Welcome to Girl Museum’s 10th Anniversary year. We have many exciting projects for our community, including this new blog series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies. Each month we will feature an interview with a scholar in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and its experiences.
Our third interview is with Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Let’s begin with defining our terms, especially since Girls’ Studies is a relatively new academic area. Can you tell our readers what your field of expertise is and how you see it within Girls’ Studies?
My entire career is devoted to creating knowledge about Black girlhood with Black girls and women. In 2006, I founded Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT) to celebrate Black girls and to create new narrative, images, and ways of dreaming about a collective Black girlhood primarily through research, writing, and engagement. That same year, I taught my first university course on Black girlhood. The work I do is in direct conversation with Girls’ Studies though I found it useful then and still find it important to narrate my work as Black Girlhood Studies. I really believe theorizing Black girlhood with Black girls can tell us everything about all kinds of worlds- those made and yet unmade. I really believe research as being in consistent conversation with Black girls to collectively practice our most radical visions of Black girlhood shifts the center of gravity to make felt exactly the magnitude of what is at stake in our doing, research, writing, and creative work that are most transformative and more just.
I remain compelled to research with Black girls and write about Black girlhood because Black girls and women deserve spaces where we are valued and seen by each other and those interactions are worth documentation and academic consideration.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
I am inspired by the ways Black girls in SOLHOT are always ahead of the times and what we make with our collective power. I remain motivated by SOLHOT’s impact in academia, various communities across the United States, and of course in people’s personal lives including my own. Black Girlhood Studies is needed to shift paradigmatic assumptions about Black girlhood, influence ways of organizing to be enthusiastically accountable to Black girls, encourage all traces of Black girl life, and to document what Black girls know and can know when…. for the purpose radically reimagining relations, plans, and power.
Without doubt or delay, I want every Black girl to experience SOLHOT and enjoy making space with others who still believe in promises, holding each other, and struggling collectively. SOLHOT is my life’s work, it’s how I make the revolution irresistible (as Toni Cade Bambara encouraged). Since the start of SOLHOT, I have witnessed SOLHOT spin-offs, the development of new artistic partnerships among people who did not know each other before, and Black girls who renewed commitments to their dreams. I stay encouraged.
Black Girlhood Studies (BGS) is also necessary because it makes a way for interdisciplinary and antidisciplinary approaches to the study of Black girlhood and girls to be taken up, seriously engaged, and extended. BGS as I teach it also means public scholarship is a worthwhile way to begin a career, not at all something to pursue “after tenure”. I think what’s particularly amazing about the work I’ve accomplished thus far is its insistence on creativity as a powerful force of knowing, being, and for coming together. One of the ways I mobilize the knowledge made in SOLHOT and Black Girl Genius Week is through performance and creative work. As an artist-scholar who does collective work, all of us together, inspires a way more funkdafied creative will than I could imagine alone. Some more soul and artistry would very much improve Girlhood Studies as a whole.
There are vast disparities globally in girls’ situations, with incremental improvements in some areas and serious steps backwards in others. From your work in Girls’ Studies, what are some positives you take away from the academic interest in girls and girlhood? What changes can it lead to?
The scholarship and artistry of Jessica Robinson, Blair E. Smith, Anya Wallace, Asha French, Dr. Chamara J. Kwakye, Dr. Dominique Hill, and Dr. Porshe Garner immediately come to mind and heart when thinking about what is positive about Girls’ Studies and I hope all of Girls’ Studies is paying attention. I am also inspired by up and coming scholars doing work on Black girlhood such as Evelyn Sekajipo, Ashleigh Greene Wade, Aja Reynolds, Maya White and Mahogany Mayfield. Their work conceptualizes Black girlhood within and across diaspora, Black feminisms, and womanist wisdom. What most inspires me about their research and cultural work is that it emerges from a profound and nuanced belief in community. The care they take with girls’ ideas in conversation with their own is exemplary and fundamentally changes and strengthens (by opening up) how we do pedagogy, think Black girlhood, and make scholarship.
Any time someone declares the ideas and/or practices of SOLHOT have made a positive difference in their life I am a bit more convinced that the way I have approached the academy is worthwhile for the communities that mean the most to me. This is no small feat and has always required so much more than an academic interest in girls and girlhood. That work in the academy can help us think radically about Black girlhood diasporas, create connections between people, and be the reason someone keeps saying yes to life is what I know from the people I’ve been privileged to work with (in and outside of the academy) and has made for knowledge that does what’s called for while also insisting on remaining undone as lit path to our deepest desires.
What are the biggest challenges now and going forward for Girls Studies in an academic world? Do you see Girls’ Studies programs being a reality?
Invincible’s song lyrics, “I keep going even when I want to stop” motivate me because the current political moment is profoundly overwhelming. However, every time a girl asks me, Is SOLHOT today? I am ready and reminded that Black girls are more powerful than politicians, status quo schooling, and other people’s mediocre expectations. Emotionally, my belief in Black girls keeps me going. Pragmatically, SOLHOT saves lives and promotes the hearing of truths which keeps me going. Politically and socially, SOLHOT remains necessary. In SOLHOT we’ve already won every time Black girls’ power is respected and we “trust each other enough” as Dr. Durell Callier has said, to say what we need to say and do what is needed and right by each other. I have long since believed building collective power is more important than programming.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
I am much more interested in how girls use the Internet to defy algorithms and all the places the Internet can’t reach.
Thank you to Dr. Brown for participating in our conversation. For more about information, please visit her homepage.
Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Sarah Godfrey of the University of East Anglia.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.