Corinne Field, Renee Sentilles, Abosede George, Rhian Keyse, Marcia Chatelain, and Tammy Charelle Owens gathered at the SHCY for a round table on “Recent Innovations and Future Directions in the History of Black Girlhood.”
Highlights included new strategies for engaging the archive so as to render black girls visible, the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, and the necessity of transnational conversations.
Marcia Chatelain began by asking who and what we study when we set out to understand the history of black girls. She noted how perceptions of her own work on South Side girls shifted with the prominence of the Obamas, reframing the context for her history. Defining a shared theme for all participants on the round table, Chatelain talked about how to engage the archive broadly so as to recover the history of black girls in less obvious places.
Picking up on this archival theme, LaKisha Simmons urged the combination of social and cultural methodologies. By limiting her study to a specific place and time–New Orleans in the early twentieth century–she could employ the best tools of social history, visiting every archive in New Orleans or related to New Orleans. But that was not enough. She also needed the tools of cultural history to generate close readings and in-depth interpretation of archival scraps.
Rhian Keyse found that in her work on forced marriage in colonial Africa, she had to move beyond the lazy stereotypes that frame contemporary debates to recover the multiple perspectives found in archival sources. She noted the tension between different understandings of what makes someone a child–physical maturity, age, or cultural markers.
Tammy Cherelle Owens also pointed to the ways black girls are often ambiguously aged and gendered. Using the tools of queer theory, cultural history, and black feminism, Owens both engaged archival sources on black girls in antebellum America and articulated a theoretical understanding of black time. Denied both a protected childhood and clear transitions to adulthood, black girls could not claim the time privileges available to white girls.
Abosede George concluded by considering the work of children and the work of the child in colonial policy. Her history of girl hawkers in colonial Lagos recovered the daily lives of girl workers while also analyzing how benevolence projects depend upon an idea of the child, particularly the girl child.
Considering directions for further research, the panelists urged historians to more fully consider the relationship of girls to institutions. While institutions can control and contain girls, young people can also experience institutions as empowering. There is more to be said about the complex feelings with which girls approach institutional power.
There is much more work to be done on the intraracial relationships of black girls. Many studies to date have considered how black girls live in relation to white power, white perpetrators of violence, and white ideals. Careful political framing will be necessary to approach the issues of black girls’ relationship to power and violence within black communities.
Panelists agreed on the need to keep promoting discussions across geographical and chronological specializations.
Participants also called for expanding the range of experiences considered. Much of the work on black girlhood has focused on the body and sexuality. It’s time to consider black girls as intellectuals, as workers, and creative forces.
The editors of the SHCY journal have asked for a follow up article to this roundtable. Look for more in the journal soon.