resisting the norms of knowledge production that reproduce the myth of the solo author. We are challenging the hegemony of canons by uplifting other epistemologies.

Beyond individualism

By giving thanks, acknowledgments counter the toxic individualism and elitism that is so characteristic of academia yet so uncharacteristic of how marginalized subjects navigate it. Rather, public displays of gratitude such as book and article acknowledgments reflect the social significance of gratitude, especially gratitude toward elders, within one’s cultural heritage.

I cherish opportunities to show appreciation for my community in this way, and build new community as well. For instance, in Undrowned, Alexis Pauline Gumbs mentioned me in her acknowledgements and readers have reached out to me as a result, which has allowed me to build new community.

To bring your publications full circle, write to those you acknowledged. Share your work and let them know that they had a hand in creating it. You can also keep a list of their names on your desk or writing altar as a reminder that you’re supported.

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<h3> Author: <a href="https://ideasonfire.net/author/tkhanmalek/" target="_self">Tala Khanmalek</a></h3>

Author: Tala Khanmalek

Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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