Research

Meet the Scholars Building a Network Around Black Girlhood

April 06, 2017

Michael Bailey
LaKisha Simmons (left), an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at the U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor, speaks in March at the History of Black Girlhood Network’s first conference, at the U. of Virginia. "We’re seeing a generation come of age that is really engaged in feminism, anti-racism, and history," she says, "and engaged in theories around race and gender."

In the summer of 2013 the Society for the History of Children and Youth’s conference was held at the University of Nottingham, in England. The conference, the organization’s seventh biennial, focused on how "space and childhood are mutually constitutive in historically and geographically specific settings." That’s where LaKisha Simmons, Corinne Field, and Renee Sentilles met, but little did they know that the meeting would blossom into an academic network.

The History of Black Girlhood Network is a loose collective of scholars researching the experience of black girls across continents. It was originally conceived by the three as a way to better organize panels at conferences and symposiums, but it has expanded into a network of hundreds of scholars who have organized a stand-alone conference, created an email list, in 2016, that distributes calls for proposals and other information, and now plan an edited volume of work that will serve as an introduction to the field.

“The global lens meant that we were thinking about black girlhood as it is represented and lived here in the U.S., but also in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.”

A slew of loose networks of scholars, aided by the ubiquity of digital communities, have developed in recent years to connect academics and disseminate work. For example, the Society of Young Black Philosophers is a mentoring, research-sharing, and professional-development group that started on Facebook in 2010. And graduate students gather around the #PhDChat hashtag on Twitter to share job opportunities and support.

The experience of the network on black girlhood, though a small and specialized group, demonstrates how interest in a niche topic and a desire to connect can develop into real-world scholarship.

In March the group hosted its first conference, focused on black girls’ history. When the organizers issued the call for proposals, they drew more than 150 responses, said Ms. Simmons, an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The interest was due, at least in part, to the growing network the group had built.

Ms. Simmons, whose book on black girls in segregated New Orleans, Crescent City Girls, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015, said the group would have been useful when she was researching the book, particularly because it distributes information about current work in the field. "I kind of worked on that book in isolation," she said.

The book, which won an award from the Southern Association for Women Historians, "would have been a lot better," she said, if she had been able to discuss black girls’ history with other researchers beforehand.

A ‘Global Lens’

The conference, held over a pair of days at the University of Virginia, brought together an array of academics, activists, artists, and students, said Ms. Field, an assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality at UVa.

Breaching boundaries between fields was necessary, said Oneka LaBennett, an associate professor of Africana studies at Cornell University who presented at the conference.

"There was a need to pause and think in a more transnational or global way," she said. "What was really appreciated about the conference was that the global lens meant that we were thinking about black girlhood as it is represented and lived here in the U.S., but also in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in Europe."

Ms. Field said that "need" has become even more pressing as a renewed spirit of activism increasingly takes hold.

"Black schoolgirls and college students have engaged in protests across the globe," she said, mentioning demonstrations in France, the United States, and South Africa. "Girls themselves have drawn attention to the negative impact of things like white beauty standards, the intersections of racial and gender violence, the problems with police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline."

What the conference in March did, Ms. LaBennett said, was assemble people from many arenas to continue that conversation. There were "not just scholars and activists, but also artists and young people themselves, all of whom are sort of galvanized in this pivotal moment in which we’re seeing an increase in scholarship on black girls, and an increase in pushback from black girls themselves, who are demanding that their voices be heard."

Social media is one way that black girls have had an opportunity to make their voices heard, she added, pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three queer black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Ms. Simmons has also seen an uptick in activism by young people on social media, many of whom, she said, bring that knowledge and passion with them to the college classroom.

"We’re seeing a generation come of age that is really engaged in feminism, anti-racism, and history," she said, "and engaged in theories around race and gender." The excitement and engagement of young people, alongside academics forced to engage with the public in news ways, such as on social media, Ms. Simmons added, is making the exchanges more robust and deepening scholarship in the field.

The network hopes to continue diversifying voices in the field, and Ms. Field and Ms. Simmons told The Chronicle that they plan to put together an edited collection on black girls’ history. The book, they said, would include those who presented at the conference and others in the field, to bring it into focus.

By embracing researchers on different regions, they hope they can begin to identify similarities across borders, and equip scholars in the field with a transnational and interdisciplinary vocabulary.

Ms. LaBennett said she would host a symposium at Cornell, on April 21 and 22, that will feature an interdisciplinary group of scholars, filmmakers, and a poet, to look at the interstices between black girlhood and black womanhood.

As for the network’s next conference, Ms. Simmons said the group would "definitely" be looking to make it annual, and possibly biannual.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.

Correction (4/6/2017, 11:15 a.m.): This article originally identified Corinne Field as an associate professor at the University of Virginia. She is an assistant professor.