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women's studies | MEDIA

Black Girls’ Dreams
Oprah has one view of what black girls need, but what can the girls themselves show and tell us?

“When [people] approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

LIKE MANY BLACK WOMEN and girls in the United States, I watched with fascination ABCTV’s prime-time special Building a Dream: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. The program gave viewers what Winfrey’s website calls “an exclusive look through Oprah’s eyes,” as she and a team of specialists designed and built a school to “nurture, educate and turn gifted South African girls from impoverished backgrounds into the country’s future leaders.”

Like many viewers, I cried as I listened to the horrors each girl had faced under racism, sexism, imperialism and economic oppression. I got excited alongside each girl as she received the opportunity of a “first-class education” at Oprah’s Academy—a place boasting 200 thread-count sheets, a beauty salon, a wellness center, Oprah-branded uniforms and other luxuries these girls had never known.

And yet, as a women’s-studies doctoral candidate specializing in black women’s visual culture and minority and urban education, I was also intensely aware of how I was being manipulated— to laugh, to cry and to adopt a feel-good, apolitical perspective on this corporate production. At times I forgot that I was watching television, which inevitably means that I was being sold something.

This is how visual media work: Producers use images to channel specific messages to viewers. Under the spell of the images, I would forget that I was not truly “seeing” these girls but rather, to borrow from Ralph Ellison, figments of Winfrey’s imagination.

This is not to say that the girls aren’t real. But just as impoverished South African girls are packaged for our consumption within the Oprah corporate brand, viewers are persuaded that it makes sense for Winfrey to see herself— a Southern, formerly impoverished African American girl of the 1950s—in these contemporary girls. We are also persuaded that Winfrey’s rags-to-riches success story is an important model of black women’s progress—one that should be replicated around the globe. Yet a vast body of knowledge produced by black feminist scholars would suggest that we be critical of this corporatebranding vision.

Such scholars are working within the dynamic field of black women’s studies. It emerged in the early 1980s as its own academic discipline, working both within and outside of African American studies, women’s studies, history, sociology, English and other areas. While there are writings by black women dating back to the 1830s that express what we now call black feminist politics, most consider the 1982 anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith) to be a turning point in the field.

Several important notions have been central to black women’s studies from its inception. The first is now called intersectionality, a critical perspective that suggests we look simultaneously at race, class, gender, nation and other dimensions of difference. A second key practice is looking nonhierarchically at sources of knowledge, so that everything from novels to quilts to folktales to jumprope rhymes can be used to make sense of the world.

At the core of black women’s studies is an insistence on building knowledge from black female points of view. Historically, almost all knowledge within Western culture has been built from a white male point of view; “others” could only gain credibility by first mastering and then carefully innovating within what black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls “Eurocentric masculinist” traditions. When black women’s views become central, new concepts and ways of thinking emerge.

Black women visual-media artists, particularly filmmakers, illustrate these new ways of thinking. Just as novels by black women writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison changed contemporary notions of literature, black women’s independent filmmaking has introduced viewers to alternative narrative structures and cinematic logics. And many black women’s independent films—from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust to Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou to Ayoka Chenzira’s Alma’s Rainbow—have African American girls as central characters. Similarly, several black feminists have produced picture books centered on African American girls, such as cultural critic bell hooks’ Happy to Be Nappy (Jump at the Sun, 1999) and visual artist Faith Ringgold’s The Invisible Princess (Dragonfly Books, 2001).

In comparing these black feminist representations to Winfrey’s Building a Dream, striking differences and similarities emerge. What is different are the politics: Black feminist media producers are not corporate-branding black girls, but offering complex images beyond the racism and sexism that have historically rendered the girls invisible. What is similar is how the girls—in the words of Ellison— serve as figments of adult imagination. Both Winfrey’s mainstream project and black-feminist alternatives seem influenced by a desire to work through issues faced by black girls in the past—perhaps even issues from the producers’ own remembered girlhoods.

So where does this leave contemporary black girls? Through projects like Winfrey’s TV special or Disney’s multimillion-dollar That’s So Raven enterprise (TV show, doll, clothing line, CDs, video game, website and more), more girls of African heritage than ever before are immersed in images of U.S. black girlhood. Unlike previous generations, invisibility within the media and popular culture is no longer the key issue.

But what is strikingly absent for contemporary black girls is systematic access to age-appropriate media that exposes them to the insights of black women’s studies and black feminist politics. Black girls also lack opportunities to build knowledge from their own points of view, and thus communicate their distinct perspectives on the world.

Despite my criticisms of Winfrey’s television special, I think I understand what she is trying to do. My heart bleeds for every black girl on the planet, the vast majority of whom have never had messages about their intrinsic value reflected back to them. And I understand why black feminist visual artists are asserting the humanity of black girls in order to reconcile with the past.

But now I want to know what contemporary black girls are thinking and seeing for themselves. How do they make sense out of their media landscape, and what are their politics outside of our adult agendas? Most importantly, can we learn from them how to create books, films/videos and interactive media that could transform K-12 curricula in the same way that the materials emerging from black women’s studies have transformed higher education?

I am currently helping African American middle-school girls produce their own videos and picture books. By comparing their work— how they see things—to the films and books produced by adult black feminists, we can get a better sense of the girls’ points of view. I’ll let you know what I find.

NIKKI AYANNA STEWART is a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies at the University of Maryland. She is completing a dissertation titled “Visual Resistance: African American Girls, Visual Media and Black Feminist Education.”