Imagining Black Womanhood: The Negotiation of Power and Identity Within the Girls Empowerment Project
reviewed by Venus Evans-Winters - February 02, 2011
Title: Imagining Black Womanhood: The Negotiation of Power and Identity Within the Girls Empowerment Project
Author(s): Stephanie D. Sears
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438433263, Pages: 189, Year: 2010
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Recently, there has been a growing body of literature in the social sciences that addresses the socialization patterns of girls of African ancestry living in the U.S. Most research on African American young women focuses on the role of the Black family and neighborhoods in shaping the life outcomes and choices of young people in high poverty and high density communities. In Imagining Black Womanhood: The Negotiation of Power and Identity within the Black Girls Empowerment Project, Sears (2010) forefronts the relationships between Black women and girls in organizational spaces. Specifically, the author uses qualitative and ethnographic field methods to describe a case study of the Girls Empowerment Project (GEP). One objective of the original research for the book was to provide an insiders perspective of a single sex organization that was designed to decrease teenage pregnancy in a low-income housing project, by empowering young girls in the community. Another original objective of the study for the book was to illustrate how community-based organizations can be safe spaces where girls and women could learn to reflect upon and learn to break away from racial and gender oppression in their homes, neighborhoods, and wider society.
However, Imagining Black Womanhood successfully reveals that Black women and girls-serving organizations are more complex than what has been traditionally presented and romanticized in the social science literature. A main point of the book is that Black girls and women construct their identities in relationship to and in opposition to mainstream images of women. Chapter 1 provides a detailed account of the researchers involvement with the Girls Empowerment Project (GEP) as well as an overview of the limitations and possibilities participant-observation presents for researchers involved in cultural work as insiders/outsiders of a community context under study. Chapter 2 presents a historical tracing of the social construction of the perception of the urban girl. As described by the author, stereotypes of urban girls derive from a history of mainstream media and politicians depicting Black women as lascivious and hyper-sexual to justify the oppression of Black girls and women in society. More recently, young Black women in central cities have become scapegoats for economic deterioration and political conservatism as witnessed in recent welfare reform policies. Sears reveals that the community-based organization described in the book, like many programs in central city communities, was conceived from these myths of the out of control urban girl. Outside funders and community advocates often buy into the hype of the need to provide guidance to Black girls.
Fortunately for researchers and theorists committed to resilience and strength-based methodologies and practices (see Evans-Winters, 2005) in cultural work with girls, Chapter 3 describes the evolution of GEP from an organization that grew from a deficit-based perspective to a strength-based program focused on youth development. Adopting an Africentric womanist organizational framework, an important goal of the organization was to establish an organizational culture of empowerment (p. 61). Sears defines Afrocentricity within the organizations model as providing culturally appropriate role models and ethnic history to foster ethnic pride (p. 59). Congruently, a feminist model allowed for a safe separate space for girls in the organization. A space that was safe from rejection and ridicule and that would facilitate feelings of respect and sisterhood, describes the author. An Africentric womanist space, specifically, fostered a physical and spiritual climate that acknowledged and celebrated African and African American culture alongside Black womens multiple identities and liberation agendas.
Chapter 4 gives attention to the organizational climate of the GEP program and summarizes typical organizational structures, such as bureaucratic versus collective decision-making and problem-solving processes. Sharing ethnographic observations, alongside the words of younger group participants and staff members at the organization, Sears problematizes the notion that one type of organizational structure is more beneficial to womens and girls organizations than another. Participants and staff members alike seemed to contest and negotiate power and authority within the organizational structure of GEP. This chapter shares various sequences of events to explain what is aptly referred to as the matrix of power of the organization. Chapter 5 introduces readers to the politics of respectability within and outside of the Black community as well as discusses how respectability politics play out in organizations like GEP. For example, citing Skeggs (1997), Sears asserts that in working with and providing safe space for Black girls, Africentric womanist femininity distanced them from hypersexualized representations of Black femininity (p. 117), while marginalizing different versions of Black femininity within GEP. Sociologist Joyce Ladners (1972) four constructions of womanhood presented in Chapter 5 deserve further unpacking and explanation for those interested in identity politics in lower income and working class communities. In the concluding chapter, Sears places dance at the center of analysis -- particularly popular dance and African dance. According to the ethnographer, dance has traditionally been a place of contention as well as an expression of freedom for young Black women. Dance in the organization made the generational battle (p. 141) between Black girls and women visible.
Chapter 6 further demonstrates through girls and womens narratives that dance is a form of group work, individual expression of sexuality, as well as a commodity or form of capital within the Black community. Paradoxically, dance is also the most obvious place where age and class differences often clash in safe spaces, like the GEP program. Finally, at the conclusion of the book, Sears avers that women and girls rely upon and implement different strategies for negotiating and imagining Black womanhood. The most interesting aspect of the book is not necessarily the descriptions of the dynamics of the GEP organization itself, but the sophisticated manner in which the author is able to simultaneously critique and imagine the possibilities of gendered-based organizations for girls and women. Seemingly, the author provides an extensive multi-disciplinary literature review that is useful to social theorists and practitioners, especially those working in community-based organizational settings.
Borrowing from research and theories in sociology, gender studies, psychology, and child and family studies, the author brilliantly demonstrates how young Black women and girls continually negotiate power relationships inside and outside female-dominated spaces to create their own identities -- identities that are stipulated on and juxtaposed with dominant ideologies of determining who is deserving of the title woman, and, empowered woman. Scholars interested in the influence of hip-hop culture on urban communities would appreciate how the author and the women in the organization read various artists, like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, Foxy Brown, and Lil Kim as text. Just as important to any sociological understanding of the influence of media and hip hop culture on processes of Black womens and girls identity construction is the thorough historical and cultural overview of popular dance and African-centered dance in the Black community.
Furthermore, the sociologist employs identity theory as a conceptual framework, and offers a thorough review of the literature on Black womens politics of respectability to point out how Black women have historically resisted mainstream discourses of femininity and respectability, while also sustaining classist and hegemonic representations and expectations of women. Using participant-observation, Sears effectively demonstrates that Black girls identities are co-constructed based on their interactions with each other and multiple generations of women. The book has implications for graduate students and practitioners in sociology, gender studies, and social services. As a teacher educator, I would personally like to see this work used to theorize the role of community-based organizations, such as the one described in the book, in fostering educational resilience and academic achievement in school settings. In other words, what can we learn from the case study and the conceptual framework posited to celebrate and acknowledge Black girls worth in traditional classroom and school settings? Answering this question would be the next step for those interested in learning from this book.
Evans-Winters, V. (2005). Teaching black girls: Resiliency in urban classrooms. New York: Peter Lang.
Ladner, J. (1972). Tomorrows tomorrow: The black woman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender: Becoming respectable. London: Sage.