On Friday, April 8th, at MIST Harlem, Columbia University’s Institute for Research In African-American Studies hosted day two of “Black Girl Movement: A National Conference.” This was part of a three-day gathering focusing on the experiences and realities of all Black girls (cis, queer, and trans) in the United States. The event brought together artists, activists, educators, policymakers, and Black girl leaders themselves to publicly acknowledge their achievements, contributions, and leadership.
At 10:15 am, a panel discussion was held which focused on the past, present, and future state of Black girls. The panel was moderated by Salamishah Tillet, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and featured Daniella Carter, a transgender youth organizer and homeless youth advocate; Makayla Gilliam-Price, Black Lives Matter–Baltimore youth organizer; Joyce Ladner, author of Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman; and Monique Morris, co-founder and president of The National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.
From the start, the panel was a powerful mix of perspectives ranging from old school to new school. On the topic of invisibility — how we as a society must be retrained to see Black girls — a question posed by Tillet discussed the difference between the hyper-visibility of Black boys and the invisibility of Black girls. “Black girls are often invisible to policymakers, the media, their teachers, and sometimes even to themselves,” Tillet said.
“When you see a group of Black girls, unless we retrain our eyes, we actually just don’t see them.”
Along these lines, Morris commented, “To be ignored is traumatic.” She went on to speak about how important it is to her projects to center these often ignored girls as an act of repair. “When we only see Black girls in pain or only see their expression as painful, then we are engaging in a reinforcement of the deeply harmful stereotypes that inform their access to opportunity.”
Adding to the discussion, Carter highlighted the added invisibility of trans girls: “As a trans woman of color, if you don’t conform, if you don’t have the privilege of passing, then a lot of times you aren’t seen as a human being. You’re seen as a freak.” She detailed experiences where other women of color have commented that trans women of color aren’t real women. “Many times this has sent trans women into hiding, feeling as if they didn’t belong not only in society, but in their woman of color community,” she said.
Other themes of the panel included the family, where Ladner spoke about the need for the Black community to identify its own strengths rather than allowing outside influences to speak for or about us. Ladner also touched on the importance of teaching self-esteem in the home. When the discussion turned to finding a voice as a woman of color, Gilliam-Price was quick to point out, “All of us are born with a voice. All of us come from a history of resistance, being Black in America. It’s not a voice that I have to make for myself, at all. It’s one that’s been there, just silent. I’m just turning the volume up.” To Gilliam-Price, the work is about reclaiming what is already there.
The discussion uncovered the belief that finding one’s voice allows for a reinvention of the spaces you are in. For the young organizer, the words spoken by Baltimore Pastor Hebrew Brown, “Are we fighting for power or begging for privilege?,” speak to not begging for the privilege of existing in white or male-dominated spaces but rather fighting for the power to create black spaces for ourselves.
Every panelist made it clear that Black girls must have the audacity to center themselves. That while a girl comes as one, she stands as ten thousand and must work to create a powerful legacy. In closing, each speaker was asked what they would say to their younger self and imparted these words of wisdom:
“Believe in yourself and say it as loud as possible,” Ladner said.
“Know that every experience you have will shape you,” said Morris. “Embrace your past and learn from it.”
“Don’t just tell yourself it’s going to get better, know it is,” Carter advised.
At 17, Gilliam-Price first joked, “I am my younger self.” She then went on to say, “I want to reclaim my body and express how I want to. I continue combating always apologizing for my greatness. I don’t want to settle. I am because we are.”