Worried little girl sitting by a wall and looking up

African-American girls address negative portrayals

by Claire Miller

Assistant Professor Gholnecsar Muhammad has noticed a pattern of African-American girls and women depicted in public spheres as “overly sexual, violent or confrontational, judged by physical features or invisible across mainstream media and within school classrooms.”

“These portrayals are incomplete, absent of their own voices and fail to represent the full vision into the lives of black girls,” she said.

With such negative and inaccurate portrayals permeating current discourse, Muhammad sets out to study how African-American girls view and represent themselves and how they react to this public representation by creating literacy spaces that center on their voices. These literacy spaces reflect earlier 19th century black female literary societies in which readers organized to write across issues that were most urgent.

In an article published this year in Research in the Teaching of English, she outlines a study she conducted with eight African-American girls ages 12-17. Muhammad met with them regularly, introduced them to African-American women’s literature that they read, interpreted and discussed, and then had time to write on their own. Their writings ranged from personal narratives and poetry to short stories, informational pieces and open letters, within which they discussed community, cultural, individual, intellectual, kinship and sexual representations.

This project, which also encouraged the girls to share and critique their works, showed Muhammad the complexities inherent when girls internalize and address societal misrepresentations of African-American women and girls.

“I was reminded that researchers and educators must not get trapped in singular profiles of Black girlhood as seen publicly in media, in literature and within society,” she writes. “This was something that the girls resisted and wrote against.”

She also notes that educators should take this study to heart and consider how the content they’re teaching may impact how young girls view themselves. She suggests literacy educators move beyond skill goals and what’s measured on tests; instead, they should set goals to help youth understand selfhood and critically respond to injustices in the world.

“If educators can understand girls’ identities and ways to engage them in writing, this knowledge can help support them in crafting writing experiences in classrooms that not only build their skills but also help youth to make sense of who they are,” Muhammad writes.