- Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century by Nazera Sadiq Wright
In a country where black girls are invisible at best, targets of physical and psychological violence at worst, Nazera Sadiq Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century begins a conversation about the ways in which black girls and black girlhood have been important to the Black community and the larger American body politic. Wright tracks the literary tradition of utilizing the figure of the black girl as a tool to forward political and social agendas. While most studies begin in the twentieth century and examine the contemporary sociopolitical situation of black girls, Wright’s study is important and unique because it begins with an exploration of early nineteenth-century black newspapers and magazines and ends with analyzing early twentieth-century black conduct books. Moreover, unlike other scholars, Wright’s study highlights the black community’s engagement with and use of black girlhood to discuss the racial inequality, poverty, and prejudice that black people experienced during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Her contribution to the field of black feminism, African American literature, and print culture is timely and significant.
In each chapter, Wright works toward building what she calls a “literary genealogy of black girlhood” (p. 18). Beginning in the 1820s, Wright traces how and why black girls were used by various black authors (men and women). Black female characters, according to Wright, exemplified the strategies that these authors felt were necessary to move forward in a racist world, and this forward movement depended upon how these young women thought and acted. Thus, the weight of the community was determined by the actions of black girls. Black girlhood in the nineteenth century “unveils the possibilities for disciplinary intersections between African American literature, print culture, and black girlhood studies” (p. 17). Expanding on such scholarly work as Joyce Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1971), Marcia Chatelain’s South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (2015), and Ruth Nicole Brown’s Hear Our Truths: The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood (2013), Wright builds a broad foundation to understand the contemporary forces black girls face.
Harkening back to slavery and its effects, Wright’s study contextualizes black girls as historical subjects affected by the intersections of race, class, and gender. Her text interrogates how slavery—and America’s subsequent [End Page 477] enactments of racism, sexism, and classism—affected the images of black girls in print culture. Furthermore, she establishes a base for how contemporary authors think through images and ideas of black girlhood. Engaging with texts such as Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Wright expands critiques of Jacobs by exploring the age markers of black girls. Black girls in the nineteenth century were forced to become “prematurely knowing,” meaning that they were sexualized at a young age (p. 12). Thus, subsequent writers combat this by “identifying black girls as youthful and therefore childlike,” which encouraged readers to “remove any suggestion of sexual objectification” (p. 11). The attempt to remove the shadow of premature knowledge leads writers to create images of black girls that were clearly unattainable and unfair to their contemporary audiences, particularly when one recalls that most young black girls either had to work out of the home or were taking over their mothers’ duties because their mothers had to work. Moving forward through the Reconstruction era to early twentieth century, Wright’s study examines Gertrude Mossel’s advice column “Our Women’s Department” (1886–1887), which was published in T. Thomas Fortune’s New York Freeman; Frances E. W. Harper’s serialized novel Trial and Triumph (1888–1889); and turn of the century conduct manuals, such as Silas X. Floyd’s Floyd’s Flowers (1905).
Wright’s archival work throughout the study is impressive. In the first chapter, examining Freedom’s Journal and Colored American, she notes how each press presents black girls by mirroring the dominant cultures standards of womanhood, meaning they...