The History of Black Girls and the Field of Black Girlhood Studies: At the Forefront of Academic Scholarship
Crystal Lynn Webster
Harriet Jacobs and her autobiography, The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), has become a fixture in courses on American slavery. Her enslavement, sexualization, concealment, and escape are widely recognized as emblematic of the gendered aspects of slavery and how it was “far more terrible for women.” As the title suggests, Jacobs devotes considerable attention to “the trials of girlhood.” She revealed the ways her enslaver, Dr. Flint, corrupted her youth at age fifteen when he “peopled [her] young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of.” Jacobs was one of the first black writers in the United States to formulate articulations of black girlhood so clearly, yet she was part of a legacy and evolving discourse. Black women became founding contributors of what has developed into an entire field devoted to the life and meaning of black girlhood.
In many ways, black women and girls are responsible for the recorded history of African American childhood in early America. Lucy Terry Prince produced a record of life as an enslaved girl and woman in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth-century. Prince witnessed an attack on colonists in Deerfield by Native Americans in 1746 while in her teenage years. Terry’s “Bars Fight,” an oral ballad of the event, depicted the violent conflict and paid particular attention to the child-victims. The poem was the first record of a composition created by a person of African descent in the British colonies and was subsequently published in 1855. Phillis Wheatley’s poems also blended the enslaved girlhood experience with that of whites in ways that critiqued and exposed inherent contradictions of religion, race, and colonial identity. “On Being Brought From Africa” gestures to her childhood innocence at the moment of capture at around age seven and follows her ascendency to adulthood. It is notable that many of her poems in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773 when she was twenty years old, were written when she was a young girl and subversively reflect her life as an enslaved, black girl.
Throughout the nineteenth-century, black writers exposed the particular ways African American children, especially those who were enslaved, were deprived of their humanity and protection as children. In 1855, Fredrick Douglass argued, “Children have their sorrows as well as men and women; and it would be well to remember this in our dealings with them. SLAVE children are children and prove no exception to the general rule.” Despite Douglass’ claim, enslavers stripped children of childhood protection by physically and sexually abusing black girls with impunity.
The existence, exploitation, and sale of enslaved children became a visible reminder of the horrors of slavery, particularly for the abolitionist movement. African Americans advocated on behalf of their children by exposing contradictions in the treatment of their children and ideas of childhood by appealing to the universal qualities of childhood. Many of the earliest representations of black children demonstrated their exclusion from the social category of childhood and their occupation of liminal social spaces in the United States and African Diaspora in the slave narrative genre. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs each represented their enslavement through the violent losses of their childhood innocence and, for Prince and Jacobs, sexual violations of girlhood in the world of slavery.
The writings of African American activists and intellectuals on black girlhood informed the development of the black literary tradition. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most influential black speakers and writers of the nineteenth century, and notably much of her writing was either to children or about children. She opens her poem, “The Slave Auction” (1854), with a heartbreaking portrait of black girls on the auction block: “The sale began—young girls were there, Defenseless in their wretchedness, Whose stifled sobs of deep despair, Revealed their anguish and distress.” And her meditations on girlhood and childhood were circulated in anti-slavery lecture circuits, periodicals, and read to African American children. African American parents and abolitionists made clear that the issue of the abolition of slavery was not only about enslaved children but about the future of all African American children. This in turn was an integral element of the politicization of white juvenile readers and parents to the abolitionist cause.
Black children’s marginalization extended beyond the slave South. In the antebellum North, African American children were subsumed within systems of indentured servitude that were established following gradual emancipation as a way to mediate the population’s transition from enslavement to freedom. This placed northern black children somewhere between slavery and freedom, childhood and adulthood, as they could legally be considered dependent and indentured maturity. Black girls could be indentured until as old as twenty-eight. The North continued to rely upon black girls’ labor, particularly in the domestic sphere.
In this context, black children, especially girls, faced criminalization in the earliest manifestations of criminal disciplines and prison practices. The youngest child ever executed in the United States was a black girl. Hannah Occuish, of African and Pequot heritage, was only twelve years of age when she was hanged in Connecticut in 1786. More executions of black girls occurred in the early nineteenth-century, including two in New Jersey, Jane Huff (15) in 1837 and Roseanne Keene (16) in 1844. Black girls received extreme criminal convictions beyond execution including lifetime imprisonment and were disproportionately represented in juvenile reformatories. These cases illustrate that there was an alarming association between black girlhood and crime in the Early Republic.
Harriet Wilson critiqued the treatment of black girls enslaved in the antebellum North in her 1859 novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Our Nig features a young northern black girl, Frado, who endures violence and abuse that complicates presumed geographic and ideological division between the “free North” and “slave South.” Harper’s novel, Of Trial and Triumph, highlights the particular plight of black girls in the North. The production of such literature for northern audiences and black children permeated and nourished the sphere of black print culture, which began to reach out directly to young, black readers. Some of these readers may or may not have been privileged enough to receive formal education offered to northern black children, who were educated through the African Free Schools—schools responsible for both black advancement and discrimination. Black girls and adolescents in northern cities who had access to forms of education and mobility recorded representations of their lives in their diaries and albums, beautiful archival records that reveal through artistic expression the lives and friendships of northern black girls.
In the wake of emancipation in the South, whites also used African American children and girls as a way to mediate the transition from slavery to freedom by seeking to continually exploit their labor. Similar to the post-emancipation North, whites forced black children into coercive indenture and apprenticeship contracts. In the wake of the failures of Reconstruction, African American children were incarcerated at disproportionate rates and used in prison labor chain gangs. Black girls’ gender did not shield them from their exploitation in the development of the carceral state of the Jim Crow Era. Black children and girls were, in fact, born into prisons and penitentiaries with little regard to their status, position, or care. They were excluded from the child-welfare reform of the late nineteenth-century and Progressive Era. The treatment and criminalization of African American children in juvenile reformatories and prisons promoted activism from the black community. Black girls were sometimes caught between the cross-hairs of notions of respectability and crime, particularly as it related to sexualized crimes that were often the result of assault.
African American children and girls who were alive during emancipation reflected back on their experiences at the turn-of-the-century. In this context, African American children, parents, and the community established a rich literary and activist tradition that recognized both the black girls’ unique oppression and the potential of childhood as a unifying force. By the turn-of-the century, Du Bois published Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), both of which offered sophisticated theoretical reflections on issues of race and childhood. In Darkwater, Du Bois meditated on the “transfiguring soul of childhood.” For W. E. B. Du Bois, the concept and conditions of black childhood possessed “the Power and the Glory” capable of pushing the world beyond racial boundaries. Du Bois theorized the visionary qualities of black childhood. He and Jessie Fauset’s editorial voice in magazines centered black children in photographic form in The Crisis Magazine and as a targeted audience in The Brownies Book (1919-1921). African American parents continually instilled racial pride in their children, and gendered ideals of citizenship and character in their girls.
In the early twentieth-century, black girls fought fiercely to create new expressions of freedom in the face of Progressive Era, and lives of early twentieth-century black girls were documented during the Harlem Renaissance through authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dorothy West. Their writings on the potential of black girlhood were reflected in the lives of black girls whose self-expression took on newly liberated forms. Black girls occupied spaces that were not designed for them in new ways. They navigated the streets of the Jim Crow South and confronted assaults on their bodies, character, respectability, and lives.
Throughout the twentieth century, African American children continually faced threats to the typical protections granted to children. Education, and black girls’ schooling in particular, was an important element of the modern civil rights movement. The Brown v. Board of Education decision hinged in many ways on the play of children, and of girls, especially. The Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study showed the pervasive impact of racism on the playful preferences of children. Black girlhood, and the threat of loss of black girls’ life and innocence, played an important figurative and physical role in the civil rights movement. The bombing and murder of four black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, both propelled the movement’s media coverage to new heights and revealed the grotesque nature of white supremacist violence. African American children marched during the Children’s Crusade, and the images of physical violence, particularly when directed at girls such as Ruby Bridges, helped make real and visible the stakes of the movement.
Contemporary studies of black girlhood make clear that African American girls continually face disbarment from ideas of childhood and girlhood. From the late twentieth century to today, studies of black girlhood highlight their particularly marginalized status in the United States, particularly in schools. They resist this process by fugitively and subversively creating new spaces of social recognition through artistic expression in literature, poetry, art, and dance. Most notably, the 2017 report produced by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed “data showing that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” resulting in harsher schooling disciplinary practices.
This history of black girls demonstrates the ways both the inner lives and material conditions of black girlhood offer richly complex additions to our understanding of American history. Scholars are increasingly turning towards developing a theoretical framework to understand the historical and contemporary lives of black children, especially black girls’ unique and intersectional experiences. As the secondary literature cited in this essay on the historical and literary representation of black girls indicates, the subject is expansive. Prior to the establishment of black girlhood studies, African American women’s history has led the field. Historical monographs on African American children broadly such as Wilma King’s foundational Stolen Childhood and Marie Jenkins Schwartz Born in Bondage examined black childhood broadly. New studies of black girlhood specifically include Nazera Wright’s Nineteenth Century Black Girlhood, Lakisha Simmons’ Crescent City Girls, and Marcia Chatelain’s South Side Girls. Additionally, scholars increasingly engage the concept of age as a category of analysis in the period of slavery, most recently by Daina Ramey Berry in The Price for their Pound of Flesh. The history of black girlhood and children is supplemented by critical works on the theory of childhood.
Studies of black girls have been enriched by the theoretical turn towards children as historical actors and childhood as a social construct. This work has been led by the field of childhood studies and the groundbreaking work of Robin Bernstein, who introduced the concept of “racial innocence.” Through current scholarship emerging out of the History of Black Girlhood Network, scholars are coming to terms with the significance of race, gender, and age as categories of analysis. Theoretical projects have worked to unearth even more of the experiences of black girls in the archive including Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Saidiyah Haartman’s Wayward Lives, a roundtable of leading scholars published in “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions,” Anna Mae Duane’s edited Who Writes for Black Children, and Aria Halliday’s edited Black Girlhood Studies Reader.
As papers, panels, conferences, special issues, books, graduate programs, and tenure-track positions demonstrate, the field of black girlhood studies has reached new heights as it moves towards institutional recognition and support. As an emerging field and concept, it has the power to transform academic scholarship and theory on large-scale terms in three major areas: 1) theory, 2) teaching, and 3) public humanities. The intersectional forces of oppression that black girls experience cross lines of race, gender, and age. The theoretical work of the history of the lives of black children is revealing and generative. The authors who contribute to this significant history are doing intricate theorizing and conducting complicated research. These frameworks and methodologies should be taught as foundational theories alongside black feminist theory and historical categories of analysis as part of the groundbreaking work of Kimberle Crenshaw and Joan Scott. Students are drawn to courses that feature children generally, as a category and concept to which they can relate. Black girlhood studies introduces theoretically rich ways to analyze the history of childhood and youth, from discussions of their representation in the archive, to assumptions about race and age. Finally, black girlhood studies has the potential to reach the public in meaningful and accessible ways. These issues are contemporary and relevant—efforts to reclaim the significance and beauty of black childhood have been powerfully articulated through movements and hashtags of #blackgirlmagic, #blackboyjoy, and #hairlove. These trends demonstrate that black childhood and girlhood is still under siege but also fiercely defended. The field is undergoing an incredible moment of transformation and influence of which scholars of American history should take note and contribute.
Crystal Lynn Webster is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas, San Antonio. She was previously a Mellon dissertation fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia and her research has been supported by the American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing her first monograph, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), 119.
Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 44.
Josiah Gilbert Holland, History of Western Massachusetts: The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Embracing an Outline Aspects and Leading Interests, and Separate Histories of its One Hundred Towns (1855), 360.
Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).
Lucia Hodgson, “Infant Muse: Phillis Wheatley and the Revolutionary Rhetoric of Childhood,” Early American Literature, 49 (no. 3, 2014), 663–82. Tara Bynum, “Phillis Wheatley on Friendship,” Legacy, 31 (no. 1, 2014), 42–51.
Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1857), 40.
Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (1998).
Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing up Enslaved in the Antebellum South (2000).
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Maryemma Graham, Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper (1988).
Katharine Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane, eds., Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900 (2017).
Mary Niall Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery, American History and Culture (2008). Martha S. Jones, All Bound up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900 (2009). Chanta Haywood, “Constructing Childhood: The ‘Christian Recorder’ and Literature for Black Children, 1854–1865,” African American Review, 36 (Nov. 2003), 417–28. Crystal Lynn Webster, “In Pursuit of Autonomous Womanhood: Nineteenth-Century Black Motherhood in the U.S. North,” Slavery & Abolition, 38 (April 2017), 425–40.
Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual emancipation law declared African American children be placed into indentured servitude until age 28. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860 (1997), 72.
Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), 223.
Crystal Webster, "Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: Northern African American Children's Cultural and Political Resistance, 1780–1861" (Phd Diss., 2017), 1071. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations_2/1071.
Anna Mae Duane, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (2020)
Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (2017). Nazera Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (2016).
Geoff K. Ward, The Black Child-Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice (2012). Tera Eva Agyepong, The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899–1945 (2018).
Lindsey Elizabeth Jones, “‘The Most Unprotected of All Human Beings’: Black Girls, State Violence, and the Limits of Protection in Jim Crow Virginia,” Souls, 20 (Jan. 2018), 14–37.
Talitha L. LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, Justice, Power, and Politics (2015), 98.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), 204
Michelle H. Phillips, “The Children of Double Consciousness: From ‘The Souls of Black Folk to the Brownies’’ Book",’” PMLA, 128 (no. 3, 2013), 590–607.
Lakisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015).
Gerald Markowitz, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center (2017).
Katharine Capshaw, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (2014).
Aimee Meredith Cox, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (2015). Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (2019).
Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia González, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Center of Poverty and Inequality, Georgetown Law (2017), 4.
For texts that examine black girls as part of studies of black women’s history see Stephanie M. H Camp, Closer to Freedom Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004). Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City, Society and the Sexes in the Modern World Series (2008). Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (1997). Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing and Slavery in Jamaica (2017). Jennifer L Morgan, Laboring Women Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2011). Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (2016.) Deborah G. White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999).
LaKisha Michelle Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015). Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (2015). Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century.
Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011).
Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, 17 (Summer 1987), 64–81. Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019). See also Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016). Corinne T. Field, Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, Aboseded George, and Rhian Keyse, “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 9 (no. 3, 2016), 383–401.
 "Special Issue: Gendering the Carceral State: African American Women, History, and Criminal Justice," Journal of African American History, 100 ( Summer 2015). Global History of Black Girlhood Conference, University of Virginia, 2017. Childhoods of Color Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept 2019.
Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140 (1989), 139–67. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review, 91 (no. 5, 1986), 1053–75. A number of scholars are working in this field but have yet to publish. Their research contributed to the production of this essay including: Julia Charles, Kelli Racine Coles, Crystal Donkor, Jacinta Saffold, Sam White, and scholars of the History of Black Girlhood Network.