Writing Over: Black Girlhood Studies Showcasing How Education & Identity Are Entwined by Shayna S. Israel
On Twitter and in popular culture, many of us have heard a friend, a colleague or a celebrity reference #BlackGirlMagic. The hashtag phrase came about in celebration of the awesomeness that is young girls of color realizing their potential and ability in the face of less-affirming messages. However, less is known about the emerging field of Black Girlhood Studies.
Academic culture is not something divorced from our daily life experience. It is in response to it. The academic field of Black Girlhood Studies was formed by a “loose collective of scholars researching the experience of black girls across continents” . LaKisha Simmons, Corinne Field and Renee Sentilles met at a conference in 2013 at the University of Nottingham in England focused on how “space and childhood are mutually constitutive in historically and geographically specific settings” . From that meeting, they created the History of Black Girlhood Network, which has expanded to include hundreds of scholars.
With the advent of social media, there’s been greater exposure to the narratives of black girls…written by black girls and young women. In March of 2017 the Black Girlhood Network hosted its first conference at the University of Virginia. At the conference, there were “not just scholars and activists, but also artists and young people themselves, all of whom are sort of galvanized in this pivotal moment in which we’re seeing an increase in scholarship on black girls, and an increase in pushback from black girls themselves, who are demanding that their voices be heard,” writes Associate Professor Oneka LaBennett, of Africana studies at Cornell University .
'...In this pivotal moment...we’re seeing an increase in scholarship on black girls, and an increase in pushback from black girls themselves, who are demanding that their voices be heard' ~Professor Oneka LaBennett
Across most college campuses there is a Women’s and Gender studies program. Such programs now are taken as a given, but they were fought for. “Women’s studies as an academic enterprise had its roots in second wave feminism and originated as a challenge to male-defined and male-centred [sic] knowledge. Students studying sociology now take it for granted that gender is central to sociological analysis. This was not always so,” Stevi Jackson writes in her blog post “Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Feminism” .
When a freshman comes onto a college campus and looks through a course catalogue, they can feel a sense of excitement and anticipation at all of the classes potentially at his or her fingertips. Each line, however, represents someone or a group of people advocating for that course.
During the 1970s across the nation there were demonstrations on college campuses for the inclusion of marginalized programs or departments such as Latino Studies and African-American Studies. For example, at Chicago State University, African black students in the 1960s began to organize for the inclusion of African-American studies into the university curriculum because, as was the case in much of the country, “many formerly all white universities had begun to admit significant numbers of Black students who did not see themselves reflected in the curriculum” .
In looking at all that was transpiring around the nation, professors and students alike were seeking to better understand how to view and how to react to the cultural and political movements of the day. There is a connection between what is happening in education and what is happening in society—as there is a connection between education and identity.
We understand this dynamic mostly when we are talking about jobs and when were hear employers responding to school administrators about the need for specialized training to help with “emerging markets” or “the jobs of tomorrow.” The same dynamic is true in the academic sphere. When there are shifts in the social landscape, scholarly programs and fields emerge to respond to the new developments.
Thus, ta-da—we have Black Girlhood Studies. The question is then what is happening amongst and to black girls in this day and age.
A network of scholars has emerged to respond to the condition of black girlhood against the backdrop of the #MeTooMovement, the most diverse candidates running for elected office in history and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.
In the Charlottesville school district, in the stories of Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes, we have a clue.
...Women have had to be imagine themselves out of stigma—as a means of survival.
Charlottesville is most recognizable for the white nationalists that marched through its town in August 2017. Charlottesville has had an embattled history when it comes to race relations. However, what is notable is the work of educators and administrators who have sought to balance past racial injustices in their school districts.
After the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education ruling, Charlottesville responded by closing down the white schools rather than integrate. At one point, “instead of outright segregation, the white-led district established testing requirements solely for black students who tried to enroll in historically white schools” . Years later “the board considered redrawing school zones to bolster racial and economic equity but worried about white flight” . After pooling in middle and high school students “the number of white students declined about 20 percent within a decade” .
The connection between Charlottesville and the young girls earlier mentioned, Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes, extends beyond their geographic locality: It is hard to write off what has already been written and cemented onto a people’s or a town’s consciousness.
Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes are both talented, smart and gifted young ladies. Yet, being black and being female in America means fighting off stereotypes and stigmas regarding intelligence.
Charlottesville’s board sought to do the right thing in following the Supreme Court’s ruling on integration, after some initial missteps. It is hard to create change against the backdrop of a segregationist’s past. It requires more than white washing the issue. One has to—if serious about doing the work—break new ground.
We are at a place in time where black women are, proportionately, the most educated class than any other racial-gender group . According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2013), black women were conferred Associates and Bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 65% as compared to their white, Hispanic and Asian female counterparts who were conferred the same degrees at a rate of 56%, 60% and 54%, respectively, out of each of their total subgroup populations .
However, the realities of the landscape have yet to catch up with accepting black girl intelligence—while it has been whole heartedly welcoming to #BlackGirlMagic.
Zyahna as early as preschool was awarded a scholarship to attend an elite private school at the most reputable elementary school in Charlottesville, Venable. That sent her on track to be eligible for honors and AP (Advance Placement) courses in high school .
There are millions of parents vying for the best early education opportunities for their children. They do so because they know what getting an early start can do for bettering the chances of their child’s educational success and opportunities. In some cases, being tracked, in the state of Virginia, for an “advanced” diploma rather than the “standard” diploma means the difference between getting admitted to a four-year college and a two-year college .
Ms. Bryant selected the requisite coursework to put her within reaching distance of the “advanced” diploma. “Zyahna’s achievements make her a prime candidate for an elite university,” according to reporters Erica L. Green and Annie Waldman—so Ms. Bryant “was taken aback when, as she was beginning her search, her principal encouraged her to explore community college” . In their article, “Separated, and Far From Equal, in Charlottesville’s Racial Divide,” Green and Waldman note that “All diplomas are not equal,” and that administrators have worked to create ‘equity-based teaching’ as countermeasures .
It is hard to extricate the long legacy and stain on America’s history that extends beyond slavery and onto systemic racism. Educators and administrators, dedicated parents and star students alone cannot lift the stigma that often befalls black girls—regardless of how smart and talented they are. Yet, they persist.
Ms. Bryant writes, “No matter how high your scores are or how many hours you put into your work, you are still black…There’s a whole system you’re up against. Every small victory just cuts a hole into that system reminding you how fragile it is. But it’s still there” .
In a social media culture looking for heroes and villains, black girls—no matter how magical and inspiring they are—too often are typecast as the villains. Girls like Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes, by their achievements, are rewriting that narrative. The same goes for the scholars in the Black Girlhood Studies Network.
Academic life, if done right, is not a distant Ivory Tower. It is trained researchers, noticing trends, going out into the field and recognizing a dynamic, a phenomenon that needs to change or be viewed in another light.
Ms. Simmons writes that “we’re seeing a generation come of age that is really engaged in feminism, anti-racism, and history…and engaged in theories around race and gender” .
In the collection edited by Suzanne W. Jones titled, “Writing the Woman Artist,” it speaks to how women have had to create, ala Rousseau, “literary self-portraits” as they “register the tensions between the fictional and the empirical figure, the problematic relationship between language and reality” .
Meaning that, women have had to be imagine themselves out of stigma—as a means of survival.
In rewriting themselves as talented, intelligent, empowered, girls like Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes are getting a true early education in this new climate. They like millions of other young women like them, are getting a head start, via social media and the advocacy of scholars, in shifting the language around black girls, that often gets foisted onto their bodies. In their everyday lives, in their daily pursuits, black girls across the country are rewriting their own narratives. This time, they are writing themselves as capable.