- Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans by LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Historians who study children have opened our eyes to the ways in which social and cultural forces have shaped the evolving constructions of childhood and youth. Thanks to these efforts, child subjects are no longer absent from our stories of the past. Yet, much of this scholarship has illuminated only the meanings and experiences of childhood for white children; we have only just begun to understand how such forces affected marginalized children, especially female African Americans.
To rectify these absences, LaKisha Michelle Simmons offers an innovative approach to uncovering the experiences of the young African Americans who came of age in New Orleans between 1930 and 1954. In Crescent City Girls, Simmons explores how young women navigated adolescence during often hostile and potentially violent conditions. Simmons argues that the opposing forces of legalized segregation, with its inherent sexual violence, and the social constraints imposed by the middle-class black community fundamentally affected how African American girls (ages nine to twenty) came of age in New Orleans. "White supremacy and ideologies of respectability were strictures influencing young women's personhood and subjectivity. They were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world." (4–5). This double bind, she argues, shaped how girls physically and emotionally navigated the public black and white spaces of New Orleans but also how they understood and expressed themselves in private. [End Page 587]
Simmons recovers black girls' everyday experiences with racialized violence using a wide variety of sources and "any usable and even seemingly unusable scraps" of evidence (10). These include oral histories (conducted by her and from existing projects), periodicals, case studies and reports of social workers, delinquency home records, police reports, schools records, autobiographies, fiction, and images. By linking the sources of the social historian with the methods of the cultural historian—specifically in how she identifies and analyzes narrative gaps and silences in the historical record—Simmons models how historians can uncover the lives of seemingly "invisible" subjects.
Simmons explores the effects of the double bind using six thematic chapters, each weaving in the dense web of gender and racial power in New Orleans between 1930 and 1954. These chapters cover a broad range of experiences in this period, including how girls navigated the city itself, insults and street harassment, respectability in the black community, delinquency, reform, and explorations of teenaged pleasure and fun. She frames each theme using the interrelated analytic categories of cultural geography, sexuality, and affect studies (11). Simmons' chapter on sexual violence in particular shows the strength of this approach. In it, she explores how the death of Hattie McCray, a young black waitress, at the hands of a white policeman affected the discourse of black girlhood and sexual purity in both the white and black communities (82–140). By framing her analysis of the murder and subsequent trial using these categories, Simmons paints a picture of the deeply constrictive expectations of both communities on young girls; the effect on their sense of worth is palpable.
This summary does little justice to the rich texture of Simmons' analysis, especially around her use of cultural geography. For this book is really about the importance of spaces—public spaces, interpersonal spaces, private spaces—and how experiences there shaped a sense of self. Simmons weaves the moral and emotional geography of New Orleans into her discussion on almost every page. Streets and buildings, community centers, bus stops, and department stores all become more than just physical and architectural structures. Simmons incorporates their social and cultural impact in new and compelling ways. For example, she explores how the looming presence and mysterious nature of the Catholic reform school building shaped girls' fears about being sent there for "being bad." In another chapter she explores the importance of mental maps, which were used by adolescents to mark exactly where they felt safe and...