This interdisciplinary, collaborative book, edited by Corrine T. Field and LaKisha Michelle Simmons, makes unique and important contributions to several fields, including historical studies of childhood, youth, and girlhood; histories of race and gender; imperialism and colonialism; and interdisciplinary African diaspora studies.
Histories of girlhood and girlhood studies have been active fields for nearly two decades, and many of these works have examined race, class, and sexuality. There is also burgeoning scholarship on the history of Africa and the Diaspora that addresses gender, sexuality, and girlhood. This collection stands out among all of these genres as the first book to explore a frank, dynamic, and interdisciplinary discussion of how girlhood and Blackness have intersected globally, and how looking at race and age together in this way sheds new light on our understanding of both. In doing so, this collection presents a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the many ways that Black girls have been portrayed and how they have seen themselves across time and space.
Stemming from a two-day conference the co-editors organized at the University of Virginia in March 2017, the book’s thirteen chapters (in addition to the introduction, conclusion, appendix, and “interludes”) cover the history of Black girlhood from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and they span case studies from and across Africa, Europe, and North America. The primary purpose of the book, as stated on the first page of the introduction, is “to help us think about history from Black girls’ perspectives.” The book demonstrates that the history of the modern world cannot be fully understood without taking into account the ways that Black girls have both experienced and impacted this history.
Two opening chapters lay out the theoretical and political underpinnings of the project. In the introduction, Field and Simmons explain how the book aims to develop “global frameworks through a comparative approach” (p. 6). The themes tying these histories together include the “adultifcation” of Black girls (p.5) and the ways in which Black girls have “turned constraint into possibility” in order to “create their own futures” (p.9-10). The authors point to the collection’s diverse definitions of girlhood, the varied reasons that Black girls did and did not embrace their Blackness in their lifetimes, and the fact that Black girls’ experiences of gender often diverged from that of Black women as well as white women. Following is the first of three “Interlude” chapters in the book. Author Crystal Lynn Webster argues for the foregrounding of Black feminist theory in order to recognize the ways in which Black girls have been essential to the formation of “ideas of race, childhood, freedom, criminality, citizenship, and humanity” (p. 32).
The book is then organized into three parts, each investigating one of the primary analytics of the collection: “girlhood,” “Black,” and “global”; each includes an introductory chapter outlining the focal theme and previewing the contributions. Parts I and II end with the two additional “Interlude” chapters that feature artistic and literary reflections on the select themes, and Part III ends with a collection of writings Ruth Nicole Brown compiled from her SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths) initiative. This “Conclusion” (as it is titled) links the global history of Black girlhood with the lives of Black girls living today.
Part I proactively and productively addresses the question “What is the meaning of girl?” for Black girls across the globe. These chapters investigate their experiences and understandings of – as well as exclusions from – girlhood. Similarly, in answering the question “What is the meaning of Black?” Part II points to the ways that the studies of race, nationalism, and racial pride force one to address the gender and age assumptions built into theoretical analyses of race. This involves not only the application of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, from which many authors certainly draw inspiration, but also a reckoning of the categories themselves to make sense of how they do and do not encapsulate the experiences of Black girls. Part III of the book asks “What is Global about Black Girlhood?” and returns to a central argument underpinning the entire project: that Black girls were not only historical actors but global historical actors; they shaped and were shaped by global dynamics.
The collection includes narrative essays, archival analyses, theoretical explorations, autobiographical accounts, poetry, and art. The short and digestible chapters provide vivid glimpses into the lives of Black girls. In centering Black girls, the book celebrates their agency and self-creation while interrogating the social, political, cultural, religious, and economic forces that sought to contain them or erase them from history. These stories embody a decolonial project, reclaiming and repositioning Black girls in ways that not only change how we see the past but how we can envision a different future.
There are many standouts in the collection, and anyone interested in Black girls’ lives (past or present) will certainly find something that speaks to them. Historians will especially appreciate the chapter “Dubious Victimhood: Labor, Race, Age, and Honor in Republican Cuban Courts,” by Anasa Hicks for its compelling multi-generational story and the interconnectivity of individual lives over time. S.A. Smythe’s “Black Girlhood Remains” chapter beautifully weaves the author’s self-reflections and intellectual journeys into a cento poem that literally pieces together key phrases and ideas from the other chapters. Vanessa D. Plumly’s evocative study analyzes the “racial hauntings” embedded in Afro-German women’s experiences of “kin(d)ship,” which she defines as “the German national form of concretizing blackness as child- or Kind-like in order to structure a denial of kinship and belonging to the supposedly mature white German national community” (p. 166). Another chapter brings the reader into lively debates about the global histories of Black girlhood through a transcript of a roundtable discussion among U.S. and South Africa-based participants at the conference that inspired the volume. In the Appendix, LaKisha Michelle Simmons and Casidy Campbell advise readers on how to create one’s own archive, the ultimate tool for changing how we will see the history of Black girls in the future.
It must be pointed out that while one word from the book’s title (“history”) is not highlighted as a framing concept, it is fundamental to the project. The interdisciplinarity of the book adds necessary depth to our understanding of history and to debates about historical methods. The seamless transition from analysis of case studies to first-person accounts to artistic and scholarly “interludes” reveals the rewards that come from breaking the rules of historical methodology.
Overall, The Global History of Black Girlhood demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary approaches to history by bringing to life the experiences of Black girls across time and space, and by amplifying the various “archives” they leave behind. While it presents cutting-edge research, the book is not necessarily designed for scholars. It is “For Black girls,” as the dedication states, and for anyone who may be grappling with the ways this history weighs on our present and future.