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May 2014

Protecting Black Girlhood: Thoughts On bell hooks’ and Salamishah Tillet’s Discussion

Black feminist scholars, writers, educators and thinkers bell hooks and Salamishah Tillet met for an invigorating talk titled “Passionate Presence: Protecting Black Girlhood,” which I live tweeted as I watched via The New School’s feed on Livestream. The talk was really good as it focused on Black girls as subjects and not objects; Black girls as worthy of discussion independent of re-centering on Black boys/Black men or even adult Black women beyond the context of how images/behaviors of adult Black women impact Black girls (and that Black women were once Black girls). It’s not everyday that Black girls get to be a subject, so I was glad to watch the talk. Many topics were raised and my tweets allude to most of them, but for this essay I will mention 3 of the areas discussed: Black girls and violence, Black girls and self-esteem, and Black girls and media representation.


Their conversation was really good albeit of course difficult on Black girls experiencing violence. Salamishah Tillet mentioned how 40% of girls trafficked in the United States (yes, it happens here; the Western gaze is one where denial of its existence here is strong and bell hooks mentioned this alluding to domestic anti-Blackness and misogynoir) are Black girls and how 66% of Black women report experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18, according to Black Women’s Blueprint. bell hooks mentioned how Black girls are not even coded as victims since the Black female body is one disregarded and harmed. She shared her personal experience of almost being sexually abused and how the feelings and needs of the male abuser were prioritized over her own. The conversation on intraracial violence is important in general. Black girls and Black women are primarily abused by Black men, period. However, bell hooks raised a great point regarding witnessing violence against Black girls as an everyday thing. She shared a story about seeing young Black mothers hitting young children and realizing that feminists who don’t stand for men hitting women are more silent on parents, including mothers, hitting children because of how Black children are viewed as “property.” This made me realize that the dehumanization that Black people already experience, that Black women especially experience because of race and gender intersecting, is further amplified for a Black child because of the notion of children as “property.”

bell hooks and Salamishah Tillet also discussed Black girls as the subject of violence within an interracial scope as well. I love that they brought up and named the “4 little girls” (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robison, and Denise McNair) who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, responsible for radicalizing many Black activists including Angela Davis. Salamishah Tillet connected this to Renisha McBride and racist White male violence against Black girls’ bodies and bell hooks juxtaposed how their names aren’t as known as say a Jon Benet Ramsey or aren’t connected to the picture of violence when people describe Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. Why do so few people know these girls’ names? And this question connected to Salamishah Tillet’s general theme about the visibility of Black girls. Invisible yet hypervisible (because of misogynoir) but only as caricatures of themselves and non-persons, not living, feeling, loving human beings. They mentioned how President Obama responded to the murder of Hadiya Pendleton with his paternalistic speech (I hated it) that eschewed systemic oppression for “personal responsibility” and though he clearly recognizes gender issues on a macro level (i.e. rape, equal pay) he still approaches Blackness without adequately addressing the issues of Black girls and Black women (despite being surrounded by 2 Black women and 2 Black girls in his personal life). bell hooks mentioned how this may be because that will be deemed to alienate White women if they feel they aren’t the center of everything, as usual. Clearly. Anyway, bell hooks and Salamishah Tillet covered many good points in discussing violence and the impact on Black girls revealing how important it is to understand the complexities of both intraracial violence (which is not arbitrary but connects to the oppression experienced via imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy) and interracial violence.

I really love some of the points they made about self-esteem for Black girls. bell hooks mentioned a way to engage in everyday activism is seeing how we interact with Black girls, what images do we create for them and are their experiences listened to. Salamishah Tillet mentioned how important it is for Black girls to be recognized as experts on their experiences and have safe spaces to share their voices. I cannot stress this enough. A part of recognizing the humanity of Black girls is recognizing that they are experts on their own experiences and lives; they live the intersectionality that everyone argues and theorizes. As a young Black girl, I dealt with poverty, street harassment from adult Black men, racist teachers, colourism from both the Black male gaze other Black girls, sexism and misogynoir in the Black Church and so much more, and adulthood or not, literally no adult Black man, White woman, White man etc. could claim to know that particular set of experiences unique to being a Black girl. Trust Black girls to know their own experiences. I love that bell hooks mentioned that within The Black Church via older Black women was where her self-esteem and intelligence were affirmed. And Salamishah Tillet mentioned that she’s working on a book about Nina Simone and that while Nina was a dark Black girl living in the South amidst racism, she also was a child whose genius was affirmed within her household, whose gifts were appreciated. This is really important for Black girls. Clearly self-esteem does not eradicate systemic oppression (and pain and mental health issues have to be addressed; bell hooks alluded to this) and such a suggestion is ignorance even as Black girls and Black women are regularly told that self-esteem will eradicate colourism, for example. This is false. Self-esteem matters, but it doesn’t alter institutional factors. It’s something I’ve had to repeat in social media spaces for years, as many Black women have had to.

Some of bell hooks’ and Salamishah Tillet’s most riveting discussion was about Black girls and media representation. bell hooks is not a fan of the film Beasts of The Southern Wild (a film I reviewed as well; I appreciated Quvenzhané’s acting chops but the film is not a favorite of mine) nor 12 Years A Slave (in her last talk with Melissa Harris-Perry, she mentioned preference for Django Unchained, a film I loathe and MHP loathes and we prefer 12 Years A Slave; we womanists/Black feminists are individuals and do not have to agree on every point) and mentioned her discontent with how the Black female body is portrayed in both films. bell hooks mentioned that she would never take a daughter if she had one to see 12 Years A Slave because of how “Patsey’s” body was degraded and then a female slave child would be shown before/after, as if that was all the child had to look forward to. Her points are clearly valid albeit I still believe the film has a lot of merit, though it’s not one I discuss online (and I mentioned why I don’t before) as it is too triggering for me. They had some important discussion on how we get to see Sasha Obama and Malia Obama but rarely hear from them in the way that we did from Chelsea Clinton during the Clinton Administration. And while I recognize the need for protection of the girls, which the Obamas stated is important to them, at the same time, in a way they are incredibly visible but also invisible. This again speaks to Salamishah Tillet’s point that alluded to both visibility and accuracy are needed when we see Black girls.

They also had some conversation on both Lupita (which seemed to lean towards the “fetish” argument) and Beyoncé (which seemed to reduce her feminism to Ban Bossy and wealth) and I disagreed (it is okay to disagree as womanists/Black feminists; we do not have to be monolithic in order for our views and lives to matter) with some points bell hooks presented, which I shared in my Storify. Lupita is beautiful and it’s true many Black women are beautiful like her (which bell hooks mentioned). But even if every single Black woman is as beautiful as Lupita, media can only showcase representations. And bell hooks herself said that we need to envision new images (which I wrote about before) and that representation matters. bell hooks herself said "how can we market decolonized images if we’re marketing in a frame of imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy?" Lupita’s presence in media is exceptional in that space is rarely made for Black women who look like her but NOT exceptional in that Black women who look like her do not exist and are only a “fetish” and never human. We desire Lupita’s image then immediately degrade it to “fetish?” Perhaps how Black women and Black girls view Lupita should matter more than “honest” or “dishonest” intentions by Whites. Maybe for once we can prioritize our own gaze over the White gaze. (I shared more of my thoughts on Lupita prior to this talk in my essay: Lupita Nyong’o Is People Magazine’s Most Beautiful and Has Great Perspectives On Beauty Politics) On Beyoncé, no I don’t think she should’ve been reduced to just Ban Bossy and my essay Beyoncé, #BanBossy and Feminist Credentialism critiques Ban Bossy, actually, as I don’t like it either. While Beyoncé’s presence in formalized neoliberal feminism might be her desire for feminist “credentials,” (kind of like how bell hooks has the credential of a Ph.D. and the academe itself is apart of the status quo, by design, not in opposition to it necessarily) it is in fact her music—music that runs laps around the bullshit of facile campaigns created by White neoliberal feminists—that is empowering to me and womanist to me; it is her life that she shares via her Tumblr/Instagram where we see part of who she is. I don’t look to any “campaigns” for feminism. And since in the talk bell hooks herself alluded to the fact that celebrities can be effective in spreading radical messages (she mentioned Jada Pinkett-Smith and envisioning Black motherhood), Lupita’s presence and insights on beauty and Beyoncé’s womanist messages in her music and her life do both.  Thus, I found bell hooks somewhat contradictory in the earlier mention of celebrities in her talk and the latter comments on Lupita and Beyoncé. Both of these women mean quite a bit to many Black girls and Black women. 

I think inadvertently an important point about visibility itself surfaced. When bell hooks mentioned what Michelle Obama said about Beyoncé as a role model (and I am not into “role models” for adult Black women, to be clear; desire for adequate, nuanced and truly human media representation for adults is NOT the same thing as “role models;” we are adults and infantilization into requiring “role models” directly connects to misogynoir and the idea that Black women are inherently immoral and need “guidance;” it’s not the same concept as discussing Black girls and role models) and said she felt sad for the Obama girls if that is all they have, it felt a bit disingenuous. Clearly Michelle Obama is a critically thinking person who cares for her daughters; I doubt they have one role model in Beyoncé. When I was young, Janet Jackson was who many Black girls adored the way many Black girls do Beyoncé now. But if someone suggested she was my role model or only one, that would clearly be disingenuous. Black women have a plethora of role models and the idea that it is dearth is usually based on respectability politics, not viewing Black women as nuanced beings and only having one vision of who can be a role model for a Black girl. I don’t feel like this was intentional on bell hooks’ part but it just seemed almost silly to suggest that the Obama girls have a single role model. They live with an amazing mother and grandmother already. They have access to spaces and places that many Black girls don’t. I think they will be fine on role model acquisition. But I did agree with bell hooks that their own visibility as Black girls in the public eye—as one with their own voices—should be greater. Their existence in public space with voices and views could really inspire other Black girls. 

Overall, this talk was incredibly interesting, important and it really got me thinking about how important Black girls are to me and how every email I get from a teenage Black girl who reaches out to me is an opportunity to do something that really matters. It reminded me of my past days of working with young Black girls on self-esteem, mental health and educational goals as a counselor. (My only complaint about the talk [and not points I disagreed on; disagreement is okay here since we are not “debating” eachother’s humanity, which is not a debatable thing, but differ on some fine tuned perspectives] is that the audience interrupter who had some homophobic and transphobic statements should’ve been corrected on the spot immediately, regardless of how uncomfortable that would’ve become.) It’s also important to me to recognize Black women like bell hooks and Salamishah Tillet—and so many other scholars (not all degreed and “formal” either)—as intellectuals (bell hooks has used Noam Chomsky’s phrase of “dissident intellectual” over “public intellectual” in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope) and thinkers and realize how critical Black women’s epistemology is, how our lived experiences and intersectional perspectives shape and touch literally every aspect of anti-oppression theory and praxis, even as we are actively erased from it. Clearly centering Black women would automatically improve the livelyhood of many since Black women face multiple intersecting oppressions that other people may face only in part. As bell hooks herself wrote before, margin to center. Margin…to center. And being that Black girls live at the margins, protecting Black girlhood is critical to me. 

Protecting Black girlhood means Black women listening to important talks like this one and evaluating our activism in terms of our own self-esteem and self-determination, but also being a source of guidance in these same areas for Black girls. Protecting Black girlhood means acknowledging how important it is to trust Black girls’ as experts on their own experiences, as important enough to consider their safety, as beautiful enough to affirm their beauty as subjects and not objects of appropriation and scorn, as valuable enough to foster their self-esteem and provide them with the images and representation that will confer their nuanced, complicated, vulnerable and resilient humanity. Protecting Black girlhood means recognizing not every Black girl is cis and Black trans girl experiences are valuable; they most definitely must be loved and cherished too. Protecting Black girlhood means healing the hurt Black girl that grew up to be a Black woman. Protecting Black girlhood means listening to Black girls, believing Black girls, and valuing Black girls. 

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