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Some girl-saving, mentoring programs marginalize the very girls they are intended to empower, and use a cookie-cutter definition of girlhood that excludes black girls’ experiences, according to Ruth Nicole Brown, who holds appointments in educational policy studies, gender and women’s studies and a zero-time appointment in theater. In her new book, “Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy” (Peter Lang Publishing, 2008), Brown offers “practical insight and empirical evidence about one way to celebrate black girlhood in a contradictory culture that both loves and hates Black girls’ and women’s bodies, talents and intellect.”
A goal of Brown’s book is to speak “directly to many well-meaning adults and state directives that attempt to ‘empower’ girls without an understanding of what it means to be a black girl and to participate in a black girlhood that is mediated by race, class, gender, sexuality and hip-hop.”
Saving Our Lives Hearing Our Truths is an experience for and about black girls living and learning in Central Illinois that Brown founded and leads. SOLHOT provides a space for black girls to explore their experiences and what it means to be young, black and female in today’s society. The program encourages girls to create spaces of their own – physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually – to express who they are and desire to be through discussion, song, storytelling, dance, photography, poetry, video and other media. A central goal of the program is to document the lived realities of black girls for the purpose of creating institutional and relational mechanisms of accountability that affirm their worth.
They are “performances of black girlhood … that are influenced by and influence hip-hop culture among young people – who easily discern how hip-hop structured and structures a crucial part of their coming of age narrative,” Brown wrote.
Hip-hop music is sometimes criticized for misogynist and sexist lyrics, and while women of the hip-hop generation acknowledge that parts of hip-hop culture are problematic, they also contend that the lyrics and images serve as mirrors or cultural analyses of issues facing African American men and women – racism, sexism, economics, violence and transgressions by police.
“If you’re of a certain generation, maybe hip-hop doesn’t mean that much to you. But if you came of age post-1965, then quite possibly it signifies so much of what we associate with youth culture,” said Brown, who is among the young black women who self identify as hip-hop feminists. Previous black feminist movements have always remembered girls, and Brown’s works builds on literature in girls’ studies and black feminist theory to analyze the realities and needs of young black girls and women striving to foster community, augment feminist discourse and inspire activism. Brown and the undergraduate and graduate students with whom she works are archiving the process and outcomes of SOLHOT that include girl-made media and performances, some of which have been viewed publicly already. Brown’s research “The Rhythm, The Rhyme, and the Reason,” co-written with Chamara J. Kwakye and Candy Taaffe comprised the third act of a sold-out theater production that premiered at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts last fall.
Brown is an ethnographer, and for this project she relied on performance-based methodologies to represent her research. “I know several scholars who are presenting their research as dance or as theater because they work with youth and that’s an interesting way to come to performance methods. It’s really inspired by the young people we work with who are, among other things, great teachers of improvisation and master lyricists and storytellers,” Brown said. “Performance methodology is becoming more mainstream; the presentations are fun. Of course not everyone is a fan, but for me performance shifts the landscape of what we know to be possible, as a way of learning, teaching, and witnessing.”
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