Taunts, Tweets, and Black Girl Genius

March 6, 2013
By

By Salamishah Tillet

images-3“Baby girl genius,” is what I muttered when I saw Quvenzhané Wallis shine bright on the television screen last Oscar Sunday night.

Beaming in midnight blue and flexing her bity arms, she was a sight never seen at the Academy Awards before.  It was not simply because at nine-years-old, she was the youngest person to be nominated for the best actress award.  Wallis at once conjured up the pugilistic audacity of Ali and the bicep boldness of Michelle Obama; she blended real girl power with an old school swagger.

My good friend and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson responded by asking me, “Who but from God could give that little girl such unshakable self-confidence that she can express herself so freely without fear of anything or anybody.”

Her display of prepubescent fearlessness was matched only by a parental pride shared by many African Americans who understood the historical weight of Wallis’s achievement.  We were watching, alongside millions of other people worldwide, what novelist A.J. Verdelle pointed out in the Huffington Post, a young black girl “bolstered by serendipity and her own talent and her devoted parents and an amazing film — living a dream.”

In this context, the degrading Onion tweet and Seth MacFarlane’s crude joke “To give you an idea of how young [Quvenzhane Wallis] is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too young for Clooney” become even more offensive.  They are both symptomatic of a society that still does not like girls, but especially black girls, as prodigy.

2012 was the year of black girl prodigy: tennis sensation Taylor Townsend, two-time gold medal Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglass, and the wunderkind Wallis.  And yet, in each case – on the hard courts, red carpet or in red leotard – their talent has been publicly ridiculed or in the case of Townsend, rejected away.

Historically, the term prodigy has been so racially coded as white and sexually coded as male that there are almost no black girls to which the public has applied this term.  We’ve only very recently with “the celebrations of Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison,” writes Columbia professor Farah Griffin’s in her book on Billie Holiday, “grant[ed] black women the title genius.”

In fact, as Griffin argues in If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery, black women and by default black girls have been thought of as “incapable of possessing genius.”  Instead, they emerged as the ultimate icons of hyper-sexuality and social invisibility and their achievements as “the very opposite of intellectual achievement.”

images-1This is the backdrop that framed the defense of Quvenzhané Wallis’s merited and meteoric rise to Hollywood’s elite.  For Wallis to grow, survive, and thrive on the big screen and ultimately, in our society as a woman, we must nurture her genius and applaud her confidence.

But, for those of us who want so desperately to shield her from racial taunts and sexist tweets, we are not simply thinking of Wallis alone.  According to American Psychological Association, the self–esteem of American girls actually peaks at nine-years-old, the same age as Wallis.  And then, in large part due to their sexualization in the media, their self-image takes a dramatic nosedive.

We also understand Wallis’s symbolism to the millions of African Americans girls – our most fragile citizens – who are vulnerable to extraordinary acts of violence, everyday.

Girls like the gone-to-soon slain teenager, Haidiya Pendleton, for whom the activist Aisha Truss-Miller & Family and the Black Youth Project launched a successful petition calling on President Obama to make a speech on gun-violence in Chicago.

And the vast majority of girls with whom I work through A Long Walk Home that experience sexual and dating violence at a crisis rate.  Unlike Pendleton or Wallis, their lives continue to be unrecognized, their voices continue to be ignored, and whether they are prodigies or not, far too many have already had their confidence stifled by the intersection of racism, sexism, and poverty into which they were born.

So, it is for them and for Quvenzhané Wallis that I shout these words, “Shine on! You are the one, we’ve been waiting for.”

___________________________________________________

Headshot PENN CasualSalamishah Tillet is an Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home.  She is currently working on a book on the child prodigy, Nina Simone.

Tags: , , , ,

28 Responses to Taunts, Tweets, and Black Girl Genius

  1. mary lou bethune on March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Wonderful article – you are so right.

  2. mary lou bethune on March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Wonderful article – you are so right.

  3. mary lou bethune on March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Wonderful article – you are so right.

  4. mary lou bethune on March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Wonderful article – you are so right.

  5. Anne Senecal on March 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Great article, don’t forget Claressa Shields in your list of 2012 prodigies!

  6. Anne Senecal on March 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Great article, don’t forget Claressa Shields in your list of 2012 prodigies!

  7. Anne Senecal on March 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Great article, don’t forget Claressa Shields in your list of 2012 prodigies!

  8. Anne Senecal on March 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Great article, don’t forget Claressa Shields in your list of 2012 prodigies!

  9. Felise on March 10, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for this article, I had a few “Amen” and “A-ha” moments when reading it. The first moment occurred when reading that historically the term prodigy and genius has not been used to describe black women or girls. This is a seemingly obvious fact; however the article made me consider the impact. I paused to consider all of the women in my life who I think are worthy of being called genius. I can name many and yet I am sure that none of them have been labeled as such. I am willing to bet most of them do not consider themselves genius. Another point I was struck by was Michael Eric Dyson’s comment. I agree with Dyson, but I must add that Quvenzhané’s unshakable self-confidence must be also credited to superb parenting. I also believe that the increased visibility and undeniable achievements of black girls and women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Taylor Townsend, Gabby Douglass, and Claressa Shields must have helped shape Quvenzhané’s view on some level. It appears as if Quvenzhané does not few herself as one of “our most fragile citizens”. Certainly her peers, Sasha and Malia Obama do not. Perhaps in years to come it will not be remarkable for a little Black girl to be confident; it will be expected.

  10. Felise on March 10, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for this article, I had a few “Amen” and “A-ha” moments when reading it. The first moment occurred when reading that historically the term prodigy and genius has not been used to describe black women or girls. This is a seemingly obvious fact; however the article made me consider the impact. I paused to consider all of the women in my life who I think are worthy of being called genius. I can name many and yet I am sure that none of them have been labeled as such. I am willing to bet most of them do not consider themselves genius. Another point I was struck by was Michael Eric Dyson’s comment. I agree with Dyson, but I must add that Quvenzhané’s unshakable self-confidence must be also credited to superb parenting. I also believe that the increased visibility and undeniable achievements of black girls and women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Taylor Townsend, Gabby Douglass, and Claressa Shields must have helped shape Quvenzhané’s view on some level. It appears as if Quvenzhané does not few herself as one of “our most fragile citizens”. Certainly her peers, Sasha and Malia Obama do not. Perhaps in years to come it will not be remarkable for a little Black girl to be confident; it will be expected.

  11. Felise on March 10, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for this article, I had a few “Amen” and “A-ha” moments when reading it. The first moment occurred when reading that historically the term prodigy and genius has not been used to describe black women or girls. This is a seemingly obvious fact; however the article made me consider the impact. I paused to consider all of the women in my life who I think are worthy of being called genius. I can name many and yet I am sure that none of them have been labeled as such. I am willing to bet most of them do not consider themselves genius. Another point I was struck by was Michael Eric Dyson’s comment. I agree with Dyson, but I must add that Quvenzhané’s unshakable self-confidence must be also credited to superb parenting. I also believe that the increased visibility and undeniable achievements of black girls and women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Taylor Townsend, Gabby Douglass, and Claressa Shields must have helped shape Quvenzhané’s view on some level. It appears as if Quvenzhané does not few herself as one of “our most fragile citizens”. Certainly her peers, Sasha and Malia Obama do not. Perhaps in years to come it will not be remarkable for a little Black girl to be confident; it will be expected.

  12. Felise on March 10, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for this article, I had a few “Amen” and “A-ha” moments when reading it. The first moment occurred when reading that historically the term prodigy and genius has not been used to describe black women or girls. This is a seemingly obvious fact; however the article made me consider the impact. I paused to consider all of the women in my life who I think are worthy of being called genius. I can name many and yet I am sure that none of them have been labeled as such. I am willing to bet most of them do not consider themselves genius. Another point I was struck by was Michael Eric Dyson’s comment. I agree with Dyson, but I must add that Quvenzhané’s unshakable self-confidence must be also credited to superb parenting. I also believe that the increased visibility and undeniable achievements of black girls and women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Taylor Townsend, Gabby Douglass, and Claressa Shields must have helped shape Quvenzhané’s view on some level. It appears as if Quvenzhané does not few herself as one of “our most fragile citizens”. Certainly her peers, Sasha and Malia Obama do not. Perhaps in years to come it will not be remarkable for a little Black girl to be confident; it will be expected.

  13. Toni on March 11, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Thank you for this article. The fear of these genius little women has become more apparent I believe with this presidency, as this society continues to attempt to discredit the brilliance of our people of color and most recently these young ladies. It’s not just our girls, but also our boys and as a mother of two children who are gifted/talented (one boy and one girl), I have had to be an advocate for both. I wrote about it on my blog recently and am trying to educate parents on how to advocate for their gifted child..www.tonitalove.com.

  14. Toni on March 11, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Thank you for this article. The fear of these genius little women has become more apparent I believe with this presidency, as this society continues to attempt to discredit the brilliance of our people of color and most recently these young ladies. It’s not just our girls, but also our boys and as a mother of two children who are gifted/talented (one boy and one girl), I have had to be an advocate for both. I wrote about it on my blog recently and am trying to educate parents on how to advocate for their gifted child..www.tonitalove.com.

  15. Toni on March 11, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Thank you for this article. The fear of these genius little women has become more apparent I believe with this presidency, as this society continues to attempt to discredit the brilliance of our people of color and most recently these young ladies. It’s not just our girls, but also our boys and as a mother of two children who are gifted/talented (one boy and one girl), I have had to be an advocate for both. I wrote about it on my blog recently and am trying to educate parents on how to advocate for their gifted child..www.tonitalove.com.

  16. Toni on March 11, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Thank you for this article. The fear of these genius little women has become more apparent I believe with this presidency, as this society continues to attempt to discredit the brilliance of our people of color and most recently these young ladies. It’s not just our girls, but also our boys and as a mother of two children who are gifted/talented (one boy and one girl), I have had to be an advocate for both. I wrote about it on my blog recently and am trying to educate parents on how to advocate for their gifted child..www.tonitalove.com.

  17. xt on March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    love it!

  18. xt on March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    love it!

  19. xt on March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    love it!

  20. xt on March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    love it!

  21. Donella on March 11, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Young Black girls are targets because mainstream society (White people) are desperate for them to “learn their place.”

    We saw this with Venus and Serena Williams who, if not for their father, would have been ground up in the media meat grinder.

    We saw this with Gabrielle Douglas targeted by her own teammates about her wide nose and called a “flying squirrel.”

    We saw this with Amanda Steinberg, the target of another Twitter attack by ignorant, illiterate racists who expressed their repulsion at the thought of a Black female scifi hero.

    We’ve seen this with Malia and Sasha Obama when certain folks speak about and criticize them as if they were grown women instead of little girls.

    We’ve seen this with Willow Smith with people attacking her for being “grown” and having the privilege of two wealthy talented parents.

    Little Black girls are TARGETED. It is not your imagination. Mainstream society wants Little Black Girls to think they are worth less, mean less, and occupy not second place, not third place, but fourth place behind everyone else.

    Thank God Quvenzhane Wallis had the self-confidence, bravery, and class to calmly speak up for herself and correct grown adults WHO KNOW BETTER who attempted to marginalize her by calling her out of her name–Little Q, Annie, C-Bomb.By the way, those who learned to say Schwartzenegger, certainly everyone who interacted with the White male former governor of California, need to fix their mouths to pronounce Quvenzhane or forever look like the racist illiterates and social misfits they likely are anyway.

    And I noticed that neither Blue-eyed blondes Abigail Breslin nor Dakota Fanning nor Jennifer Lawrence had to put up with the bullshit thrown Quvenzhane Wallis’s way.

    I truly hope they recognize and appreciate their White privilege granted by their White male protectors, but I doubt it. I’m sure everyone’s color-blinded by “satire.”

  22. Donella on March 11, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Young Black girls are targets because mainstream society (White people) are desperate for them to “learn their place.”

    We saw this with Venus and Serena Williams who, if not for their father, would have been ground up in the media meat grinder.

    We saw this with Gabrielle Douglas targeted by her own teammates about her wide nose and called a “flying squirrel.”

    We saw this with Amanda Steinberg, the target of another Twitter attack by ignorant, illiterate racists who expressed their repulsion at the thought of a Black female scifi hero.

    We’ve seen this with Malia and Sasha Obama when certain folks speak about and criticize them as if they were grown women instead of little girls.

    We’ve seen this with Willow Smith with people attacking her for being “grown” and having the privilege of two wealthy talented parents.

    Little Black girls are TARGETED. It is not your imagination. Mainstream society wants Little Black Girls to think they are worth less, mean less, and occupy not second place, not third place, but fourth place behind everyone else.

    Thank God Quvenzhane Wallis had the self-confidence, bravery, and class to calmly speak up for herself and correct grown adults WHO KNOW BETTER who attempted to marginalize her by calling her out of her name–Little Q, Annie, C-Bomb.By the way, those who learned to say Schwartzenegger, certainly everyone who interacted with the White male former governor of California, need to fix their mouths to pronounce Quvenzhane or forever look like the racist illiterates and social misfits they likely are anyway.

    And I noticed that neither Blue-eyed blondes Abigail Breslin nor Dakota Fanning nor Jennifer Lawrence had to put up with the bullshit thrown Quvenzhane Wallis’s way.

    I truly hope they recognize and appreciate their White privilege granted by their White male protectors, but I doubt it. I’m sure everyone’s color-blinded by “satire.”

  23. Donella on March 11, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Young Black girls are targets because mainstream society (White people) are desperate for them to “learn their place.”

    We saw this with Venus and Serena Williams who, if not for their father, would have been ground up in the media meat grinder.

    We saw this with Gabrielle Douglas targeted by her own teammates about her wide nose and called a “flying squirrel.”

    We saw this with Amanda Steinberg, the target of another Twitter attack by ignorant, illiterate racists who expressed their repulsion at the thought of a Black female scifi hero.

    We’ve seen this with Malia and Sasha Obama when certain folks speak about and criticize them as if they were grown women instead of little girls.

    We’ve seen this with Willow Smith with people attacking her for being “grown” and having the privilege of two wealthy talented parents.

    Little Black girls are TARGETED. It is not your imagination. Mainstream society wants Little Black Girls to think they are worth less, mean less, and occupy not second place, not third place, but fourth place behind everyone else.

    Thank God Quvenzhane Wallis had the self-confidence, bravery, and class to calmly speak up for herself and correct grown adults WHO KNOW BETTER who attempted to marginalize her by calling her out of her name–Little Q, Annie, C-Bomb.By the way, those who learned to say Schwartzenegger, certainly everyone who interacted with the White male former governor of California, need to fix their mouths to pronounce Quvenzhane or forever look like the racist illiterates and social misfits they likely are anyway.

    And I noticed that neither Blue-eyed blondes Abigail Breslin nor Dakota Fanning nor Jennifer Lawrence had to put up with the bullshit thrown Quvenzhane Wallis’s way.

    I truly hope they recognize and appreciate their White privilege granted by their White male protectors, but I doubt it. I’m sure everyone’s color-blinded by “satire.”

  24. Donella on March 11, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Young Black girls are targets because mainstream society (White people) are desperate for them to “learn their place.”

    We saw this with Venus and Serena Williams who, if not for their father, would have been ground up in the media meat grinder.

    We saw this with Gabrielle Douglas targeted by her own teammates about her wide nose and called a “flying squirrel.”

    We saw this with Amanda Steinberg, the target of another Twitter attack by ignorant, illiterate racists who expressed their repulsion at the thought of a Black female scifi hero.

    We’ve seen this with Malia and Sasha Obama when certain folks speak about and criticize them as if they were grown women instead of little girls.

    We’ve seen this with Willow Smith with people attacking her for being “grown” and having the privilege of two wealthy talented parents.

    Little Black girls are TARGETED. It is not your imagination. Mainstream society wants Little Black Girls to think they are worth less, mean less, and occupy not second place, not third place, but fourth place behind everyone else.

    Thank God Quvenzhane Wallis had the self-confidence, bravery, and class to calmly speak up for herself and correct grown adults WHO KNOW BETTER who attempted to marginalize her by calling her out of her name–Little Q, Annie, C-Bomb.By the way, those who learned to say Schwartzenegger, certainly everyone who interacted with the White male former governor of California, need to fix their mouths to pronounce Quvenzhane or forever look like the racist illiterates and social misfits they likely are anyway.

    And I noticed that neither Blue-eyed blondes Abigail Breslin nor Dakota Fanning nor Jennifer Lawrence had to put up with the bullshit thrown Quvenzhane Wallis’s way.

    I truly hope they recognize and appreciate their White privilege granted by their White male protectors, but I doubt it. I’m sure everyone’s color-blinded by “satire.”

  25. MrsGlam on March 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Bravo!

  26. MrsGlam on March 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Bravo!

  27. MrsGlam on March 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Bravo!

  28. MrsGlam on March 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Bravo!

Follow The Feminist Wire

Arts & Culture

  • Two Poems by Tsitsi Jaji tumblr_m0jjzqsYiq1qbh27fo1_500

    By Tsitsi Jaji   Pause. (For All the Madibas)*   There is a breath before the pendulum rends its center, A breath before what leapt comes back to its ground.     There, men and women in chains broke rock, forcing it to deliver         .   [...]

  • Fiction Feature: from “Kill Marguerite,” by Megan Milks Milks-avatar-magicked-out

    By Megan Milks   This excerpt from the short story “Kill Marguerite” takes place after the protagonist, Caty, has already beat Level One and killed Marguerite, her arch-enemy.   Level Two: The Trampoline     BEGIN>> The trampoline is this big old trampoline in Matt and Curtis Wheeler’s backyard, and [...]

  • Video Feature: List of Demands: Because Existing is a Privilege by Nicole Shantè White nicole white photo

    By Nicole Shantè  White   This creative visual addresses queer invisibility by encompassing the intricacies of the Gay Liberation manifesto and the Black Panther Party’s manifesto. Originally inspired by Sofia Snow’s “List of Demands: Because Existing is a Privilege, emerging author Nicole Shantè White uses the bed as a metaphor [...]