By Gholnecsar “Gholdy” Muhammad
In the 19th century, African American girls used their pens to shape the world around them. Meeting together in literary societies, they wrote what mattered to them while unapologetically loving themselves and each other. These literary societies developed into spaces of academic excellence, self-confidence and love. As I have discussed in my research, literary societies were some of the earliest book clubs in the United States and were spaces to come together, read engaging literature, and write about significant issues during the time. This created a true community of writers.
Six years ago, I started developing writing spaces that reflected literary societies. These communities took the form of summer writing institutes for black adolescent girls. I sought to craft a space where girls could use writing to shape their lives—for the benefit of themselves and others. I also wanted space for girls to simply and authentically be themselves, as I knew that the world did not always honor their voices or focus on their brilliance. For this reason and others, I knew it was important to foreground identity in the writing exercises with the girls.
What Iris Taught Me
I learned quite a valuable lesson from one of the girls (Iris) who participated in the first summer writing institute with me. She wrote something that reaffirmed the deep connections between identity and writing. Iris was academically successful in high school, usually making high marks on classroom and national assessments. During the first day, she wrote a journal entry saying that she did not feel comfortable with a personal sense of self. She struggled greatly with self-identity and said that she cried often amongst this pain.
At a research meeting, I spoke publicly about Iris and the importance of writing as a tool to shape identity. After this talk, a researcher commented that because Iris had strong grades and could easily get accepted into prestigious universities, educators did not have to worry about students like her and should instead focus on students who “actually struggle.” But what this person failed to honor was Iris’s voice and her sense of self. She needed more than grades or skills. Iris needed to feel confident in knowing herself.
This conversation reaffirmed the importance of identity and literacy and how the two cannot be isolated in the literacy development of black girls. It also helped me to expand the purpose and power of my writing instruction. Our goal is not just to help students be better writers, but for them to also have the confidence to use writing as a personal and sociopolitical tool to “read the world” and know themselves. For educators, it is critically important to push back on standards and practices that are not aligned to what students need most. Researchers, especially, must work toward rectifying the thinking of others who claim identity doesn’t matter (or matters less, compared to skills) in writing development with adolescents.
Identity matters. And it should be inherent in the writing process for black girls.
Identity Matters: Possibilities for Teaching
Writing teachers must move beyond focusing on knowledge (intellect) and writing proficiencies and seriously ask, “How can this writing exercise help my student to learn who they are and who they desire to be?”
When framing the writing institute around this question, I was intentional about the texts selected for the girls to read. I chose both print and nonprint texts–literature, primary source documents, images, video, music–that allowed the girls to question their identities and the identities of black women and girls at large. I then created a Sister Spark exercise that would incite thought within the girls’ minds. This was often a quote, image, or metaphor that would teach them about concepts such as solidarity, resilience, history, representation, racism, criticality, and intellectualism.
Next, I invited them into a section I called, “Herstory,” in which we did an author study of the selected mentor text. I wanted the girls to view themselves as writers, so it was important that they studied writing styles and purposes of writing from authors. This led to reading several examples of texts that modeled the style and structure of the genre we were due to write, but it also showed the ways in which writers wrote across multiple-layered identities.
After showing model examples of writing, I taught the girls about style, structure and organization of the genre we were writing. As the girls wrote, I would teach grammar and conventions in the context of the girls’ own writings or through the writings from the selected texts we read. At all points of writing, we would share and give feedback to each other’s works based on a feedback form of embedded descriptors that should have been found in their writings–such as organization, details, word choice, and coherent ideas. Each week we started a new piece of writing.
With each lesson, I had multidimensional goals of advancing and improving their writing skills, identity meaning making, intellect, and criticality (purposeful thinking and understanding of power, truth and perspectives).
Here are some other possibilities for teachers to encourage black girls in using writing to explore and shape their identities:
- Black girls are consistently misrepresented in mainstream media and are affected by these views. Typically media and literature have focused solely on girls’ physical beauty or skin color. Classroom writing can afford opportunities for girls to study these representations and resist or make sense of them.
- Black women have traditionally written about their multiple and multifaceted identities in their writings. They have written to define who they are so that others cannot claim authority over their lives. They have also written to resist false representations depicted upon their identities. When black girls approach writing across this same purpose, it connects them to their rich cultural history and to a lineage of writers. Focusing on identity is a culturally responsive approach to their histories and lineage of writers.
- Black girls can cultivate their voice and confidence by focusing on identity. In my research, I found when black girls chose the content of their writings, they then usually gravitated toward writing about some aspect of their multilayered selves. Teachers can create classroom spaces where their students have agency to select their own writing topics. Helpful writing exercises include, writing personal narratives, writing public addresses on the state of black girlhood or writing an essay where youth have to discuss who they are, who others say they are and their future, desired selves. Teachers should write their own pieces about self-identity and share with their students.
Teachers can help students cultivate their identities by finding mentor texts that model excellent examples while also containing language that is connected to selfhood. Examples include:
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: An Autobiographical Account of an Escaped Slave and Abolitionist (Jacobs, 1861)
- The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: 1899 – 1967 (Hughes, 1969)
- Maizon at Blue Hill (Woodson, 1992)
- Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (Ringgold, 1995)
- For Richer, the Poorer, Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences (West, 1996)
- Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (Sanchez, 1999)
- The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women’s Literature (Lee, 2005)
- Ruby and the Booker Boys Series (Barnes, 2008)
- Sellout (Wilkins, 2010)
- I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl! (Bynum, 2013)
- Brown Girl Dreaming (Woodson, 2014)
Using such mentor texts effectively will be a benefit for all students as well, as adolescents in general seek identity meaning making.
Black girls need to know themselves. It’s not something that should be sacrificed in designing pedagogy for them. They need instruction that is inherently embedded in their lives and draws upon their out-of-school understandings as well as their identities.
Gholnecsar “Gholdy” Muhammad is an assistant professor of language and literacyin the Department of Middle and Secondary Education at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on the writing and identity development of African American girls and includes publications (linked here) in Research in the Teaching of English, English Education, and Black History Bulletin.