|Abstract:||Despite the academic potential or achievement of Black girls in American schools, they are still thought to be loud, deviant, hypersexual, violent and needing to be saved (Brown, 2009; 2013). The influence of these stereotypes about Black girls coupled with historical inequities in the education of Black students (Chatelain, 2015; Siddle-Walker, 1996; King, 1995; Ladner, 1971) continues to negatively impact their educational experiences and severely limit their pathways to success (Morris, 2007; Evans-Winters, 2005; African American Policy Forum, 2015; National Women’s Law Center, 2014). Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT) is an arts-infused, afterschool space housed within a public middle school that is dedicated to documenting the lived experiences of Black girls for the purpose of collectively producing knowledge that is relevant, Black girl-centered, directed toward policy-makers, researchers and stakeholders in education and speaks back to the stereotypes about Black girls.
The overall purpose of this interdisciplinary and qualitative dissertation is to share research based on relevant literature, interviews of the girls in SOLHOT, documentary photographs, reflexive field notes and participant observations for the purpose of simultaneously constructing counter-narratives to the stereotypes about Black girls in education and reimagining narratives about Black girls’ lives that center their lived realities as they see it. In response to the negatively constructed images of Black girls in education (i.e. deviant, loud, hypersexual, violent, needing to be saved), more specifically, the objective of this research is to examine, understand and document the knowledge about the realities of girlhood Black girls collectively (re)member and construct using photography and text.
In SOLHOT, Black girls share their life stories, using a camera as a tool for interrogating notions of power, voice, agency and representation as articulated within the stereotypes of Black girls in education and use those photographs to document their counter-narratives to those stereotypes and unapologetically share their photos with the world. Few bodies of literature, if any, in Education, African American Studies, or Women’s Studies discuss specifically, the engagement of Black girls and visual methods, thus an important and necessary contribution of this research. The following research questions guide this research project:
1. What negatively constructed images of Black girls as community members and middle school students have SOLHOT participants been forced to consume?
2. How do Black girls see themselves in relationship to school and community? Specifically, what are the counter-narratives that SOLHOT participants construct using photography and text as the primary documentation of such narratives?
3. What influence does the use of visual methods in SOLHOT offer to traditional visual methodology?
Specifically, I argue that an intentional combination of critical/active listening (on the part of the researcher), documentary photography (in the hands of the girls) and the engagement of arts-based activities that focus on the celebration of Black girls’ experiences produces a unique form of visual ethnography that results in the contribution of Black girl-authored counter-narratives that stand squarely within a strong legacy of African Americans using photography as a tool for social change within the arts and social movement work.
This research is situated within a theoretical framework influenced by Black Feminist Thought and Critical Race Theory and centered within a non-negotiable premise and intersectional analysis that posits that the lives of Black girls matter. The doing of this project spanned over the course of one academic year (2008-2009). I worked with six middle school-aged Black girls in a small, campus town in Central Illinois. The girls were selected at the discretion of our school liaison and took place within a pre-determined classroom space during the afterschool hours. Each session with the girls was three hours long and took place once a week during a 6-week period in fall and a 6-week period in the spring. Documentary photographs, semi-structured, individual interviews, activity handouts, and field notes were utilized as units of data and resulted in six hours of interview transcriptions and thirty-six hours of participant observation.
In an intentional attempt to remix traditional visual methods, such as photovoice and documentary photography, the girls involved in SOLHOT purposely value photographic meaning derived from a collective voice rather than an individual one in speaking back to the stereotypes about Black girls. The cacophony of our ethnographic photographs establishes, what we call, a Black Girl Gaze- an emerging concept in visual theory and a concerted effort of resistance to use photography to document how and what Black girls (re)member about their lives and leverage the sharing of those images to publicly speak back to the stereotypes about Black girls in schools and community. More specifically, the establishment and privileging of a Black Girl Gaze is necessary because it is 1) situated in a relevant moment of time within an increasing digital culture (digital cameras, phone cameras and social media); 2) claims the voice of authority Black girls have in choosing images that portray key aspects of their lives to and deconstruct those images in ways that speak back to stereotypical narratives about who Black girls are expected to be; and 3) offers counter-narratives about the lives of Black girls and compelling versions of truth in response to the stereotypes perpetuated about them in education and community. In addition, an extension of this research can result in the creation of a new set of cultural competencies to be utilized by scholars interested in conducting research about/and with Black girls.