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Introduction: TFW Editorial Collective member, Darnell L. Moore, recently facilitated an insightful and incite(ful) dialogue on Black/Brown girlhood with scholars/artists/activists Ruth Nicole Brown and Aimee Cox. This two-part conversation seeks to elevate the narratives and life worlds of young Black/Brown women, which tend to be muted or wholly ignored in adult-centered writings, within the frame of Black feminist scholarship and praxis. The following is the transcript from Part II.
TFW: How do you translate Black feminist politics into praxis?
Ruth Nicole: Very carefully! That’s my answer. I’m sticking to it!
Very carefully! I mean very intentionally. I mean in collaboration- always. I’m thinking of the Combahee River Collective. SOLHOT since the very beginning, SOLHOT was/is a practice of collective decision-making and action. What do we believe? Who belongs? What do we know? These are always working questions. Ask anyone in SOLHOT about what it is and you will see them immediately wrestling with ideas because its collective work. And what I think Black feminism gives me is always the urgency to remain relevant, to make sure we have our lives (this is quintessentially Audre Lorde’s Need).
I also go back to Black feminist standards. Ntozake Shange—I mean SOLHOT’s theatrics is indebted to Shange, we are continuing to enjoy the form of the choreopoem, and how its such a good form to present our stories. It’s a form that endures, it’s forgiving, and there are so many nuances of that form to explore. Which brings me to whole legacies, I would not be able to articulate SOLHOT in theory or practice without Black feminisms, Queer of Color Critique, Hip hop feminisms, Critical pedagogy, Womanisms, and the creative artist/scholars (I’m so thankful that there is a blueprint)—especially the poets, like Nikky Finney, and the activist/scholars collaborations like the Sangtin Writers, and Incite!
I also look forward to what SOLHOT is now and what it will be. The girls and homegirls bring to and contribute to articulations of Black feminisms for sure. And that is also another way the creative works in SOLHOT.
Aimee: Black feminism is already a praxis, right? So, it is impossible to introduce young women to hooks, Collins and Lorde, for example, without there being a practice and engagement (whether in the workshop or studio or the world). The work of these incredible women who wrote and intervened before us demands that we act!
Black feminism almost doesn’t quite make sense without a practice–even if we think about that practice as being an energized debate between the young women, or a connection between the words and their lives, or the identification of the thread between history, ideology, language, laws and what they see occurring in their own communities.
In BlackLight we use theory as a blueprint for understanding. But, always knowing that we are participating in a dynamic process whereby we are reading others’ work and developing our own theoretical framework based on what we see, hear and FEEL.
Ruth Nicole: Feeling is key.
Ruth Nicole: Darnell, Black feminism requires that we do the tough work of naming our privilege too so that we don’t collude with victimology or martyrdom and that gets personal.
Aimee: I am sometimes terrified to step into the BlackLight space when I know I am not “right,” when I am distracted, or feeling small or petty.
Ruth Nicole: I feel you Aimee. There’s a lot of emotional and mental prep work we do before we go to SOLHOT, to get our minds right, or prepared to be checked!
Aimee: It is both implied, felt just beneath the surface, and an explicit acknowledgement that we can’t begin to do any of the work we come together to do–namely calling out the shit that threatens the efficacy and beauty in all of our lives- if we aren’t willing to do the work on self.
TFW: Do you have a question for one another?
Aimee: Ruth Nicole, what does SOLHOT have to do with tenure? Your academic trajectory, if anything?
Ruth Nicole: SOLHOT didn’t start out as research or a research project. I was a postdoc and I didn’t even have a gig lined up for the next year. When I started SOLHOT my daughter was five months old. So I was doing SOLHOT and it was changing my life. We were all together and though many of us were in the academy we didn’t define ourselves in that way in SOLHOT. Not primarily. I mean the homegirls call me Dr. B and the girls do and do not…it depends. But then we started documenting the process. I thought that this work/process should be published and if we wrote about it in a way that honors what we were doing, how cool would that be?
Then we started having “smack downs” like Andy Smith might say, or organizing dilemmas. I wondered what the literature was saying and if SOLHOT had something to say about what the literature was saying and it was a clear, “yes!”
Now we’re doing this and it’s creating movement and some of the people in the academy called it a “hobby.” They said I could do SOLHOT as long as I also did my “real” work. I hated hearing this. If SOLHOT wasn’t “real” work…well then…I didn’t know why I was here.
Aimee: Exactly! It is sad and terrifying that often in the academy when you are writing and theorizing about real people some others expect you to be disengaged physically and emotionally from that population, holed up, isolated, and creating stories around people that you don’t take the time or have the inclination to truly engage in a meaningful way.
Ruth Nicole: And this work is being done outside of the academy, of course.
Aimee: It really is about a willingness—an imperative to want to know who and what you are talking about—and, dare I say it, FEEL what you are writing.
Ruth Nicole: It is. But from my location within the academy….yes, willful. I mean June Jordan and Lorde, and Shange, and Rodgers, and all of the creative Black feminist that some scholars love to assign on the syllabus have a legacy. They created [outside of the academy] so that we can do something more…creative…from within the academy too.
Aimee: I so agree. They wrote, and boldly so, so that we could have the tools to approach the next barriers. We have to do this if we claim to be carrying on a certain Black feminist tradition, I believe.
Ruth Nicole: Aimee, what does change in BlackLight mean? You’ve changed location and institutions…what have you learned about Black/Brown girlhood in the process?
Aimee: BlackLight’s move from an in-house shelter program to publicly engaged arts activism in Detroit to the various iterations it has had in Newark has really taught me most of all to listen.
Ruth Nicole: Listen how?
Aimee: It has also forced me to practice a level of humility that has really been very spiritually powerful and transformative for me as an activist, artist and scholar. I saw how incredible BlackLight was in Detroit in terms of being a Black girl created space for dialogue, self creation, talking back, theorizing and art making. I honestly was desperate when I arrived in Newark to replicate the exact same thing in Newark. But really the only way BlackLight has survived is through my willingness to step back and make myself available (with all of the resources that come with being a university-affiliated adult) but really letting the young women define what the space should be based on what they need. By listening.
Last year, one of the original BlackLight members from Detroit who I met at 14 and is now 24 came with me to deliver a keynote at a University women’s history month conference. She traveled with me and one of my graduate students and we led workshops in the BlackLight methodology and lectured on the meaning of BlackLight and the structural issues facing young black women. I voiced my concerns about BlackLight disappearing to this original member, and do you know what she said to me…? “BlackLight is a way of thinking. It is how you are with people, who you are. BlackLight is not an institution.” This reminds me that BlackLight is something more and different than a project, program or 501c3, it is a way of seeing and being in the world.
TFW: Lastly, what are your current book projects focused on?
Ruth Nicole: My next book is titled, At The End of the Day: Performance and the Creative Potential of Black Girlhood. It’s about the process and productions of SOLHOT (part II). This book is more insistent on building and naming the Black feminists and creative intellectual traditions and presences in our work. I cite the literature, share our SOLHOT Stories, and each chapter features a creative act. For example, building on M. Nourbese Phillip’s Zong! and June Jordan’s work, I present a photo poem that aims to foreground the nonsensical harassment of Black girls who are just trying to live as free Black girls.
Ultimately, the primary purpose of At the End of the Day is to contribute to multiple ways of seeing Black girls differently so that humanizing representations of Black girlhood, and Black girls’ lives, become inextricably linked to institutional and personal visions of the future.
Homegirls, who were undergrads doing SOLHOT decided to stay in the Midwest to do SOLHOT and write about it for their grad work. Now, that’s major to me. After I write this book, they will write the next books on SOLHOT.
Aimee: I am in the final revision stages of what I feel like is a 20lb baby. I am waiting to see if it will sprout from the top of my head or explode in some other way, but it does feel like a very embodied process. The book is titled, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.
The work pulls from the decade I spent living and working with young Black women in Detroit and particularly my time as the director of a homeless shelter for young women. I also include in the latter chapters the insight gained from my more recent arts activist work with young women in Newark. I am interested in not only discussing the creative ways in which young Black women living in low-income deindustrialized spaces like Detroit and Newark rethink and maneuver through educational, employment and social service institutions, but how they renegotiate the terms of their conditional and partial citizenship. I want to explore what that might mean for how we currently think about Black identity, racialized spaces, the mutually constituting nature of race and sexuality, and the construction of a White masculine ideal as “American.”
But, in addition to speaking to the ways these young women redefine family networks and challenge the ideological foundations of the institutions they have to move through on a daily basis, I also talk about how (in the BlackLight tradition) these young women find the performing arts an effective (and affective) realm to articulate their outrage, define the beauty in their lives and craft new ways of responding to the challenges in their own and each others’ daily experience.
I guess, here again, we see the political and community engaged first emerging from the space of articulating personal experience.
Ruth Nicole: I just want to say that Aimee is fab and our story is interesting. We knew more of each other in grad school, but the academy is what brought us closer together. Would you say this is true Aimee?
Aimee: Yes, this is true. The academy brought us together in a way that could have been competitive but we consciously flipped that into a loving, supportive and ultimately healing relationship. I love this.
TFW: As do I. Thank you, both.
Aimee Cox, Ph.D is a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of Performance and African and African American Studies at Fordham University. She is also a dancer and choreographer formerly with Ailey II. Her current book project is entitled, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.
Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown is a dynamic writer, researcher, performer, mentor and instructor. She is an assistant professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies and Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership Departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. Her research documents, analyzes, and interrogates Black girls’ lived experiences as it intersects with cultural constructions of Black girlhood. More specifically, Dr. Brown’s scholarship interests include performance studies, girls’ studies, youth cultures, and qualitative methodology. Her first book, Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward A Hip Hop Feminist Pedagogy (2008) was published by Peter Lang.