Becoming Children

South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration
By Marcia Chatelain
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $23.95, paperback.

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans
By LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 282 pp., $29.95, paperback.

Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are impressive historical examinations of black girlhood during the early twentieth-century period of de jure and de facto racial segregation in the United States. What makes these critical contributions to girls’, migration, and youth studies, as well as to black and women’s studies, is the authors’ twofold claim: one, that black girlhood holds epistemological importance to these fields; and two, that historians can recover and reconstitute the lives of black girls, despite the silences and absences imposed on youth without gender, race, or class privilege.

The two studies share many commonalities in terms of focus, point of departure, and method. South Side Girls explores the experiences of black girl migrants to Chicago between 1910 and 1940. Crescent City Girls centers on the ways black girls in New Orleans came of age during the latter decades of Jim Crow, from 1930 to 1954. Of interest to both investigations are the actual lived experiences of black girls, not just constructions of their girlhood. The authors push against what the historian Darlene Clark Hine termed the “culture of dissemblance” that has long constituted black womanhood—enveloping within layers of silence much of black women’s lives as migrants and clubwomen in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to provide themselves some psychological protection from emotional and physical exploitation at the hands of whites and black men, black women engaged in elaborate forms of masking, guardedness, and impression management. Recent work in the social sciences—such as Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (2003); Kamesha Spates’s What Don’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger: African Americans and Suicide (2014); and my own Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009)—demonstrate the continued relevance of dissemblance. It is the foundation of black women’s demonstration of invulnerability and independence—that is, their strength and respectability—within both the black community and American society at large.

Both authors seek to examine black girls in terms of their subjective experiences of struggle and pleasure. However, if dissemblance defines respectability among generations of black women, if archives are largely indifferent to existence of what Simmons calls “marginalized and sometimes invisible citizens,” and if, as Chatelain writes, “many girls’ footprints are subsumed within the giant steps of adults,” then how is one to access their voices? Doing so requires the utilization and deployment of a “disciplined imagination,” a tool of cultural studies and social history that fosters “new ways of looking at and using sources and scraps that might otherwise be discarded by historians” lacking a focus on black girls and girlhood, explains Simmons. The disciplined imagination constitutes not only a guide for searching for black girls but a challenge to represent them as full human beings. By locating girls’ voices in their responses to social science interviewers, educational and religious institutions that inadvertently recorded their existence, their short stories and essays about romance, and photographs taken of their leisure in safe spaces, both authors refuse to present the black girls of their investigations as flat or simply reactive historical figures.

Migration from the South to Chicago was an intentional effort to give black girls access to the privileged space of childhood. Black families hoped that daughters would “escape domestic service, feel safe at work, and for the first time enjoy being a child,” writes Chatelain. Black northbound girls encountered a childhood constructed through protective work legislation, compulsory education laws, and new choices in consumer and religious “markets.”

Despite relative improvements in their material status, black girls often struggled against powerful constructions of their girlhood. Reviewing the institutional records of the first African American orphanage in Chicago and the black nationalist Moorish Science Temple of America, a precursor to the Nation of Islam, Chatelain reveals how maternalist, racial-uplift rhetoric sharply circumscribed black girls’ experiences of childhood. By insisting that they accept “their eventual roles” as dutiful wives and mothers, the claims of racial respectability denied the existence and independent needs of black girls as children and indeed “accorded with the prevailing notion that black girls were not necessarily children,” Chatelain writes.

Despite the predominance of maternalist rhetoric, however, black girls and women, often working together, did challenge its premises. Chatelain captures a particularly poignant example in the vocational philanthropy undertaken by the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). During the 1920s, members of AKA—who were often educated at area majority white institutions—made “scientific” rather than simply moralistic arguments about social progress. They utilized their outreach to urban black girls to introduce them to “such esoteric fields as ‘bacteriology, creative writing and forestry,’” declaring that “all girls had the potential to use professions [rather than motherhood] to uplift the race.” Although advocating young urban girls’ pursuit of these careers might have been idealistic in already deeply segmented, racialized, and gendered employment markets, these professional ambitions significantly refuted the prevailing discourse of racial uplift that permitted black women’s efforts as long as they did not threaten the larger racial project of “restorative patriarchy,” in Chatelain’s words, operating in communities and households.

In their embrace of girlhood as a space of possibility and freedom, black women community leaders mobilized to make the leisure activity of camping accessible to black girls. Established in the early twentieth century as “an unquestionable pleasure of childhood,” camp culture was originally founded to foster the racial superiority and fitness of white children, Chatelain explains. However, with regard to the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YWCA Girls Reserves, “black women leaders adapted their instructions and ideas to make them relevant and accessible to black girls,” she says. By financially supporting the operation of camps and pressuring integrated settlement houses to honor their commitments to inclusivity, these black women insisted that black girls be provided with access to recreational activities, contact with nature, and exposure to the “rehabilitative impact” of the outdoors.

Like the politics of respectability, however, the politics of play required good and bad race representatives. Virtuous girls involved in outdoor activity and public events were counterposed against those who were excluded from this image of the “representative girl citizen: teenage mothers, juvenile delinquents, and poor girls.” Summarizes Chatelain, “When civic-minded girls arrived at children’s hospitals to distribute toys during the holidays, wore carefully stitched badges on their uniform sashes, or posed for pictures for the [African American newspaper] Defender, they symbolized the best of African American parents and communities.” In such venues, black girls demonstrated to both white and black audiences that “they too embodied the highest of American ideals and values.”

After exploring both problematic and supportive constructions of black girlhood within the black community, Chatelain exhibits a particularly deft reading for the girls’ voices. She utilizes a disciplined imagination to reread the interview transcripts with girls and their families that led to the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in Chicago (1932), which argued for the existence of a regressive black matriarchy among migrants, which threatened the patriarchal rights of black men and boys. Moving past the narrative of pathological black femininity, Chatelain interprets the girls’ openings, hesitations, themes, and allusions to argue that their early sexual activity was often the consequence of “naiveté, curiosity, loneliness, and ignorance.” She reveals their lack of knowledge about sex, the peer pressure they experienced to engage in sex, and their revelations of “coercive sex and sexual abuse,” often within their homes. Thus, what Frazier viewed as parents’ inability to control their daughters, Chatelain reads as evidence of adults’ failure to protect them from harm. She concludes that these girls were not bad citizens or negative examples of the race but rather victims of the “gender dynamics, social barriers, and inequalities” that fell especially harshly on the poor.

Simmons calls Crescent City Girls a “cohort biography.” Because it covers a more recent period than South Side Girls, it has an immediacy, much of which emerges through the life-history interviews with New Orleans women that supplement Simmons’s archival evidence. Focused on “the gendered violence of segregation,” she conceptualizes black girlhood within the “double bind of white supremacy and respectability.” The brutality of the first combined with the learned constraints of the second “were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world,” writes Simmons. With her explicit attention to sexualized violation and its impact on the psyches of black girls, Simmons reminds us of a point that Ida B. Wells made forcefully in her antilynching treatise, Southern Horrors (1892): black girls were key, yet often overlooked, witnesses to southern violence. Because a major aspect of their subjectivity was constituted through “unwanted sexual contact,” many came to womanhood by internalizing the “peculiar silences” of Jim Crow, writes Simmons.

The still-underappreciated parallel to the “public spectacle” of black boys’ and men’s experiences of lynching were girls’ and women’s ongoing exposure to “meddling,” their term for a range of unwanted sexual advances. As one oral interviewee recollected, “You got hardened to it,” given its ubiquity and the lack of redress, within the white legal system and the male dominant norms of black culture. Although Simmons places most of her focus on girls’ experiences of white-male sexualized violence, she also attends to the lack of bodily safety black girls experienced within their own neighborhoods and homes. Catcalls, touching, and insults were regular threats and encroachments that they were expected to tolerate and accept in the course of growing up. Attending to the “geographies of exclusion and harassment” that included commercial centers, play areas, and residential streets and their affective impact on girls, Simmons captures many of the “small violences of the spirit” that constituted black girlhood.

Despite the magnitude of exclusion and violation in these girls’ lives, Simmons instructively asserts that “without making an effort to recover pleasure, black girls’ lives are narrated only by the trauma of Jim Crow. To consider black girls as full human beings, we need to understand their pleasures just as much as their pains.” She pushes her disciplined imagination most dramatically and importantly in the service of finding, documenting, and reconstituting what she calls black girls’ “pleasure centers.” In these spaces, typically in protective segregated environments, black girls were able to voice their aspirations, forge friendships, and represent themselves in their own words. Simmons examines three examples of such “critical black respatialization” in the lives of New Orleans girls: popular romance reading and writing cultures, YWCA productions, and black Mardi Gras. Each of these pleasure cultures foregrounded “life behind the masks” where, even temporarily, black girls “fought geographic dispossession …. [and] “oppos[ed] traditional geographies of domination.” As they “constructed[ed] alternative subjectivities around enjoyment, intimacy, and fantasy,” they afforded themselves freedom and asserted dignity in a city literally mapped on making those elusive if not impossible for them.

Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are significant scholarly contributions. Not only do they attend to the role of black girls—both as real persons and imagined figures—in the larger processes of migration and segregation, they also boldly and instructively reject silence and invisibility as the final words on black girls and girlhood. In writing that is accessible and conceptually generative, both books demonstrate not only that black girls existed, but that they mattered—an important challenge to the implicit and ongoing view that girlhood is a whites-only space.

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at DePauw University and author of Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Race and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009). Her current research project examines the rise of new womanhood as an alternative femininity and its impact on the visions of key feminist Progressive Era social reformers.

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