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Gholnecsar E. Muhammad. Self-representation of African American Girls. RTE, Feb. 2015. Posted 04/29/15.

Muhammad, Gholnecsar E. “Searching for Full Vision: Writing Representations of African American Adolescent Girls.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.3 (2015): 224-47. Print.

A comprehensive abstract prefaces Gholnecsar E. Muhammad’s study of African-American adolescent girls working to define themselves against stereotypes and dominant discourses. She writes:

Currently, African American girls are being depicted as overly sexual, violent, or confrontational, are judged by physical features, or are invisible across mainstream media and within school classrooms. Few investigations have explored how they respond to and interpret such imposed representations. Nor, for the most part, have studies examined how girls represent themselves among a society of others pathologizing and defining who they are. , , , Findings show that the girls [in the study] wrote across platforms similar to those African American women have addressed historically, which included writing to represent self, writing to resist or counter ascribed representations, and writing toward social change. (224)

For her qualitative case study, Muhammad gathered eight African American girls, aged 12 to 17, to form a “literacy collaborative” in which they worked together in an “intensive” writing environment for nine hours a week for four weeks in the summer of 2012. The writers, from a variety of school settings, were designated “Sister Authors” and given the opportunity to write a number of different genres, including personal narratives, poems, short stories, “informational pieces,” and “open letters” (230, 232). Muhammad developed lesson plans, provided readings from African American women, and facilitated sharing and feedback sessions (231-32). Data included forty-eight pieces of writing, video-taped observations, and interviews (232-33). Muhammad and a second coder established six themes that appeared in the girls’ self-representations: “community, cultural [ethnicity and gender], individual, intellectual, kinship, and sexual representations” (233). Muhammad provides examples from the girls’ work to illustrate how these themes emerged in the ways the writers constructed themselves and their lives through writing.

Most frequently addressed were gender issues. Muhammad was interested to see kinship emerge spontaneously as a major topic in many of the writings, with intellectual concerns also appearing frequently (233). Thirty-seven of the 48 pieces demonstrated resistance to power structures that the girls encountered in their lives; Muhammad classified these structures as relating to “Physical beauty,” “Education,” “Abuse and violence,” “being portrayed as a monolithic group,” “Sexualizing and objectification,” “Racial stereotypes,” and “Personal self-hood (personal struggles, such as self-confidence)” (235). The girls responded to these power structures by often depicting the need for and possibility of “agency and social change” (239).

Specific examples include Jasmine’s broadside poem and her interview about the content of the poem, in both of which she questioned why Black girls are seen as a homogenous group while White people, who similarly look alike, are seen as individuals (233-37). Violet, writing about issues coded as “sexual representation,” explored the implications of the loss of Black men in the lives of Black women (240-41). Muhammad writes that such expressions of issues important to the girls in her study signal increased agency as the girls use representation of themselves through writing to “bring awareness” to topics that matter in their lives (241).

Muhammad recommends that language-arts educators become more alert to the importance for African-American girls of developing their identities through reflective self-representation, and that teachers refine prompts and assignments to encourage these explorations. Educators must also be aware of the power of dominant discourses to direct their own perceptions of students. More nuanced understanding of the lives and histories of their students will help teachers offer these girls opportunities to develop a sense of self and agency (233-34). Muhammad establishes four goals for students encouraged to participate in such literacy practices:

(1) to advance proficiencies in literacy; (2) to make sense of their identities; (3) to build and nurture intellectual development; and (4) to gain print authority. (229)

Muhammad captures the intent of her study with an image from Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South of an eye partly covered with a bandage so that vision is obscured. Ensuring that African-American women are heard restores the sight so that the eye “sees a circle where before it saw a segment” (qtd. in Muhammad 225). Muhammad’s work envisions similarly restoring such full sight in the lives and selves of African American girls.