The Case for Black Girlhood

A sixteen year old child, Ma’Khia Bryant, lost her life to the police in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday evening. Bryant’s murder was announced as the guilty verdict of David Chauvin—the cop who murdered George Floyd less than a year ago—was handed down in Minneapolis.

In the moments following her own murder, people rushed to paint her as deviant and therefore worthy of her death. One of the most insidious ways people began to construct her as deviant was by labeling the teenage girl as a woman.

The Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther referred to the teenager as a woman in a tweet about the shooting: “This afternoon a young woman tragically lost her life. We do not know all of the details. There is body-worn camera footage of the incident. We are working to review it as soon as possible. BCI is on the scene conducting an independent investigation — as they do with all CPD-involved shootings. We will share information that we can as soon as it becomes available. I’m asking for residents to remain calm and allow BCI to gather the facts.”

In a quick review of comments on social media surrounding Ma’Khia’s death we see that people are merciless in their desire to paint the sixteen year old as perverse. There is little to no framing of her behavior within the context of childhood. There is little consideration of her humanity. In fact, there seems to be an impulse to construct her as monstrous. Even in her death.

These assessments of Bryant as woman and monstrous are not unique. In fact, Black children often viewed as older and more adult than they actually are. This tendency to construct Black children as adults is known as adultification. This process is a “social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children ‘in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.’”

There has been quite a bit of work on how Black boys experience adultification. For example, in Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity Arnet Ferguson discusses how Black boys are “denied the masculine dispensation constituting white males as being ‘naturally naughty’ and are discerned as willfully bad.” Because of this denial of childhood to Black boys and society’s belief that they are already adult-like and therefore worthy of adult-like punishments, Black boys are more likely to be viewed as deserving of punishment within and outside of the school system.

Black girls experience adultification in a different way—largely one that is rooted in anti-Black misogyny (see also: misogynoir). By this I mean that Black girls are subjected to the same stereotypes as their adult Black women/femme counterparts—particularly the jezebel and the sapphire.

The jezebel can be described as a Black woman who is hypersexual and naturally so. When applied to Black girls, we see people describing them as “fast” or “too grown” or as a “hoochie-mama.” We may also see the jezebel stereotype cause people to assume these children are more knowledgeable about sex than they actually are. The sapphire stereotype is connected to ideas of the Black woman as loud, impulsive, unfeminine, rude, and overbearing. It is most well known in the context of the “angry Black woman.” When used against Black girls, the sapphire trope constructs Black girls as irrational, angry, and in need of control.

What’s more, articulations of Black girlhood in society will always be viewed as deviant because we hold a White femininity that is middle-class, heterosexual, and cisgender as normative. When Black girls depart from these performances of acceptable femininity, they are cast as criminal, in need of control, and deserving of punishment. In Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris tells us that this punishment can take on the form of jail, house arrest, in or out of school suspension, digital monitoring, detention centers, or death.

I want a world in which Black girls are allowed to exist as children.  A world in which we don’t have to mourn their childhood the moment they take their first breath. A world where Black women and femmes don’t have to mourn that child within that was not extended grace. Where they could scream and kick and laugh and cry and fuck up and are seen as children because of it. Where we don’t bend over backwards to construct a Black girl as criminal and worthy of her death.

I wish that world existed for my sisters. My mother. My grandmother. For my inner Black girl that chose silence in search of survival.

I wish that world existed for Ma’Khia.

I am wholly uninterested in discourses that demonize this child. I choose to spend this time grieving the Black girlhood that should have been and thinking about curating a world in which Black girlhood can be.

Perhaps this world will eventually materialize, but I’m tired of Black girls dying because we are incapable of seeing them as human.

Revisiting Songs of Childhood: Blackface Legacies of Children’s Folk Music in America

About this project:

This project is an attempt to trace how certain songs that we have come to consider to be a part of the United States folk and children’s music canon have roots within the tradition of blackface minstrelsy.

Emerging in the 1820s, reaching its peak between 1850-1870, and continuing to thrive well into the 20th century, blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment originating in the United States. Performers, typically white men, would blacken their skin with burnt cork and imitate the song, dance, and dialect of enslaved peoples of African descent. The songs they would perform in these minstrel shows were referred to as “negro” or “Ethiopian” songs. These songs would frequently make use of racist depictions of Black folks– relying on tropes of Black people as lazy, unintelligent, indulgent, ungrateful, and greedy.

It is no coincidence that the peak in blackface minstrelsy’s popularity coincides with the end of the Civil War (1861-1865.) Due to fears of a “rising Negro” after the war, white folks desired to create an imagined past in which Black folks were carefree, happy, and submissive while enslaved. Blackface minstrelsy aided in creating, selling, and exporting this grossly false narrative.

After blackface minstrelsy and its inherent racism became socially taboo (for some), the minstrel tunes began to be more or less  sanitized. For example, there was a sweeping removal of general references to slavery, the “negro dialect” was done away with and rebranding as “Southern”, and the overt racist imagery and lyrics were cleaned up…a bit. The sanitized versions of minstrel tunes eventually found their way into K-12 music classrooms and were taught to children without any historical context. I myself, someone with a degree in music education, have been taught many of these sanitized songs and have only recently discovered their connections to blackface upon entering graduate school.

Unfortunately because these songs have long been divorced from their origins with a simple sweep under the rug as opposed to any real reckoning with the implications of their shared history, many educators continue to unwittingly teach these songs to children and consider them essential to their musical development.

The following list in its current iteration attempts to trace the histories of the following songs: “Jump Jim Joe,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” “Camptown Races,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” After a short synopsis of the song’s history before each particular tune, I try to create a timeline from the earliest versions of the blackface tune to the sanitized version of the song we have come to know today. I include music recordings, YouTube video clips, sheet music, and lyrics to demonstrate how these songs are inseparable from their minstrel origins.

Although I do not think these songs have any place in the general music classroom, I do agree with Katya Ermolaeva in that these tunes “belong where their historical role can be explored in depth — in museums and history classrooms of higher education. Or they belong reclaimed by African American artists like Rhiannon Giddens.”

This list is by no means exhaustive or complete; however, this ongoing project will hopefully serve as but one redress to that glaringly intentional gap in the children’s music archive of the United States.

Note: as this project is concerned with recounting the histories of children’s songs with ties to blackface, the list below will contain racist/anti-Black lyrics and imagery.

    “Jump Jim Joe”

    “Jump Jim Joe” is a somewhat popular children’s “social dance” in which children stand in a circle, dance, and sing some variation of the following lyrics: “Jump, jump, jump Jim Joe!/ Nod your head and shake your head and tap your toe/ ‘Round and ’round and ’round you’ll go/ Then you find another partner and/ You Jump Jim Joe!”

    This children’s song is a diluted version of the 1828 blackface minstrelsy tune “Jump Jim Crow”– a song/dance made popular by the so-called father of blackface minstrelsy, Thomas Dartmouth Rice.

    Rice performed the song as the character “Jim Crow.” Jim Crow was depicted an old, crippled slave dressed in rags. Rice’s character and song were so popular that the eventual “Jim Crow Laws” were named after them.

    Sheet music of the original 1828 tune

    A recreation of what a Daddy Rice performance of the tune may have looked/sounded like.
    Part 1 of a 1917 variation of “Jump Jim Crow”– a version that more closely resembles the children’s tune “Jump Jim Joe”
    Part 2 of a 1917 variation of “Jump Jim Crow”– a version that more closely resembles the children’s tune “Jump Jim Joe”

    In addition to that variation, there is also a fiddle tune named after “Jump Jim Crow.” This transcription was taken from the Alan Jabbour collection found in the Library of Congress. The transcription and recording below are from performer Henry Reed.

    You can find a recording of Henry Reed’s performance here:

    Variations of this children’s song can be found on a number of CDs and billed for children and music educator websites/blogs.

    “Do Your Ears Hang Low”

    “Do Your Ears Hang Low” is another popular children’s song, one that I used to sing myself as a child.

    Here are the lyrics of one variant of the song:

    “Do your ears hang low?
    Do they wobble to and fro?
    Can you tie ’em in a knot?
    Can you tie ’em in a bow?
    Can you throw ’em o’er your shoulder
    Like a continental soldier
    Do your ears hang low?

    Do your ears stick out?
    Can you waggle them about?
    Can you flap them up and down
    As you fly around the town?
    Can you shut them up for sure
    When you hear an awful bore?
    Do your ears stick out?

    Do your ears flip-flop?
    Can you use them as a mop?
    Are they stringy at the bottom?
    Are they curly at the top?
    Can you use them for a swatter?
    Can you use them for a blotter?
    Do your ears flip-flop?

    Do your ears stand high?
    Do they reach up to the sky?
    Do they droop when they are wet?
    Do they stiffen when they’re dry?
    Can you summon o’er your neighbor
    With a minimum of labor?
    Do your ears stand high?”

    This song is most often sung to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”– a song that is based on the blackface minstrelsy tune “Zip Coon.”

    “Zip Coon” was made popular by blackface performer and composer George Washington Dixon in the 1830s. Another version of the song was published by Thomas Birch prior to Dixon in 1834. As you may know, the term “coon” is an anti-Black term meant to be insulting and derogatory towards a Black person.

    Although “Turkey in the Straw” originally began as a popular fiddle tune in the 1820s and can be connected to the traditional British song “The Old Rose Tree”, it was later appropriated by blackface performers and sung to the tune of “Zip Coon” in the late 19th century.

    “Turkey in the Straw” was then further appropriated by Harry C. Browne after he recorded “Ni**er Love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” (asterisks mine.)

    The tune, derived from “Zip Coon” and heard in all of these above iterations, is also known as the “Ice Cream Truck Song”– the melody that alerts us to when the truck is pulling into the neighborhood.

    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (1/3)

    The image for this sheet music is a depiction of the blackface minstrelsy character Zip Coon– a racist depiction of an “uppity,” typically Northern, African American.
    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (2/3)
    Thomas Birch’s “Zip Coon” sheet music (3/3)
    Recording of “Zip Coon”
    George Washington Dixon’s version (1/3)
    George Washington Dixon’s version (2/3)
    George Washington Dixon’s version (3/3)

    Henry Reed’s performance of “Turkey in the Straw” on fiddle. Transcribed by Alan Jabbour.

    You can find Reed’s performance here:

    The sheet music and lyrics of one version of “Turkey in the Straw”
    A recording of “Turkey in the Straw” from the 1995 Disney album “Goin’ Quackers!”

    A photograph of the banjo player and actor Harry C. Browne (1878-1954).

    He is the performer and writer of the 1916 song “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!” (asterisks are mine.)

    A recording of “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!”
    Theodore R. Johnson III argues in his 2014 NPR article “Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You” that the song we associate with ice cream trucks–the song that shares the same melody with “Turkey in the Straw,” “Zip Coon,” and “Ni**er Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!”– is inextricably linked to blackface minstrelsy.

    Listen to a version of the “Ice Cream Truck Song” above.

    NPR article link:
    A current version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low”
    A recording of a version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low”

    The Father of American Music

    Stephen Foster circa 1860

    Before continuing with children’s songs that have roots in blackface minstrelsy, it is important to highlight the so-called “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster. Known for works such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Jennie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Camptown Races,” Foster began writing songs for the minstrel stage around 1845. He frequently collaborated with the minstrel troupe Christy’s Minstrels. Foster’s tunes were also frequently performed by the “King of Blackface,” Al Jolson, throughout the first half of the 20th century.

    Although some Foster apologists tend to point to how after meeting abolitionist Charles Shiras, Foster’s songs seem to have more “sympathetic” portrayals of African Americans, we should remember that these songs were still written for the purposes of being performed in blackface on the minstrel stage– an inherently anti-Black performance practice.

    “Camptown Races”

    Written by Stephen Foster in 1850 and originally published with the title “Gwine to Run All Night, or De Camptown Races,” “Camptown Races” is another popular children’s song and folk song in the United States that has its origins in blackface minstrelsy. It was written for and made popular by the blackface minstrel troupe Christy’s Minstrels. Although the use of “negro dialect” has been largely eradicated in this song to give us the children’s song we might hear today, the melody and lyrics of “Camptown Races” have remained largely unchanged since its publication in 1850.

    Here is one version of the original lyrics:

    “De Camptown ladies sing dis song—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    De Camp-town race-track five miles long—Oh! doo-dah day!
    I come down dah wid my hat caved in—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    I go back home wid a pocket full of tin—Oh! doo-dah day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    De long tail filly and de big black hoss—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Dey fly de track and dey both cut across—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    De blind hoss sticken in a big mud hole—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Can’t touch bottom wid a ten foot pole—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    Old muley cow come on to de track—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    De bob-tail fling her ober his back—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    Den fly along like a rail-road car—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    Runnin’ a race wid a shootin’ star—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.

    See dem flyin’ on a ten mile heat—Doo-dah doo-dah!
    Round de race track, den repeat—Oh! doo-dah-day!
    I win my money on de bob-tail nag—Doo-dah! doo-dah!
    I keep my money in an old tow-bag—Oh! doo-dah-day!

    Gwine to run all night!
    Gwine to run all day!
    I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
    Somebody bet on de bay.”

    The song has been performed by artists such as Dave Brubeck, Bing Crosby, and Kenny Rogers.

    Sheet music for the original version of the tune (1/2)

    Found in the book Negro Minstrel Melodies: a Collection of Twenty-One Songs with Piano Accompaniment by Stephen Foster and Others/Edited by H. T. Burleigh
    Sheet music for the original version of the tune (2/2)

    Found in the book Negro Minstrel Melodies: a Collection of Twenty-One Songs with Piano Accompaniment by Stephen Foster and Others/Edited by H. T. Burleigh

    A promotional poster of Christy’s Minstrels– the group who introduced the song “Camptown Races” to the masses.

    1852 arrangement for for voice and guitar (1/2)
    1852 arrangement for for voice and guitar (2/2)
    Al Jolson’s performance of “Camptown Races” in the 1939 film Swanee River
    In the 1942 cartoon short Fresh Hare, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing “Camptown Races” in blackface.
    “Camptown Races” from Disney’s album Children’s Favorite Songs
    As mentioned previously, the lyrics and the melody have not shifted or changed too radically for this tune.

    “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

    The general public has only recently been made aware of the beloved folk song’s “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” connections to minstrelsy. Although it was first published as the “Levee Song” in the Princeton book of songs Carmina Princetonia in 1894, the minstrel song caricatures African American railroad workers. Additionally, the character “Dinah” mentioned in the song is a direct nod to yet another minstrel tune “Old Joe or Somebody in de House wid Dinah.” It should also be noted that this character, Dinah, is a “mammy” figure– a caricature of a Black mother often found in minstrel shows and songs. The name Dinah was most likely chosen due to the mammy-like character Old Aunt Dinah– a cook in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    According to April C. Armstrong, Princeton students held on to the tradition of singing the “Levee Song” as a source of nostalgia long into the mid-20th century.

    The chorus became a favorite among college choruses and the tune was eventually sanitized–leaving many unaware of its connection to blackface.

    Music educator and musicologist Dr. Katya Ermolaeva explores the racist origins of this song and makes the case for the removal of such songs from the music classroom in “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.”

    Here are the lyrics to today’s version:

    “I’ve been working on the railroad
    All the live long day
    I’ve been working on the railroad
    Just to pass the time away
    Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
    Rise up so early in the morn
    Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
    Dinah, blow your horn

    Dinah won’t you blow
    Dinah won’t you blow
    Dinah, won’t you blow your horn
    Dinah, won’t you blow,
    Dinah, won’t you blow,
    Dinah, won’t you blow your horn

    Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
    Someone’s in the kitchen I know
    Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
    Strumming on the old banjo

    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Fee fie fiddle eell o
    Strumming on the old banjo”

    “Levee Song” from Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2.
    “Levee Song; I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” by Sandhills Sixteen with a solo by E. Ellsworth Giles (1927)
    Sheet music to a present day version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
    “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” recording

    Works Cited

    Armstrong, April. “Ask Mr. Mudd: ‘Levee Song’ and Princeton’s Minstrel Shows.” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.” Posted January 18, 2017. Accessed December 7, 2020.

    Boni, Margaret Bradford, Norman Lloyd, Aurelius Battaglia, Anne Brooks, and Carl Van Doren. The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

    Burleigh, H. T., Stephen Collins Foster, and W. J Henderson. Negro Minstrel Melodies: A Collection of Twenty-One Songs, with Piano Accompaniment, by Stephen C. Foster and Others.. New York: G. Schirmer, 1909.

    Dixon, George Washington, “Zip Coon.” Historic Sheet Music Collection. (1830)

    Ermolaeva, Katya. “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.” Medium, October 30, 2019.

    Foster, Stephen Collins. Camptown Races. Baltimore: F. D. Benteen, 1852.

    Jabbour, Alan. Turkey in the Straw music transcription. [Between 1966 and 1968, 1966] Notated Music.

    Jabbour, Alan,  Karen Singer Jabbour, and Henry Reed. Turkey in the Straw. Reed family home, Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia, 1966. Audio.

    Jabbour, Alan,  Tom Rice, and Henry Reed. Jump Jim Crow. Reed family home, Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia, 1966. Audio.

    Jabbour, Alan, and Tom Rice. Jump Jim Crow music transcription. [Between 1966 and 1968, 1966] Notated Music.

    Saunders, Steven. “The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster’s Plantation Melodies.” American Music 30, no. 3 (2012): 275-89.

    Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

    Young, Rida, and Sigmund Romberg. “‘Jump, Jim Crow’ Sheet Music .” Jump, Jim Crow; Maytime [Historic American Sheet Music],

    Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music.

    Suggested Texts and Resources

    Benedict, Cathy, Patrick K. Schmidt, Gary Spruce, and Paul Woodford. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice In Music Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Brown, Danielle. “An Open Letter on Racism in Music Studies.” Decolonizing the Music Room: In Practice. June 2020.

    Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K Maultsby. African American Music: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Decolonizing the Music Classroom: an online resource for educators to help create a more just, equitable classroom.

    hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Floyd, Samuel A., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Maultsby, Portia K., and Mellonee V Burnim. Issues In African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

    Morrison, Matthew D. 2017. “The Sound(s) of Subjection: Constructing American Popular Music and Racial Identity through Blacksound.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 27 (1): 13–24.

    Songs with a Questionable Past: an expansive list of songs, chants, and rhymes with ties to racism, sexism, appropriation, and more compiled by Lauren McDougle, the director of the American Kodály Institute at Loyola University Maryland,

    Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. Ring Shout, Wheel about: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance In North American Slavery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

    Note of thanks: thank you to Dr. Julianne Graper who allowed me to work on this as a part of my Sound Studies seminar final project, thanks to friends and my mom for proofreading, thanks for those who have looked at and shared this resource, and thanks to Micah Joy Ling for workshopping a better fitting title with me!

    On the Inaudibility of Black Lives Matter

    I made the decision to go to graduate school in the summer of 2015. If you can recall, this was the summer that Dylann Roof opened fire during a Bible study in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the summer Bree Newsome tore down the confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. This was the summer I heard people in my home state of Georgia cry out and cling onto the myth of “heritage not hate.” This was the summer Trump announced that he would be running for President.

    I was naïve enough to believe that if I went to graduate school, people would believe what I’m saying. That they would understand the anti-Black racism was thriving in this country. That symbols of racism are damning and are attached to false narratives of rebellion. That what you mean when you insist that Trump is “finally telling the truth” is that we finally have someone willing to say the quiet parts out loud.

    After five years, I’m a bit wiser. Or maybe a bit more cynical.

    As someone whose life has been bookended by Black death at the hands of police and as someone who has had a lot of time to think during a pandemic, I’ve been considering the seeming inaudibility of the phrase Black Lives Matter. People seem intent upon twisting this hearing this declaration not as an affirmation of Black folks’ right to live, but as an affront to their being. As an unwarranted complaint from an ungrateful, insubordinate people.

    What are you hearing when I say that my life has value? Why is there that impulse to counter with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or as I’ve heard most recently, “White Lives Matter”? I have come to realize that there are folks who believe the calls Black folks are making for freedom and liberation are viewed as literal calls for “Black supremacy.” Calls for an inversion of the white supremacist rule of law that has thrived in this country since its inception.

    Now ain’t that something? That the mere utterance that Black lives matter in an anti-Black world is an affront to their (perhaps your) being?

    What does this say for these folks, that they are completely incapable of imagining a world in which Black folks aren’t shot dead in the street simply because their very body is a threat to a White supremacist world order?

    A Black body that has experienced joy and love and sorrow and all that humanity promises us, but also a Black body that is tethered to a long and tiresome past of racial violence– a past that these folks *refuse* to understand or reckon with?

    I guess I should say what I hear when I hear these “retorts” to my life. I hear that you think anti-Black racism is exaggerated or has been overcome. I hear that you think police have the right to have access to my body and my community whenever and however they want because of a badge. I hear that you want Black people to shut the hell up and be happy. I hear that you want me dead.

    Perhaps what I am hearing above all is that you have not been listening and you have no plans to do so. So, I’m done trying to explain my community’s claim to humanity to folks who consistently and willfully misunderstand a statement as simple as Black Lives Matter.

    Because I’m tired.

    List of Books Dealing with Race/Anti-Racism that Aren’t “White Fragility”

    In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the state and a national reckoning with our deeply seated racial inequity, many folks are turning to books to become more knowledgeable of the realities of anti-Black racism in the United States.

    That’s dope! Really!

    However, based on best seller lists from USA Today and the New York Times, one of the books folks are choosing to flock to is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I don’t question the intentions of these folks in deciding to begin with this text– I’m sure they mean well; however, we should think about why there is this tendency to celebrate, amplify, or center a white voice in discussions of racism (see Anastasia Kārkliņa’s piece on this point). This issue becomes especially problematic when you consider DiAngelo has been making an enormous profit from centering herself in these discussions and thus diverting resources from BIPOC scholars who have been doing this work. Who live this work.

    So, I have thrown together a list of books that may prove to be useful in thinking about Blackness and racism. This is obviously not exhaustive or perfect by any means– to be honest it’s mainly influenced by what’s on my bookshelf and what I thought could be accessible to most people. But I hope it helps someone out!

    • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
      • “Praised by Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier as ‘brave and bold,’ this book directly challenges the notion that the presidency of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that ‘we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.’ By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.”
    • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson
      • “Carefully linking… historical flashpoints when social progress for African Americans was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.”
    • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
      • “At once a powerful evocation of his childhood in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, The Fire Next Time, which galvanized the nation in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, stands as one of the essential works of our literature.”
    • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
      • “Austin Channing Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools and churches, Austin writes, ‘I had to learn what it means to love blackness,’ a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion. In a time when nearly every institution (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claims to value diversity in its mission statement, Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice.”
    • Eloquent Rage: a Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
      • “So what if it’s true that Black women are mad as hell? They have the right to be. In the Black feminist tradition of Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting. Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. Black women’s eloquent rage is what makes Serena Williams such a powerful tennis player. It’s what makes Beyoncé’s girl power anthems resonate so hard. It’s what makes Michelle Obama an icon. Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable. It reminds women that they don’t have to settle for less.”
    • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors
      • “Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin…. When They Call You a Terrorist is Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s reflection on humanity. It is an empowering account of survival, strength and resilience and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.”
    • Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, Edited by Angela Davis
      • “A comprehensive, readable analysis of the key issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, this thought-provoking and compelling anthology features essays by some of the nation’s most influential and respected criminal justice experts and legal scholars. Policing the Black Man explores and critiques the many ways the criminal justice system impacts the lives of African American boys and men at every stage of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing. Essays range from an explication of the historical roots of racism in the criminal justice system to an examination of modern-day police killings of unarmed black men.”
    • From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, Elizabeth Hinton
      • “In the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the ‘land of the free’ become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America’s prison problem originated with the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the civil rights era.”
    • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
      • “A classic work of feminist scholarship, Ain’t I a Woman has become a must-read for all those interested in the nature of black womanhood. Examining the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism among feminists, and the black woman’s involvement with feminism, hooks attempts to move us beyond racist and sexist assumptions. The result is nothing short of groundbreaking, giving this book a critical place on every feminist scholar’s bookshelf.”
    • Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, E. Patrick Johnson
      • “While over the past decade a number of scholars have done significant work on questions of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered identities, this volume is the first to collect this groundbreaking work and make black queer studies visible as a developing field of study in the United States. Bringing together essays by established and emergent scholars, this collection assesses the strengths and weaknesses of prior work on race and sexuality and highlights the theoretical and political issues at stake in the nascent field of black queer studies. Including work by scholars based in English, film studies, black studies, sociology, history, political science, legal studies, cultural studies, and performance studies, the volume showcases the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the black queer studies project.”
    • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
      • “Presenting the essential writings of black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider celebrates an influential voice in twentieth-century literature. In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope.”
    • Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley
      • “Kelley unearths freedom dreams in this exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora in the twentieth century. Focusing on the visions of activists from C. L. R. James to Aime Cesaire and Malcolm X, Kelley writes of the hope that Communism offered, the mindscapes of Surrealism, the transformative potential of radical feminism, and of the four-hundred-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. From’the preeminent historian of black popular culture’ (Cornel West), an inspiring work on the power of imagination to transform society.”
    • Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls In Schools, Monique Morris
      • “In a work that Lisa Delpit calls “imperative reading,” Monique W. Morris (Black Stats, Too Beautiful for Words) chronicles the experiences of Black girls across the country whose intricate lives are misunderstood, highly judged–by teachers, administrators, and the justice system–and degraded by the very institutions charged with helping them flourish. Called “compelling” and ‘thought-provoking’ by Kirkus Reviews, Pushout exposes a world of confined potential and supports the rising movement to challenge the policies, practices, and cultural illiteracy that push countless students out of school and into unhealthy, unstable, and often unsafe futures.”
    • The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison
      • “America’s foremost novelist reflects on the themes that preoccupy her work and increasingly dominate national and world politics: race, fear, borders, the mass movement of peoples, the desire for belonging. What is race and why does it matter? What motivates the human tendency to construct Others? Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?”
    • The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Khalil Gibran Muhammad
      • “How did we come to think of race as synonymous with crime? A brilliant and deeply disturbing biography of the idea of black criminality in the making of modern urban America, The Condemnation of Blackness reveals the influence this pernicious myth, rooted in crime statistics, has had on our society and our sense of self. Black crime statistics have shaped debates about everything from public education to policing to presidential elections, fueling racism and justifying inequality. How was this statistical link between blackness and criminality initially forged? Why was the same link not made for whites? In the age of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump, under the shadow of Ferguson and Baltimore, no questions could be more urgent.”
    • The History of White People, Nell Painter
      • “Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of whiteness for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of race is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.”
    • Black Lives Matter & Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection, Edited by Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan
      • “Music has always been integral to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, with songs such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ J. Cole’s ‘Be Free,’ D’Angelo and the Vanguard ‘The Charade,’ The Game’s ‘Don’t Shoot,’ Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout,’ Usher’s ‘Chains,’ and many others serving as unofficial anthems and soundtracks for members and allies of the movement. In this collection of critical studies, contributors draw from ethnographic research and personal encounters to illustrate how scholarly research of, approaches to, and teaching about the role of music in the Black Lives Matter movement can contribute to public awareness of the social, economic, political, scientific, and other forms of injustices in our society.”
    • Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall
      • “The first major anthology to trace the development, from the early 1800s to the present, of black feminist thought in the United States, Words of Fire is Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s comprehensive collection of writings, in the feminist tradition, of more than sixty African American women. From the pioneering work of abolitionist Maria Miller Stewart and anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells-Barnett to the writings of contemporary feminist critics Michele Wallace and bell hooks, black women have been writing about the multiple jeopardies–racism, sexism, and classicm–that have made it imperative for them to forge a brand of feminism uniquely their own.”
    • From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
      • “For most of US history, the police have used violence against African Americans with impunity—but after the murder of unarmed teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, mass protests erupted to challenge that impunity. In the process, a new generation of Black activists has come to question the old methods of struggle, puncture the Obama-era illusion of a ‘postracial’ United States, and declare without apology that #BlackLivesMatter. In this stirring and insightful analysis, activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor surveys the history and current realities of US racism. Taylor examines how institutional racism has created and shaped the structural problems that affect Black people, such as mass incarceration and unemployment, even as more Black people hold political office than ever before. She paints a vivid picture of the context for this new struggle against police violence—and shows the potential of the Black Lives Matter movement to reignite and broaden the struggle for liberation.”
    • From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity, Miles White
      • “This multilayered study of the representation of black masculinity in musical and cultural performance takes aim at the reduction of African American male culture to stereotypes of deviance, misogyny, and excess. Broadening the significance of hip-hop culture by linking it to other expressive forms within popular culture, Miles White examines how these representations have both encouraged the demonization of young black males in the United States and abroad and contributed to the construction of their identities. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z traces black male representations to chattel slavery and American minstrelsy as early examples of fetishization and commodification of black male subjectivity.”
    • The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
      • “In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America.”
    • Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, George Yancy
      • “When George Yancy penned a New York Times op-ed entitled ‘Dear White America’ asking white Americans to confront the ways that they benefit from racism, he knew his article would be controversial. But he was unprepared for the flood of vitriol in response. The resulting blowback played out in the national media, with critics attacking Yancy in every form possible–including death threats–and supporters rallying to his side. Despite the rhetoric of a ‘post-race’ America, Yancy quickly discovered that racism is still alive, crude, and vicious in its expression. In Backlash, Yancy expands upon the original article and chronicles the ensuing controversy as he seeks to understand what it was about the op-ed that created so much rage among so many white readers. He challenges white Americans to rise above the vitriol and to develop a new empathy for the African American experience.”

    Happy reading ‘n learning!

    Note: the hyperlinks will take you to either Black owned bookstores or Bookshop.

    A More Loving Fire: Collectively Reimagining a Better World

    “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us ” Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

    I have grown up in a country that seems intent on my destruction. Perhaps that feels like an exaggeration to some, but I have listened as others casually discuss the murder of Black folks as if it were a natural consequence of their skin my entire life.

    When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, I remember expressing frustration and anger to a White friend. They coolly responded, “Zimmerman did what anyone would have done.” I was initially shocked and disgusted after they said this to me—a Black woman; however, after further reflection, I realized that this statement was disgusting, but true. The ability to take Black life is a right that has been granted to folks in this country since its inception—from slavery to Emmett Till to J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith to Tamir Rice to Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor…

    In that moment, I realized that this country was not built for me. In fact, this country thrives in its ability to constantly strip me of my humanity.

    Perhaps after watching our country disastrously handle a pandemic, confronting the realities of anti-Black racism and police brutality, seeing children locked in cages, witnessing folks being criminalized for poverty, seeing folks go into monumental debt because they’re sick, and you know…growing hip to the shear callousness of the United States, you have also come to realize that this system was not built for you either.

    We deserve more, those who came before us deserved more, and those who are yet to come deserve more. It is no longer acceptable to simply be in denial of the country we live in. I also do not believe that it is enough to only want to burn it down without any thought of the “after.” That, again, would be a disservice to myself, my ancestors, and those who will come after me.

    What we need, I think, is a more loving fire– a term articulated by sister-scholar Allie Martin. A willingness to burn down the systems that are literally killing us, while also holding space for thinking about the world that might be. That should be.

    This is not a new thought— Black folks have been radically imagining possible futures and making a way outta no way for generations. However, I do feel like some current revolutionary rhetoric is missing this imagination and a certain (as my sister-scholar Andrea Marie puts it) politic of love.

    What is that world, free from anti-Blackness, misogyny, transphobia, sexism, imperialism, racism, and White supremacy, that we wish to create? How do we create that world by embodying it daily? As Allie Martin says, “Imagining/practicing the better world will both create the better world and burn down the old one.”

    So I ask, how are we actively imagining, embodying, and thus, creating a world in which we’re all free? Because this world ain’t it.

    On (Mis)Hearing of Black Women and Why I’m Tired

    Black women in the United States occupy a unique intersection of race, class, and gender that frequently results in their being constantly misheard and denied the right of voice and expression. My work currently looks at how Black girls experience this in the classroom and the ways in which sound is used to deny their humanity and childhood. Oddly, I always thought of myself as doing this work for other Black girls and women, but not myself.

    It’s not as if I have not had unofficial lessons in how to make myself small, agreeable, and nonthreatening my entire life. How to speak in a way that gets my point across, but not too harshly. Or how to speak in a way that’s not too sassy. Too angry. Too disrespectful. In fact, over the last 25 years I think I’ve gotten pretty good at making others comfortable by silencing parts of myself. Despite that, I’ve noticed that folks continue to misunderstand me—willfully or otherwise. I faithfully learned how to swallow these false ideas of who I am. I began to realize that no matter what I said or how I said it, my Black body rendered my speech unintelligible. This realization only grew stronger once I began graduate school.

    My first three years of school in Bloomington, Indiana were a difficult time for me. I noticed that in coursework, my words became something for men and White folks to flatten out to something that was unrecognizable to me. My words became something they could play with and bend to the will of their argument. The actual content of what I was saying was unimportant, but the ability to use me and my body as a springboard for their own convoluted ideas was, in fact, crucial. Perhaps even necessary for the workings of academia that I was still not privy to.

     I began to grow numb to this when it occurred. Numb to my words being used as someone’s plaything. I usually just fell silent once they began to respond to some contorted argument nobody in the room was making. I didn’t want to appear outwardly confrontational or angry—a right that was (and continues to be) extended to many of my White and male colleagues. However, I was certainly growing resentful of the space I was in and how I resigned myself to a state of placation.

    My work during the second year began to increasingly focus on racialized listening practices—how Blackness is not only a visual phenomenon, but a sonic one, as well. I was and remain particularly interested in how racialized listening practices lends itself to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black girls in the US school system. As someone who works with children, who is in Black studies, and who believes the humanity of Black children deserves to be honored, I found this work incredibly fulfilling. And, strangely, healing.

    I did not previously think that it might be healing because I am also doing this work for myself. That realization was an embarrassingly recent one. I am doing this work to make sense of why eleven year old Kennedi was asked to leave class for asking a question disrespectfully. I am doing this work to make sense of why a White man physically flinched when I gently pushed back on a comment he made during my second year of undergrad. I am doing this work for the times people who aren’t Black have spoken to me with a “blaccent” in an effort to be funny or “hip.” I am doing this work for that one time I was told I created a hostile environment in the classroom for disagreeing with a professor.

    I have attempted to approach each of these moments and similar interactions with kindness. I have always actively taken stock of my tone in moments of frustration, anger, and disappointment in fear of being registered as the “angry Black woman,” or unintelligent, or overly emotional. These efforts often proved to be pointless.

    At the beginning of the month, I was talking with another Black woman about how frustrated I was in my efforts to be heard.  I was seeking to make sense of a specific interaction that occurred earlier that day, but I don’t remember the exact details—the “microaggressions” of mishearing all bleed together. However, I do remember her response.

    She told me that I don’t always have to theorize my own oppression to make sense of things and to validate what is happening to the oppressor. She told me that sometimes I can just say to myself “This sucks. I’m allowed to be upset without explanation.” She continued by reminding me that constantly being expected to explain my own oppression to those who are not willing to change on their own accord, can be a distraction. That it stops me from doing the work I am passionate about: Black liberation.

    Her advice felt freeing. Difficult, but freeing.

    Since the conversation, I have been better able to sit with the incorrect ways people choose to hear me based on preconceived notions of Blackness, femininity, and class. I still find myself growing frustrated and wasting a lot of energy trying to find the right phrase or tone to make myself intelligible to others. In fact, I’ve been internally wrestling with this frustration for the past few weeks.

    For today, I will take a break, refuse further explanations of self, allow myself to think this sucks, and feel upset.