“Um to me, being a Black girl is fighting the stereotypes that people have, like about all of us being loud and obnoxious, ghetto, ratchet, promiscuous, and all that.”
Following a Saturday morning arts-based workshop with Deborah, Christa, Unique, Philippi, and Nicole (self-designated pseudonyms), I interviewed girls about their workshop experience. I was also eager to learn about how they defined Black girlhood. Sitting upright in her seat, looking up at the ceiling and then eventually lowering her gaze to meet mine, Unique candidly shared her thoughts. She expressed frustration that despite being smart, serious about her education, and performing an unproblematic comportment, she felt unseen and overshadowed by the negative stereotypes. While it could prove useful to examine the racialized characteristics and the larger archetypes they support—like the thot, welfare queen, hood rat, and even older relics like the jezebel— it is also essential to hear the reality that fighting is quotidian to being a Black girl.
When a Black girl is bullied and forced to choose between uninterrupted education and self-definition a fight follows. For example, when a Black girl is invited to the front of the room only to be sent back to her seat in tears with a braid missing or denied the experience of taking yearbook photos or required to remove beads in the middle of a game, a fight follows. As anti-Blackness and racialized expectations of femininity converge with loose and subjective interpretations of policies and regulations, Black girls must decide with whom or what they want to brawl. Although frequently attached to girls at each other’s throats, this truism is evidence of how Black girls’ embodiment is marked problematic, something to be policed, a reason for her confinement.
In what ways is justice intimately tied to expression and self-definition?
“I understand hair clips and stuff that’s like on my forehead and stuff. I understand that, cuz it applies to everybody. But ask yourself, who else wears beads? Who else wears things that hang off braids in your hair?”
On April 19, 2021, high school sophomore and softball player Nicole Pyles became the target of anti-Black and gendered microaggressions. After playing a full inning and hitting a double, her beads were suddenly an issue. Nicole’s teammates collaborated to use some bands to secure the beads, and she tucked them into her sports bra. Allowed to return to the field, she helped her team strike out their opponent until it was her turn at bat.
In Nicole’s statement during an interview with The News & Observer, she made plain that the decision to label her hair a problem at this particular moment was both unethical and unnecessary. In addition to playing the first inning of the game on April 19, Nicole had played the first four games of the tournament with no issue.
The coach of the opposing team first brought attention to her hair, claiming it obstructed her jersey number, and then an umpire gave Nicole the ultimatum to remove the beads or sit out of the game. To Nicole, these were fighting words. Appalled by the demand and aware that the call wasn’t really about following a rule, she firmly and candidly communicated, “And so I made the decision that I was gonna remove my beads and I was gonna play my game.” The groundedness of Nicole’s deliberation can be understood as a transgressive act, one wherein a boundary is crossed in the name of a benefit, a desire, and in this case, an insistence on doing what she came to do: play (and win) her game.
Only the opposing team’s coach knows his true motivations for rigidly enforcing the rules at that particular moment. However, it would not be the first time a Black girls’ adornment or expression of self has rattled others, nor the first injustice endured due to hair stylization. They changed the game on Nicole. Under pressure from the other team’s coach, the umpire decided to invoke the code, placing full responsibility and blame on Nicole and her coach in the final hour of the tournament. Perhaps they bet on her having a different response to their push, that she would get rightfully indignant, loud, or disheveled. Being a Black girl requires us to choose our opponents carefully. Nicole decided to place her undivided attention on the game and fight her battle off the field.
What do Black girls’ deliberations about their bodies teach us?
In the face of varying textures of injustice, Black girls are inviting us to practice reliability. While there was no physical altercation on the field, the restriction of beads in the rules and the after-the-fact argument that her number was covered by her hair revealed the foul play afoot.
From over a decade of work with Black girls, reliability emerged as a pedagogy and tenet, a way to represent Black girls and the lessons they gift. Returning to Unique’s statement about fighting stereotypes and Black girlhood, to practice reliability with Black girls requires that their self-definition is welcomed. It is to ensure that rules and policies involving their livelihood are based on actual concerns of harm. To practice Black girl reliability in Nicole’s case would have meant breaking out into the game ‘Little Sally Walker’ cheering, “Gon’ girl, do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang, switch,” because she was on her game and her beads weren’t bothering nobody.
It would have meant leaving her be and believing in Nicole’s assessment of potential injury, her hair, and the game she came to win and wanted to play. When we say Black girls’ names, let it be in exaltation. Black girls everywhere are demanding that we see the injustice in denying their flavor, especially in spaces where they aren’t expected to be or shine. It’s up to all of us to listen.
Read Hill’s piece in the #SayHerName symposium here.
Dominique C. Hill, PhD, is a Blackqueer feminist whose written and performed scholarship interrogates Black embodiment with foci in girlhood, education, and artistic expression. Hill, in research and praxis, seeks to extend the field of Black girlhood studies as an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Colgate University.