Elevate Difference

Imagining Black Womanhood: The Negotiation of Power and Identity Within the Girls Empowerment Project

Imagining Black Womanhood by Stephanie D. Sears is a sociological account of the experiences of young African-American girls within the Girls Empowerment Project (GEP), an “Afri-centric, womanist, single-sex, after-school program” in Sun Valley, the largest housing development in Bay City, California. Set against the backdrop of a “nation’s collective anxieties” regarding Black women and girls, Imagining Black Womanhood is a well-researched and thoughtful interrogation of race, gender, and class and how the experiences of young Black girls struggling to resist stereotypes within and outside the GEP project speak to broader questions of power, privilege, and politics. Despite the (ironically) unimaginative title, Imagining Black Womanhood is a commendable effort by Sears to question, with equal academic rigor, discourses of empowerment, as well as oppression, in addition to showing how the biases that inform many of the stereotypes that these girls must struggle against come from across the political spectrum and across racial lines.

Sears sets the historical stage well, by tracing images of poor Black women and girls as “welfare queens” to the Reagan administration’s dismantling of the welfare state and its promotion of “trickle-down” economics, with its explicit finger-pointing at the “impoverished African-American female” as an undeserving recipient of benefits. By laying bare the racial and gender stereotypes that underlie these and other predominant images (such as “teen mothers”) of young Black women in the public imagination, Sears demonstrates how discourses from both Black and dominant communities have attempted to control the sexuality of young Black women—and have shaped the context for the growth of projects such as GEP.

Against this background, Sears describes how despite its aim to “empower” and enable Black girls to counter racial and gender stereotypes, GEP inadvertently reproduced many of these discourses in both its structure as an organization as well as its method of work. GEP’s explicit aim, when it initially conducted an assessment of problems such as teen pregnancy and poverty among Black girls, was to “challenge and change…unequal power relations and resource distribution”—that is, the structural issues underpinning Black girls’ social status in Sun Valley. However, despite this goal, GEP’s more pragmatic choice to try and effect change in areas where they could have most impact, meant that they ended up addressing the symptoms of discrimination rather than challenging the structures of power responsible for them. In doing so, GEP fell back on middle class cultural values and notions of “respectability,” attempting to erase what they viewed as the cultural markers of the “ghetto underclass”—such as the hypersexualization and objectification of young Black women—but with them, also the sense of self-hood and lived experiences of the young girls of GEP.

The above is illustrated most interestingly in the section entitled “Dance Lessons,” in which Sears shows how the struggle over sexuality, power, and identity between GEP and the young girls who attend it, is enacted through the “embodied politics” of dance. Prompted by the Afro-centric ideology of GEP, GEP staff’s attempts to encourage the girls to perform African dances (this bearing, in their eyes, the respectable currency of tradition) is countered by the girls’ desire to “express who they are” through contemporary hip-hop numbers. Sears stages the generational and class confrontation between the GEP staff and the girls through their conflicting perceptions of “appropriate” displays of sexuality, respectability, and respect, thereby asking the question that lies at the heart of Imagining Black Womanhood—what does “empowerment” mean, and to whom? How are notions of empowerment intertwined with class and cultural values? And what happens when processes of empowerment attempt to reconstitute the identity of she who is seen to be a “recipient” rather than an equal participant in this process? Sears’ book is a dense but rewarding read, not just for academics but for anyone interested in confronting these questions.

Written by: Kaavya Asoka, November 19th 2010