Merle Collins is an Activist in Local and Caribbean Communities

January 28, 2014

Professor Merle Collins is an activist in local and Caribbean communities, starting the Hyattsville-based Carivision Community Theatre and also starting an organization aimed at helping to support restoration of the damaged library on the island of Grenada.

In 2005, after teaching a play by the Caribbean writer Paloma Mohamed, Merle Collins started Carivision Community Theatre because the play seemed admirably suited to community discussion and general education. The play, Chupucabra, used Caribbean mythology to excite the interest of a community, particularly one familiar with the mythological characters, and to encourage a discussion of AIDS. During the years since then, the community group presented this play at locations including Ulrich Recital Hall, Northwestern High School and Prince George's Community College. Community interest in these performances led to other projects, including performances of the Ananse stories of West African tradition, staged at Nyumburu. The group now has a yearly (March) performance at Ulrich Recital Hall. Typically, these performances include a focus on works read by Merle's Caribbean literature classes. In 2013, the focus was on the centenary of Leon Damas, a writer from French Guiana who, years ago, taught at Howard University. This year, 2014, the focus will be on the work of Caribbean women writers, with performers staging various short excerpts, including a play, "Your Handsome Captain", by Simone Schwarz-Bart, a writer from Guadeloupe. This play will also be read in Merle's spring class on Caribbean Women Writers.

This year, the group will also focus on an oral history project, long established as a major group interest. Here they aim to record the stories of individuals in the community, both Caribbean and Latin American. This, too, will be developed as part of a larger oral history project planned for classes within the department and wider university community.

There is also a new project, with a different group, started because Merle became aware that the public library system in her home country, the Caribbean island of Grenada, is in trouble. The main library has been closed for 2 years and subsidiary libraries have also been closed. As the Caribbean (Antiguan) writer Jamaica Kincaid made known in her publication A Small Place (1988), this is not an unusual circumstance for small, developing nations. Damaged by earthquake, the Antiguan library of which Kincaid wrote seemed to her to have a permanent sign claiming "Repairs Are Pending". The Grenada library with which Merele is concerned now was damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Repairs have been pending for so long that the building was closed two years ago. There, too, the building that housed the library is, like the one Kincaid described in Antigua, "a splendid old building from colonial times". The organization that Merle started with other interested people is called Grenlib, Friends of the Grenada Libraries, Archives and Other Heritage.

In addition to reading in Caribbean literary texts about these occurrences, the group wants to encourage an activist attitude to understanding the postcolonial, aimed at fundraising to assist with necessary repair and refurbishment as well as training of archivists and librarians for a 21st century library which could be competitive internationally. This is as relevant to Grenada as it is internationally, including here at the University of Maryland. Grenada's new (2013) Governor General, Dame Cecile La Grenade, who is very supportive of this project, is herself a (1989) graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. Here at the University of Maryland, Dr. Cecile LaGrenade earned a Master's and a Ph.D. in Food Science. Her new official title, "Dame", also invites discussion of the shaping of postcolonial societies. The launch of Grenlib will take place at Ulrich Recital Hall on Sunday February 1 at 7p.m.