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Imagining Black Womanhood

The Negotiation of Power and Identity within the Girls Empowerment Project

Stephanie D. Sears

Publication Year: 2010

Examines how Black girls and women negotiate and resist dominant stereotypes in the context of an Afrocentric youth organization for at-risk girls in the Bay Area. Imagining Black Womanhood illuminates the experiences of the women and girls of the Girls Empowerment Project, an Afrocentric, womanist, single sex after-school program located in one of the Bay Area’s largest and most impoverished housing developments. Stephanie Sears carefully examines the stakes of the complex negotiations of Black womanhood for both the girls served by the project and for the women who staffed it. Rather than a multigenerational alliance committed to women’s and girls’ empowerment, the women and girls often appeared to struggle against each other, with the girls’ “politics of respect” often in conflict with the staff’s “politics of respectability,” a conflict especially highlighted in the public contexts of dance performances. This ground-breaking case study offers significant insights into practices of resistance, identity work, youth empowerment, cultural politics and organizational power.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Imagining Black Womanhood

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pp. v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

“I’m not black, I AM NOT BLACK!”

I’ll never forget the day Zoë, my then three-year-old daughter, defiantly shouted these words. As a special treat we had gone to the neighborhood McDonald’s to have lunch and play at the restaurant’s play structure. After barely touching her happy meal, Zoë was ready to go outside. Quickly taking off her shoes, she raced into the play area.


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-16

It was time for the next act to begin. On this bright and breezy Saturday afternoon in June, over 100 Sun Valley residents patiently waited to watch and participate in the Girls Empowerment Project’s Community Talent Show.1 Opened in 1993, the Girls Empowerment Project (hereafter GEP) was a single-sex, after-school program that served Black girls living in and around Sun Valley, the largest public housing development in Bay City.

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1. Girls Empowerment Project

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pp. 17-34

Recognizing the daily assaults on Black girls, GEP was created to be a place where girls and staff could challenge and confront representations and practices that limited and degraded the aspirations and lives of low-income Black girls. It was designed to be a social space where women and girls could work on themselves outside the “gaze” of dominant and indigenous groups and “go about the business of fashioning themselves” (O’Neale 1986, 139, as quoted in Collins 1991, 95).

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2. Controlling “The Urban Girl”

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pp. 35-48

Black girls, especially working-class and low-income girls living in our cities, must learn to navigate the stereotype of “The Urban Girl.” “The Urban Girl” is the young Black female face that haunts the workfare and welfare debates and floats through academic and social discourses on sexuality, female-headed households, and urban poverty (Tolman 1996). Rooted within the historical representation of Black women as breeder women, this stereotype...

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3. GEP’s Emergent Culture of Empowerment

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pp. 49-76

GEP grew out of the sociopolitical context and dominant discourses encircling the lives of poor Black girls during the late 1980s and early 1990s. To address the plight of “The Urban Girl,” the founders, of which I was a part, developed an after-school program for low-income African American girls.

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4. GEP’s Organizational Structure and Power Matrix

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pp. 77-98

Organizational structure delineates how power is formally structured to move within an organization (Tayeb 1988). Hall (1987) suggests that “organizational structure is analogous to the structure of a building; just as walls, floors, and ceilings influence and constrain our interactions so too does organizational structure” (56). Specifically, it serves to define the organizational hierarchy and make clear decision-making processes and procedures. Yet organizational structure can and does change.

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5. Africentric Womanist Femininity Meets Decent Girl Femininity

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pp. 99-128

Femininities are social scripts that contain abstract ideals for what members of the category of woman are and should be. They are culturally and socially appropriate road maps for “what to do” and “how to be” a woman (Schippers 2004). While all forms of femininity are constructed in the context of the overall subordination of women to men, they are also constructed in relation to other femininities (Connell 1987).

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6. Dance Lessons

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pp. 129-144

At Sun Valley’s multicultural community celebration, another conflict erupted over representations of Black womanhood as presented and read through GEP girls’ dancing. Leslie, a staff member, recounted the event:...

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pp. 145-150

Robin Kelley, in his book Freedom Dreams, suggests that our collective imagination may be the most revolutionary power available to us. Specifically, he writes “our imagination can enable us to imagine a new society, imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way” (Kelley 2002, 9). I titled this book Imagining Black Womanhood in an effort to highlight the powerful role of the imagination in Black women’s and girls’ identity work.


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pp. 151-156


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pp. 157-164

Works Cited

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pp. 165-180


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pp. 181-189

E-ISBN-13: 9781438433288
E-ISBN-10: 143843328X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438433271
Print-ISBN-10: 1438433271

Page Count: 201
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1