HEAR OUR TRUTHS
The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood
By Ruth Nicole Brown
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Endangered Black Girls Instruction 301
"I'm brown, five four ... something like that, and I got black hair."
That was the most important thing she wanted me to know.
Tiara was extremely quiet and often called "shy" by everyone in the after-school program where I met her. When I arrived at her house to interview her about her experiences in the program, her twin sister, the one with the exuberant personality, declared Tiara would go second; I was to interview her first. Her sister told me important details about her experience in the program and then sent Tiara into the living room. Tiara, or, as her sister called her, the "quiet" twin, answered most of my questions nonverbally, shaking her head to indicate yes or no. To indicate uncertainty, which she did quite often, she shrugged her shoulders. My intuition told me that perhaps, before, she used to speak but had long since decided that her twin sister would be, should be, the most audible. At the end of my list of questions, feeling exasperated by a seemingly unproductive interview, I asked her if there was anything, anything at all, I should know about her. She broke her preferred, silent way of being and said rather pointedly but still in a soft voice, "I'm brown, five four ... something like that, and I got black hair."
I did not follow up with more questions. I thanked Tiara for her time. I left the apartment with her very short response on mindful repeat. I was without a clue about how to analyze one sentence as a unit of data. As a novice researcher, I feared that one sentence would sufficiently fail any rigorous critique made by others. But I knew I had one line from a very important Black girl, whose story I thought should be told. As I struggled to make meaning of her declaration, I realized that I also did not know her well enough to provide a context that could be substantiated by field notes or from commentary by the girls or program staff. Quite frankly, she never caught our attention in a way I documented. Quiet girls are all too often forgotten. But Tiara gave me something that deserved to be respected and handled warmly—her truth.
Tiara's truth was a turning point for me. It was a truth that was singular, small, extremely powerful, and a lesson. I learned that it takes creative means of expression to fully capture the complexities of Black girlhood. Given a single sentence, I used my imagination to create a dramatic context that could give meaning and occasion to what Tiara knew and told me. I drew from a variety of sources, personal, popular, and academic, to create a scene where her declaration could not be escaped or excused. Otherwise, Tiara's experience would be permanently reduced to outlier status and displaced by traditional positivist social science. The fact that she told me nothing else of import about her life left me wondering about other Black girls like her, whose stories may be lost to us, the general public, because we did not have the time, energy, know-how, or desire to hear what they have to say. Overlooking girls who rarely speak, and the passive acceptance of punishing girls who speak out, limits what is known about Black girls and the diverse complexity within Black girlhood. Starting with Tiara's truth, I wrote Endangered Black Girls (EBG), a play based on the lived experiences of Black girls I interviewed, researched, and read about in the news reports of journalists to document a noticeable omission in research and popular literature on Black girlhood: the complexity of Black girls' lived experience and the significance of extraordinary and persuasive Black-girl truths.
ENDANGERED BLACK GIRLS EXCERPT SCENE SIX: TIARA
Tiara's identical twin is extremely popular in school; Tiara is not. Tiara sports extension braids pulled into a ponytail decorated with blue and pink beads. Only her "sides" are missing. Teasing for Tiara is normal. She is often teased about her looks; her dress, hair, and skin complexion. Lights up on Tiara at home, watching a television special on "Endangered Black Girls."
NEWS ANCHOR: (on location) According to Black girls everywhere: "Popular is you gotta know everybody, and you gotta be half smart, and get the good grades, and you're nice, you're mean sometimes, and you're real together. You're good at all the activities in the school, like cheerleading, basketball, anything else for girls, and most of the teachers like you. You think you gotta be perfect—your face has to look right, you gotta have the right hair, you gotta have nice right clothes, you gotta know everybody."
Experts confirm and report: "Girls have to worry about their hair and how they look and what their weight is and how white their teeth are."
In breaking news: "Intimacy masks Betrayal. Good hair—that's the expression. We all know it, begin to hear it when we are small children. When we are sitting between the legs of mothers and sisters getting our hair combed ... For each of us getting our hair pressed is an important ritual. It is not a sign of our longing to be white. It is not a sign of our quest to be beautiful. We are girls. It is a sign of our desire to be women. It is a gesture that says we are approaching womanhood—a rite of passage ... Later, a senior in high school, I want to wear a natural, an Afro. I want never to get my hair pressed again. It is no longer a rite of passage, a chance to be intimate in the world of women." The intimacy masks betrayal, writes scholar, activist, feminist, and spiritualist bell hooks.
In other news, twenty-eight Black girls do not report to extracurricular school activities. Sources report that there has been a consistent no-show because they do not have their hair combed.
At a different school, Black girls in gym class rebel. Thirteen Black girls fail gym class. They refused to take the long distance running portion of the state mandatory fitness test due to light rain and high humidity. The girls staged a sit-in wearing Afro wigs, linked arm in arm. They chanted, "Hell no, we don't want no Afro!" One protestor commented, "Black girls have rights, too."
TIARA turns the channel. TALK SHOW HOST is on.
TALK SHOW HOST: Today is the day you have been waiting for, the latest pick for my book-of-the-month club.
Now, I have said this before, but THIS BOOK is one of my all-time favorites.
The book is ... Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur.
Applause. TALK SHOW HOST continues ...
Assata: An Autobiography is a thrilling account of one political prisoner's coming-of-age story, detailing her experiences as a Black Panther turned FBI fugitive. This book is going to enlighten us all as Assata Shakur makes a compelling case of the government's role in demobilizing the Black liberation movement. Extremely personal and political, this book should be on everyone's reading list.
After the commercial break, Assata Shakur will join us via satellite from Havana, Cuba. Get those mojitos ready. We'll be right back!
NEWS ANCHOR: In breaking news: To meet the demands of so many Black girls who dream of becoming hairdressers and cosmetologists, Wal-Mart opens its first beauty shop. Interested future Wal-Mart employees must be willing to forget the neutralizer on any employee that mentions union. Wal-Mart, everyday low prices, you settle for less!
Lights down on television with spotlight on TIARA writing in her journal and talking out loud to herself.
TIARA: I get—sometimes I get talked a lot about, but I don't get talked about no more. Like, some said that I'll act funny, and I'm afraid to fight, and all the other girls have long hair. My sides, they're kind of, like, messed up, cuz my mom pulled them out when I was little. She didn't take care of it, so now the other girls make fun of me. But there's more girls that are worser than me. But they get teased too, cuz some girls might not look pretty as another girl, and—or she may be ugly, and it's because she hear that people say she ugly, she probably gonna look at herself to say that it was true.
TALK SHOW HOST: Welcome back everyone. I'm sorry to have this happen, but during the commercial break we learned that we can't actually get to Assata Shakur. We tried several times to get through, but the bad connection is our fault. I'm sorry. So right now we will be joined by another activist icon, please join us, activist icon ...
ACTIVIST ICON: Colorism is a result of racism. Racism is pervasive, and it often becomes internalized. That's why people think light skin, long hair is in. Too often when little Black girls are called "Blackie" or "baldy" it is not simply about teasing. The girl that is doing the teasing and the girl that is being teased, if she believes her oppressor, are both participating in the reproduction of a historical continuum of injustice.
ACTIVIST ICON speaks directly to TIARA.
Girls like you, Tiara, are political prisoners. You are being held hostage by your mothers, your friends, your extended family, the media, your teachers, workplaces, colleges with hair codes, blond-wigwearing pop stars, and consumerism, all constructing the political landscape of Black hair. I speak about this in my book. When I was on the run, I wore a wig, underground. On the subway, I noticed how every other Black woman also wore some kind of hair that wasn't our own. I knew I was in danger, the FBI listed me a fugitive, my picture flashed on every television screen. I was wanted. But before riding the number 2 train downtown, I had no idea just how many Black women and girls in Amerikkka also seemed to be underground and on the run. We don't talk about our hair to just anyone because they don't know the Black hair lingo.
TIARA: Can you talk to me about my sides being missing?
ACTIVIST ICON: Do you know what it means to sit between your mama's legs for hours, head being tossed from one side to the other, smelling like grease and burnt hair for days? Have you heard the screams of my sisters running from the comb not made for our head? Have you sat for hours getting extensions added to your hair, missing out on playing outside, missing tutoring sessions, missing your favorite TV show because you gotta keep your head down?
TIARA: I don't have much to say. I whisper when I talk. I don't mind being the bad twin. I fade into the background at school. When you ask my opinion about something, I always say, "I don't know." My mother calls me lazy. My sister says I'm stupid. I am doing what I have been taught. I am doing what she told me to do.
ACTIVIST ICON: Tiara, who are you?
TIARA: I'm brown, five four, something like that, and I got black hair.
ACTIVIST ICON: You are the celebrated obedient Black girl. Too many of our girls are operating on the Black-girl mantra "Keep your head down."
Lights dim. Lights up on TIARA sitting between MARY's legs, getting a perm. MARY says, "Keep your head down."
H.O.T. GIRLS, RESEARCHER, AND LELA are combing each other's hair, repeating the mantra in the same way their mother used to say to them, "Keep your head down."
TIARA: I'm brown ... five four, something like that, and I got black hair.
India.Arie's song "I Am Not My Hair" plays while H.O.T. GIRLS get their hair combed.
Lights fade to Black.
Many of us should produce plays or poems or songs or other kinds of performances as ways of engaging with our data and expanding the interpretive possibilities. (Feldman, 2008)
I could not address the complexities of Black girlhood using traditional research methods and presentations. Instead, I wrote Endangered Black Girls. Several years later, I was approached to have my play performed by a campus theater troupe. I was honored and humbled, completely teary-eyed and weak in the knees. I had no idea if the play would work, if it had wings. I did not know what it meant to have someone else do "my" show. I could not promise them they would have an audience. Did anyone care about Black girls' stories? They wanted me to be involved in the production process. Would I be cast as the researcher? Would I fight for the integrity of what I wrote? I could still hear the girls' stories as they were told to me. What if the actors could not interpret their voices and stories with credibility? In addition, I was a single new mother, and theater happens at night. Who was going to watch my baby?
To say that the performance of EBG was beyond my wildest expectation in the very best way would be cliché, but it is also true. The director and supporting technicians were brilliant. The initial script was inadequate, but I was directed on how the smallest moments in the script were detailed enough to make rewrites and revisions possible and promising. The audience literally came by the busload, and people were turned away every night. The original cast, six undergraduates and one graduate student, gave new meaning to the script derived from the girls I knew and wrote about. The girls with whom I was currently working in the community attended a performance and thought that I wrote the show based on our very short time together (although I wrote the script years prior to meeting them), so I knew it was believable. EBG was a success because it resonated and was seen as relevant to the audience to whom I was most accountable—Black girls.
The first run of Endangered Black Girls lasted a week. The outcomes of that particular production were exponential, with proverbial ripple effects reaching back, moving forward, and multiplying in the current moment. Beyond increasing awareness of how issues including girl empowerment, identity politics, homophobia, female friendships, spirituality, responsibility, and work relate to Black girlhood, the short-lived yet nonetheless local celebrity enjoyed by all involved, the revisions of the script up until showtime, the priceless image of me on the steps in the tech booth, nervous to the bone, afraid to look on opening night, and the family and friends that made it possible for me to both mother and work, EBG even did more than that. I found myself at the end of Ntozake Shange's metaphorical rainbow, singing a new Black-girl song.
As a student of theater and performance, I have long since known the possibilities of performance. My involvement in Endangered Black Girls—from conducting the research; to writing the script; to revisions; to meeting, interacting, and becoming one with the original cast members; to learning from the director of its first production and growing tremendously from her brilliant interpretation of the piece (including the absences and my intentions even when not yet reflected in the script); to witnessing the performances—opened up possibilities for extending the celebration. Researching, writing, revising, performing, and seeing subsequent performances of Endangered Black Girls taught me how viable creative methodologies and arts scholarship are for capturing the complexity of Black girls' lives.
Students of performance are familiar with the live energy created during memorable and remarkable productions that have changed the lives of individuals and communities and that have transformed entire political systems. Those who have participated in performance know what the books cannot teach—the ability of performance to serve as an active conduit in the creation of communities of practice committed to new visions. I eagerly await other firsthand accounts in the documentation of why performance is a necessary form of research to benefit those whose performance as research remains in hidden and unsent files, whose story, not for lack of interest, remains on the flat page instead of courageously brought to the public stage.
Why performance? Performance provides opportunities to think, feel, and be with Tiara's truth as it relates to her personal situation, while also illuminating how social inequalities and cultural norms beyond her immediate influence construct her story as plausible. Politically, Tiara and girls like Tiara should be included in conversations about them, even if how they speak is unrecognizable by those in power. Performance enables the affirmation of the particulars of lived experiences. It is our responsibility as researchers and people who love those with whom we work to change systemic barriers to full participation in public life, not to change the people with whom we work. As a radical method, performance challenges disciplinary codes, thereby elevating the more emancipatory elements and affective impulses of social phenomena vital to critical thought, social-justice organizing, and a construction of Black girlhood that embraces Black girls' humanity.
HOW TO DO PERFORMANCE
Imagination is required to challenge academic routines and resist the status quo. Longtime educator and arts enthusiast Maxine Greene (1995) wrote, "It is imagination that draws us on, that enables us to make new connections of the reality we are envisaging" (p. 30). Artist-scholar Mary Weems (2003) related the imaginative capacity of researchers explicitly to knowledge production: "New ideas and reflection incorporate imagination, reason, and the passion that drives us to propose research, to ask questions, and to take risks" (p. 1). Paul Willis (2000) argued that "the ethnographically imagined possibility of making connections between art and everyday life is relevant to all of the social sciences, actually to all the ways of making sense of human place" (p. 6). Building on the work of Charles Pierce, authors Locke, Golden-Biddle, and Feldman (2008) wrote that abductive reasoning, or one process by which ideas may be generated, depends on imagination. Moreover, according to Martha Feldman (2008), in research inquiry, applying imagination is one way to expand the data; it is not making up data, but filling in what we know with what we have learned. Feldman's insight clarified that for new ideas to emerge from theorizing, the researcher must be changed and transformed by the work. (Continues...)
Excerpted from HEAR OUR TRUTHS by Ruth Nicole Brown. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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