At 1:15 pm on day two of the Black Girl Movement Conference, a panel on “Writing and Researching Black Girls” was moderated by Carla Shedd of Columbia University and discussed the way in which the lives and perception of Black girls have been shaped by academic study. Featured PhDs from various universities included: Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, author of Black Girlhood Celebration and Hear Our Truths; Dr. Marcia Chatelain, author of Southside Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration; Dr. Andreana Clay, author of The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back; Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox, author of Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship; Dr. Kyra Gaunt, author of The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip Hop; Dr. Toya Like, author of Emotional Girls and Rational Boys: Gendered Discussion of Violence Among African American Adolescents; and Dr. LaKisha Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Crescent City New Orleans.
The dialogue began around the changes that have been very important for Black lives. “One change was in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s with Black power and what ‘Black is beautiful’ has meant to Black women and the ways in which it gave Black women a language in which to be proud of who they were,” Dr. Simmons pointed out. “I think we’re in another moment of change right now. While we’ve yet to see what is going to happen, I can feel the change around the corner when I look at Black women and girls and the kind of work they’re doing now.”
Instead of the focus on the same parameters of life as a Black woman — singlehood, obesity, our hair — several areas were highlighted as being ripe for the study of Black lives, across the gamut of our social, political, and cultural norms. From Dr. Gaunt’s perspective, “The beats and rhymes that we listen to in Hip-Hop, those are the same beats that little girls [playing double-dutch or hand games] are creating and have passed down from generation to generation. The cultural opening is the dialogue between girl’s games and commercial popular music. There’s always a back and forth.”
Dr. Clay pointed to Black Lives Matter and the movement’s powerful social and political opening for studying Black girls. “The people on the front lines, the founding of the movement, are Black women and girls, many of whom are queer identified or trans. So, I think the movement that’s galvanized our attention and really pushing the political discourse that’s happening right now is Black Lives Matter.” For Dr. Clay, this is where the research should have been all along, “It’s really always been women of color that have been behind activist efforts. When you look at on-the-ground efforts and grassroots organizing it’s always been Black women and girls.”
It became apparent as the panelists conversed that it was important to begin centering Black girls in research and writing. “Our occupying of spaces necessarily changes the nature of those spaces,” Dr. Cox commented. Where a lot of institutions are created to fix or transform Black girls, it often happens that the opposite experience occurs. “I’ve often seen how Black girls are able to transform spaces with their sensibilities and their ethic of love, care, and justice,” Dr. Cox added. In this way, she believes the community of Black girls should not only look at various institutions, asking how are they destructive, but also see what work Black girls are doing to change policies and past norms.
At the close of this academic and dense conversation, a Q&A was held in which most questions focused on life as a PhD student. Many in the audience wondered how to navigate being a minority in predominantly white and ivy league institutions, and what it took to balance pursuing a tenure track while actively participating in the work at the front lines. For each question, the answers revolved around finding community. “I became very involved during the situation in Ferguson,” Dr. Chatelain shared. “During Ferguson, I was not saying anything that was not publicly true and was just being very honest about a situation that was happening.
“Remember that we do this in community. There will always be a limit that you personally feel: I cannot go there, but I know that the people in my squad, this person, will go there on my behalf. That takes a lot of pressure off of you as an individual and makes your activism feel less high-stakes all the time.”
The dialogue filled the room with a sense of empowerment and the understanding that the research and writing being done on black girls doesn’t have to be grim to be effective; it can also highlight the joys of being Black. “Black girls are really funny,” Dr. Chatelain reminded the crowd, “and I think Twitter is all the evidence you need of that.”