Her Body, Her Style: Black Girls Fashioning Freedom

When a Black girl crosses your field of vision, what do you see?

“I would probably pick one of the whitest names I know.”

As part of a research project on Black girls’ educational and cultural experiences, I facilitated arts-centered workshops that made space for girls to be themselves and unpack (through creative modes) what it means to be a Black girl in the United States. I interviewed willing attendees.

Leaning back in the chair, folding her arms, studying me, grinning until it became audible, then leaning forward, she rules out Melanie. Minding my belief that Black girls know what they need, even if people don’t consult them, I thought it important that the girls chose their names within the study. When explaining the value of this process to them I said, “if you could have another name, perhaps another that you love, what would you like to be called.” She settles back into her seat and says, “Call me Christa.” Unsettled by the firmness around Christa’s decision, but committed to learning from her, I moved on to questions about her school experiences. Unknowingly, she was calling for and challenging me to consider what it means to hold space for Black girls’ self-perceptions and be a reliable interpreter of their truths.

Working with Black girls in ways that are affirming necessitates practicing reliability, requiring adults to recognize Black girls’ actions as layered and technicolor. To be reliable to Black girls requires that we — adults, educators, researchers, Black girl stakeholders — unpack what is built into our gaze. Black girls are surveilled and punished for how they adorn and move in their bodies.

Disciplined at alarming rates in America’s schools, when looking deeper into the infractions, Black girls are frequently punished for non-violent and/or arbitrary violations such as disruption and defiance (talking back).

In April 2017 at Mystic Valley Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts, twins Mya and Deanna Cook were marked as “wrong” and began serving a sentence comprised of scrutiny, pink slips, no after school activities, and detention before and after school. The 2016 –2017 student/parent handbook effectively institutionalized the marking of Black girls as wrong into school policy by describing disruptive and distracting hair as “extra long hair or hair more than 2 inches in thickness or height,” which in Black vernacular is code for braided extensions and afros. The administrator’s aesthetic choices were counter to the school’s mission: “to provide the opportunity of a world-class education characterized by a well-mannered, disciplined, and structured academic climate.” This example is not the first nor the last time a school attempted to sanitize Blackness. Through formalized policy, coded in anti-Blackness, Black cultural expression is deemed improper and a distraction to education. Legalizing their punishment and pushout, Black girls are denied their value as innovators of style and instead mislabeled a problem.

What are Black girls’ bodies and hair trying to teach us about the realities of education injustice? In light of the importance of investigating and critiquing problematic policies that disproportionately target Black youth, consider her so called defiance as deliberateness instead. When reflecting on these experiences, Deanna recounts, “It makes me feel like my culture and my hair was not important enough to be represented around the school.” Adopted by white parents and coming into Black culture through hair, Mya and Deanna consulted with (girl)friends and decided to get boxed braids with extensions. Beyond the fact that this style was not a distraction, for them their hair was a bridge to another part of their identity. Familial configuration aside, the accessories (e.g., beads, bobos, and knockers) used to adorn our hair and the styles we choose are rendered offensive and disturbing to learning. The violence Black girls endure through policy discourse and implementation is overlooked and excused. While a white teacher chops a Black girl’s hair because her beads engendered too much joy (too much noise), a Black girl (mis)learns her body is a problem.

Black girls’ bodies are thought to be everyone’s business, reflecting a reality not limited to school dress codes. In a world where Black girls are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible and translated through anti-black and anti-female frames (misogynoir), hair remains political. Hair serves as self-expression, a practice of being and becoming, and a form of truth-telling. Embedded in the work and name Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), truth-telling is a key element to making space for and celebrating Black girls and girlhood, and ultimately our survival. As a scholar who glowed up in SOLHOT, I know viscerally the challenge and importance of being despite a world insistent on quieting and constricting Black girl expressions of pleasure and joy, especially in schools. Therefore, Black girls’ hair, like our sartorial, is part of a strategy of freedom-fighting and practice of self-definition.

Being reliable to Black girls demands practice. To see Black bodies, Black female (not necessarily feminine or gender-conforming) bodies in particular provide pedagogical insights that allow us to interrogate the ingredients of our gaze. We can unpack race and gender as interlocking systems of power and identify their contributions to mistaking Black girls for distractions. We — adults, educators, researchers, Black girl stakeholders — can also unlearn how we think we ought to respond to perceived “rule violations” and “defiance to authority.” Through continued engagement and practice, layers become more apparent and new understandings unfold about Black girlhood.

For example, when I first interviewed Christa, I knew there was something I was missing that led my heart to sink a bit in her choice of a name. At the time, I had not arrived at the significance of her choosing a name designated for white girls and connected it to what it means to practice freedom. I constructed freedom as located in the act of choosing their pseudonym. But Christa had more to offer and teach me. Black girls are continuously read through archetypes of Black femininity saturated in anti-Blackness and dichotomous scripts that deny their innocence, protection, and even believability. In recalling her grin and the way she deliberated in her bodymind (sitting back, smiling, sizing me up and down), there was joy and confidence in her decision. She sat back, crossed her arms, and waited for my next move — resolve. Looking back on that moment, Christa, a self-described “creative, open to new ideas, and musical because there’s always a song”, enacted autonomy. In her selection of the “whitest name” possible, she made a political decision to choose not from a space of constriction but vastness. Envisioning a world where her actions and being existed and garnered meaning outside of pathology, she envisioned a world where she could take on the whitest of names and it not be “white” because it was hers.

Black girls practice and imagine freedom through their movement in and adornment of their bodies. Despite anti-Black and racialized school policies, systems of power such as race and gender that delimit self-articulation, and authority figures who emphasize obedience and cultural erasure (knowingly or inadvertently), Black girls are choosing to exercise body sovereignty. Black girl aesthetics — sartorial and behavior — against such a backdrop of anti-blackness and constant invisibility-hypervisibility, are part of Black legacies of resistance in the face of harm, confinement, and even death. They teach us, if we catch the lesson, how to hold onto ourselves.

Black girls taught me how to get back in my body and make it of use to me. They remind me consistently of the power of and need to say how you feel. Through the combination of movement and stylization, Black girls demonstrate how to critique oppressive systems and simultaneously introduce a trend. Their fashioning should be understood as correctives to and refusal of deficit-based discourses and related oversimplified understandings of Blackness and Black femininity. It is not their bodies, hair styles, or comportment that are problems. Rather, the problem is in the degree to which policy writers, interpreters, and other authorities can envision Black girls as critical race practitioners, equity and inclusion experts, educators, and freedom fighters.

So, when a Black girl crosses your field of vision, who do you think you saw?

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