Black Girls Matter
A TC conference celebrates the “multiple literacies” and highlights the education needs of black girls and women
The audience in TC’s Cowin Center was just settling in for a long Saturday when the room went dark, the stage lights came up, and two young women appeared at either end of the stage. Together, Sade Swift, an undergraduate urban studies major at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, and Cynthia Vasquez, an 11th grader at High Tech High School in New Jersey’s Middleton Township, recited the opening stanza of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
That opening salvo in late February served notice that “And Still We Rise: A Conference on Black Girls and Women in Education,” would be anything but an academic exercise.
Calling the event “both a critical and celebratory space,” conference organizer. Monique Lane, a second-year TC Minority Postdoctoral Fellow, told the audience of more than 300 that “black female youth’s race, class, and gender oppression doesn’t exist solely within educational contexts – thus, we need inter- and trans-disciplinary thinking and collaboration, which is why I called on us all to come together today.”
On the one hand, Lane said, the focus of the conference was to “consider the recurring acts of police brutality, state-sanctioned violence against black women and girls, inequitable access to mental and physical health care, under-resourced schools” and to debunk “the myths of the invincible black woman – a discourse that masks the needs of young girls, as though they are not in need of support.” Yet she also called on her listeners to “celebrate black women’s and black girls’ multiple literacies” and to support their pursuit of excellence through “pedagogical strategies that humanize and empower our young women in schools.”
The parallel themes of vulnerability and power were sounded repeatedly throughout the day. Kenote speaker Venus Evans-Winters, Associate Professor of Education at Illinois State University, said that “many educational researchers and other social scientists overlook how black girls can be both vulnerable and resilient in a society that privileges male over female, white over non-white, and wealth over poverty.”
Evans-Winters, a board-certified therapist and the author of Teaching Black Girls: Resiliency in Urban Classrooms, argued that “theorists miss the opportunity to explore the role of oppression and individual agency in the socialization and life experiences of black girls and young women.” Conventional academic forms are not adequate for that work, she suggested, because of the nature of black, female experience itself.
“In the 90s, being inspired by hip hop’s celebratory black female sexuality, calls to fight the power, house, party, hip hop and gangsta rap music, I knew for sure that black girls’ possessed multiple identities that would require complex social and scientific thought,” she said, closing with a call for educators to provide opportunities for young black girls to tell their stories unabashedly.
A panel titled “Schoolin’ Black Girls” provided just such an opportunity. Moderated by TC’s Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education, Swift, Vasquez and three other young women addressed the challenges they have faced in school, their conception of an ideal class, their relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement and their criteria for healthy relationships with peers.
“‘And Still We Rise’ was more than just a conference – it was the start to a revolution of resilience and resistance,” said Swift afterward. “This conference taught me to love myself again, with all my imperfection, all of my fro and hips, and all the unapologetic Afro-Latina that is me.”
For Lane, who worked for seven months with TC Curriculum & Teaching doctoral student Jamie Uva to put the conference together, such sentiments were an affirmation of passing on an experience that has been central to her own career.
“Dr. Evans-Winters is my long time mentor, and that’s been so incredibly necessary for me, because when I started out, no one else in my Graduate School of Education was doing research on black girls,” she says. “So it was amazing to see the light in these young women’s eyes as they spoke openly and candidly in front of a large audience and saw their ideas being accepted and celebrated. Now they can take that back to their schools, where they are often overlooked and simultaneously hyper-visible for the wrong reasons.”
The conference closed with a reading by an 11th grader, Dominique Pierre Louise, of a poem she had written for the occasion. Its final stanza reads:
Don’t you dare say my pigment is
of my character,
My black is persistent,
it enamors a room,
my black makes you listen,
makes the sunflowers stand straight,
our black like the sun it glistens,
we have a fire in us,
Black is friction
We are worthy,
Black excellence is not fiction
“And Still We Rise” was sponsored by TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), Racial Literacy Roundtables (RLR) and the Office of the Provost. New York City K-12 teachers who attended were able to earn professional development certification hours. – Joe Levine
Published Monday, Jun 6, 2016