Release Party: Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century


From the new UIP release Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, by Nazera Sadiq Wright

African American educator and activist Fannie Barrier Williams highlighted what could happen when black girls in literature served merely to illustrate the problems associated with race advancement at the turn of the twentieth century.

In her 1905 essay “The Colored Girl,” Williams criticized how black girls were often presented as symbols of the problems of the race: “The term ‘colored girl’ is almost a term of reproach in the social life of America. . . . She is not known and hence not believed in; she belongs to a race that is best designated by the term ‘problem,’ and she lives beneath the shadow of that problem which envelopes and obscures her.”

Williams claimed that what black girls truly wanted was “to be respected and believed in. This is more important than position and opportunities.” For Williams, the focus should be on the interior desires and aspirations of black girls instead of seeing them as figureheads who were assigned responsibility for carrying the weight of the entire race. Williams condemned black intellectual thought that limited black girls’ choices. Black girls “need encouragement to do whatever her hands find to do, and to be protected and honored for it. If the colored girl of character and intelligence must cook, who shall say that she is not deserving of the honors of the best social life as the girl who plays the piano or manipulates a typewriter,” she wrote.

Whether black girls cooked or “manipulate[d] a typewriter,” Williams insisted that men should “place a higher premium on character than we do upon the quality of her occupation. . . . Let her be loved, admired, encouraged, and above all things, heroically protected against scorn and contempt of men, black as well as white.” Today’s national neglect of black girls is connected to a long-standing and ongoing conversation among black intellectual activists about how representations of black girls served simply to support bourgeois values that linked their comportment, careers, and conduct to class hierarchies. Williams and other black women inserted their voices into this debate by focusing on black girls.