- The History of Black Girlhood:Recent Innovations and Future Directions
By Corinne T. Field
Until recently, historians interested in black girls and girlhood had to work at the margins of several fields including the history of childhood, black women’s history, and girls’ studies. Other people often doubted that there was enough archival material available to write rich histories of those who were young, black, and female. Historians who persisted generally encompassed evidence about black girls in broader analyses of children’s experiences during slavery, emancipation, colonialism, and civil rights struggles.1 In the past few years, however, a growing number of scholars have focused entire research projects on black girls in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean.2 This research has broad relevance to those interested in the history of childhood, not only because it reveals the distinct identities and experiences of black girls, but also because of the creativity with which researchers in this field have mined and interpreted archival sources to find evidence others have overlooked.
In 2014, LaKisha Simmons, Renee Sentilles, and I founded the History of Black Girlhood Network to create a shared conversation amongst scholars.3 One of the first projects was to sponsor a roundtable at the 2015 conference of the Society for the History of Children and Youth. This roundtable brought together Abosede George, Marcia Chatelain, and Simmons, who recently published books focused on black girls in twentieth-century Lagos, Chicago, and New Orleans respectively, as well as two PhD candidates in the midst of research: Tammy-Charelle Owens, whose dissertation explores black girlhood [End Page 383] in the nineteenth-century United States, and Rhian Keyse, whose research investigates early marriage in British colonial Africa.4 What distinguishes these projects from earlier scholarship is a rigorous commitment to locating the voices of black girls.
From their research in disparate archives, several shared strategies emerge. George, Chatelain, and Simmons all find that they could discover more about black girls by focusing on a particular place and employing the tools of social history to systematically mine sources. This commitment to local history departs from recent studies that seek to understand modern girlhood as a global or regional phenomenon.5 George, Chatelain, and Simmons agree that images and performances of modern girlhood circulated globally, but argue that we can best understand how black girls experienced these trends by exhaustively looking at every archive related to one locale, piecing together snippets and scraps of material to reveal larger patterns. By applying interpretive frameworks from cultural geography to sources such as maps, street photographs, and population data, they discover how black girls navigated urban spaces. Further, they pay careful attention to how black girls’ experiences differed by class, color, religion, and place of birth. Through this local focus, black girls’ agency comes into view.6
Panelists’ second shared strategy is to recognize the long history of interest in black girls and girlhood. As Owens argues, many of the iconic texts heretofore regarded as sources on African American women—such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)—focus intensely on black girls. Panelists share a joyous sense of discovery at finding the testimony of black girls embedded in sources produced by adults—in court papers, transcripts of interviews by early twentieth-century social scientists, and letters to newspapers.
This direct testimony must, however, be approached with theoretical sophistication, the third point upon which panelists converge. They are all deeply influenced by Darlene Clark Hine’s approach to understanding the culture of dissemblance through which African American women concealed their interior thoughts and traumas.7 Panelists agree on the need to interpret and explain the gaps and omissions in girls’ testimonies. In addition, they draw upon Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s influential formulation of the politics of respectability, exploring how black girls in particular fought for validation in white supremacist societies.8
Panelists’ focus on recovering the voices of black girls raises the vexed question of who exactly counts as a girl. Historians have noted how the word girl and its global translations have functioned to mark out an...