Dr. Marcia Chatelain on Unapologetically Centering Black Girls in Her Scholarship

In March, Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s first book South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration hit...

In March, Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s first book South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration hit bookshelves. Dr. Chatelain serves as an Assistant Professor of History and African America Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I spoke with the Chicago native about black girlhood of the past and the present, how we can talk about race more effectively and her hopes of paying it forward by sharing her lessons learned with other black women in academia.

During our conversation, Dr. Chatelain told me, "When I started the journey to do my doctoral research, it was really important for me to put girls at the center of whatever research question I was asking." With South Side Girls, Dr. Chatelain is writing black girls back into a history, from which they were erased. Her intersectional work continues as she writes her second book about race and fast food.

In addition to her work as a scholar, Dr. Chatelain speaks and teaches communities about how to discuss race and social justice.

-Deonna Anderson

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Telling the Erased Stories of Black Girls

For Harriet: Your book South Side Girls was released in March and I wanted to know more about what served as the catalyst for writing this book.
Dr. Marcia Chatelain: I grew up in Chicago in the 80s and 90s. And I think Chicago like a lot of other big cities were struggling with a number of issues, especially around gang violence and young people. One of the things I was really concerned about when we have conversations about Black communities, particularly, is that it seems like the answer is was always, we have to invest in our boys and young men.

I remember watching TV shows like the Montel Williams and shows like that. It was always about the war on Black boys and one of the things that always concerned me was where girls could have a voice. And that’s just always been an issue and a question for me my whole life.

When I started the journey to do my doctoral research, it was really important for me to put girls at the center of whatever research question I was asking. The other thing I often say about this work is back in the 80s and 90s when rap music was becoming a thing, it seemed like people were more concerned with the images of girls than real girls.

All of those factors shaped my decision to try to tell a story from the frame that girls are the most important actors in that story. When you do that, you come up with a different perspective on history, and on the present. I was really happy to have the support to do that kind of research.

I started working on this book before there were Obamas, before there were people who were thinking about black womanhood and black girlhood in that way. It has been amazing for me to be at this moment, to be able to have this book and people can talk about Michelle Obama and her daughters and her mother. Also in this moment, which is kind of cool, there are other scholars out there who are also writing and researching books about black girlhood. In a sense, it’s like we were all having these kinds of questions and now we have a forum to answer them.

Photo: @WilNorton/Twitter
FH: Yes. And at For Harriet, we’re all about telling black women’s stories so I am happy that you and other scholars are doing this intense research about black girlhood. How do you think the presence of black girls during the Great Migration has had an impact on today?
Dr. Chatelain: I think the first issue is that, here we have the emergence of black girls being in an impossible situation because for a lot of black community leaders, every problem was to be solved by black girls but then they cause every problem.

Their presence opened up a series of questions. What I talk about in the book is, for instance, what happens when black girls are abandoned and they’re in the child protection services system and the question that their presence raises about integration, about black families and their suitability to take care of their children, about whether or not black people should bend to Jim Crow, or lead their own institutions. I talk about how their presence opens up all these questions.

The other issue is what Black girls offer their families and to their community. It seems like in a lot of families, the girls had the responsibility of not just economically supporting their families, but they were also the representative figure of their families. They were the measure of how good or bad things were going. In my book, I talk about the impossibility of these girls who on one hand, the Great Migration was supposed to open up the door to allow them the space to actually have a childhood. But when they get to Chicago, they still have to be economic agents in their family. They are still having to prove something to the larger society. They’re still fighting racism. They’re still very vulnerable to violence. All of these things, they don’t necessarily end with the Migration but what the Migration does provide are these sound leaders like Ida B. Wells, and others who can intervene on the behalf of black girls and can say, ‘You know what, we’re going to stop this. We’re going to do something else.’

And the last thing I think is this debate about black people who have a lot of scarcity in their lives, does it make more sense to invest in boys or girls? I think people were really dealing with those tensions and even though in some regard, some of that has changed, I think within a lot of families, there is real question about who is the real asset. The son or the daughter?

FH: Shouldn’t it be both?
Dr. Chatelain: It should be both. And what I’m really hoping that this book does is write black girls back into a critical story. I think we see it now in a lot of these questions about black lives matter. It’s about police violence and we think well, girls and women are going to be okay. But why don’t we stop using that as a framing premise? We’re ignoring them. What if we say they’re not okay and what are we going to do to make sure they are? Then we have a new series of possibilities about what communities need to be doing.

FH: I have been thinking a lot about how black girlhood has been affected by the black lives matter movement. There’s a lot of discussion online about how black girls are getting erased from this. So, I can only imagine that there is going to be a scholar some years from now who is researching how the stories of black girls have been erased during this time.
Dr. Chatelain: Right. And I appreciate what KimberlĂ© Crenshaw is doing with the African American Policy Forum and the people who are behind #SayHerName. And the people recently who were organizing about black women erasure and their invisibility in this question about violence. I think it’s really important to say that the police intimidation and the police violence that men and women face look different but they’re still violence and they’re still important.

We have black women being susceptible to sexual assault and intimidation. That is still police violence. It doesn’t result in a death but boy does it have an incredible impact on communities and feelings of safety. I think what I love about this moment and what I love about the #BlackLivesMatter crew is they are really resisting a lot of these assumptions that it is only young men and boys of color who are victims of police violence and irresponsibility.

FH: Definitely. There are a lot of people working to make sure our stories are told. I was reading a piece that you wrote on Time.com and you said, “We have to remember that we have much more to learn, see and hear from the Great Migration.” When you were researching for South Side Girls, was there any information you came across that you wanted to explore more but weren’t able to get to in this book?
Dr. Chatelain: You know it’s funny. Writing a book is so interesting because it’s not until you get to the end of it that you really know how to write a book. You have all of these ideas that start swirling in your head, like the book could've had this or that.

There were a number of things that I loved about the process of doing this research. One of the questions I don’t pick up in the book that I think would be an interesting topic is that a lot of the source material I found were researchers, some women, some men. Thinking about the researchers, in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and why they thought black girlhood was a topic to be researched and what happened. We have this period of time when no one is doing this research then in the 20s, 30s and 40s, people think of course I’m going to do research about black girls. If I could go back, I would do a little more research about who was doing research about black girls and why.

The other thing, there’s this really interesting part of the book that I couldn't go deeper on. It was basically these camping experiments where they would have interracial camping. I talk a little bit about the black girls who were sent in to be a part of the integration efforts of summer camps. I think in looking back, I would do a little more on what it means to send black girls into those spaces. I’ve done a lot of research about girl scouts and camp fire girls and their racial legacy. I have a theory that in some ways, some of these leisure activities were the experimental grounds for school integration. I would love to go back and look at the links between experiments in interracial camping in the 1940s and what happens after Brown v. Board in the 1950s.

The Need for Education-Based Race Discussions

FH: That sounds like a book that I would want to read. [Laughs] That’s awesome. I’ve also been reading more about the #FergusonSyllabus and I’ve been following that hashtag for the last week. And I wanted to know what you think about the importance of young people talking about Ferguson, Baltimore and other issues. Can you speak more about that?
Dr. Chatelain: Absolutely. When I started the #FergusonSyllabus, I really just wanted to give other professors an opportunity to dedicate their first day of classes to Michael Brown and the children of Ferguson because they were not going to have that first day of school like they planned.

I thought it was really important as the school year started for our kids to really think about what it means when violence and race disrupts the very thing, that as a kid you look forward to. The first day of school is everything because you get to catch up with your friends and see what’s new. It caused a lot of sadness that kids in Ferguson wouldn’t have that.

What initially I thought was maybe going to be a smaller story and maybe a one day discussion clearly ballooned into something so critical. It was important for me, not just that people talk about it but that young people see that adults were not leaving them behind again. I think that the silence about race, sexism, and homophobia is one of the ways that the adults let down the kids. And I was tired of this idea that we were going to have kids walking to classrooms at a critical moment in American history and no one was going to say anything to them.

I came up with the LA Riots, and I remember going to school, seeing all this stuff on TV and nobody talking about it and being really confused. Like does your TV not get the same channel as mine does because I see a major American city burning so what is that? All that to say, the culture of silence is part of the education system.

I was just tired of it and I knew that for me and for other faculty of color, we were going to be deputized. If anyone was going to talk, it was going to be us. I was also tired of us being the only ones who have to do the talking. And to an extent, I think my real goal was to try to challenge people, the new cast of characters, to say, ‘Listen, you're part of this conversation too. I don’t care what color you are. I actually don’t care what you teach in your every day lives. You are part of this conversation. I’m going to really challenge you to engage this and it kind of ballooned from there.’

I wasn’t a huge person on Twitter before so I didn’t know how real twitter can get. It was just really amazing to see how many people really wanted these resources. I think it really put a mirror to some people that don’t engage in questions about race and community. While I think a lot of people in the academy can be critical of the policies and the process it takes to create a town like Ferguson, I think it was an opportunity for them to think about their own silence about these issues in the classroom is, in a sense, complicit with those types of politics.

It’s been really gratifying to be able to talk to other educators about this work. It can be really exciting to see the way students have responded to it. They love these conversations. They’re not afraid to have them. They keep it very real about what they’re seeing in their communities and what they see reflected back to them.

I just had a conversation with a group of students on Saturday and we talked about this. One of them said, “After we went back to our dorm, there were 30 of us talking about this.” She was like ‘we really wanted to talk and we’re glad that you started the conversation’ so I think that’s just been really gratifying. It’s also been a wonderful thing to be alongside my book, to really bring communities together.

FH: I’ve also found that talking about race issues has been important. In undergrad, I did peer education work where we went into dorms and talked about race and homophobia and sexism, and all this stuff. I do think that people want to talk about it, creating the space for that is what’s important.
Dr. Chatelain: Yes, and modeling it and showing that that’s what people do. People have conversations that are difficult and that it’s okay. All hell doesn’t break loose from a thoughtful conversation and if you kind of know what you’re talking about, you’re respectful of other people and you create the space, you actually do better than when you started.

FH: Related to this, there is a school in New York that is “unteaching” racism to 3rd graders. Do you think that is also an important conversation to have with young people?
Dr. Chatelain: I think one of the things that we have to now move past, because I feel like this year has been about reacting to a lot of things, really grappling with terrible things, is not talking when things are going well. Talking when there aren’t uprisings. Talking when we don’t have people in the street. Talking when we’re not putting our bodies on the line for protest.

This needs to be a part of the everyday educational system of our lives. That we have conversations about the challenges in front of us whether or not things are exploding. People are starting to see that when we reserve all our energy for moments of crisis, we can only go so far. I think it’s really exciting to see schools that are taking this really seriously.

I’ve been really surprised by the types of schools that want me to come talk. I really want to engage these issues. Some of them are predominately black schools but a lot of them are not. A lot of them are places that see that kids are confused. They want to have a kind of frame to be able to talk and understand. And they’re taking that seriously.

FH: That is great. And maybe it shows that there’s a desire for some kind of progress.

Do Black Women Really Have to Work Twice As Hard?

FH: As someone in academia and as a black woman, it’s been said that we have to work twice as hard. Do you have any advice for black girls and women who want to succeed in academia?
Dr. Chatelain: I have a lot of thoughts on this. And some of them because I did not do these things. I think that you have to invest in your personal life as much as possible. Your friendships. Your romantic relationship, if you have one. Your family. Your passion for justice.

All of those things really need to be a strong part of your identity because I think sometimes the mistake is people is [getting] advanced degrees or enter academia and they think this is what makes them. It’s just one of many titles that we have. You can’t start to believe your own hype and believe all these things about what it means to have a degree because ultimately your degrees can’t protect you from certain kinds of violence. Degrees will not always protect you from racism. They don’t do that.

What they are is a tool for you to do work that you’re passionate about and being really clear about that, I think, helps reduce a lot of the stuff that sometimes makes people feel like ‘Why did I do this?’ or ‘Why don’t people respect me?’ or ‘Why am I being treated this way or that way?’ I think you have to get over that.

The other thing is that we spend too much time, and sometimes it’s well intentioned, [substituting] someone else’s narrative for our own. As a community, we spend a lot of time with cautionary tales of people who either went crazy or didn’t get tenure. Sometimes in its most insidious forms, all of these stories are true. And other the other hand, I think it’s the responsibility of senior scholars in the field to talk about the very good things that have emerged from from their work. Being a professor has provided me an incredible life. I get to spend time with really great young people. I get to travel and see things that I never even imagined before. I think we need to provide a more balanced about what this life is about.

The last thing is it’s okay if it’s not working out and you want to do something else. Getting into academia is so competitive and it requires so much hard work. I think sometimes we substitute wanting to be happy in this and thinking that we have to suffer through it. If people are a few years into the profession and you’re [facing] an [unpleasant] situation at work or you just don’t like it, it’s okay. I think we need to create more supportive spaces for how people can think about the different ways their degree and their training can also make an impact. I wish that someone would have told me earlier and I wish I would have known because I think I would have been more forgiving of myself and more gentle with myself in my own journey.

FH: I think it’s easier in all situations to focus on the negative than to think about the positive things we have been afforded. And being able to change your mind is so important.
Dr. Chatelain: That’s the point. Part of education is to have freedom of choice but sometimes people feel like they can’t exercise it. And a lot of times we’re told we have to work twice as hard but I think sometimes what we need to be told is we need to work more strategically. I hope, now that I’m in a different stage in my career, I can help people think more strategically, rather than thinking that they have to do more and more.

FH: It’s kind of like that saying to work smarter, not harder. I saw that you’re writing a book about race and fast food. I was raised on fast food so this is interesting to me. I don’t know if you can talk about the book since you’re writing it now, but when can we expect that?
Dr. Chatelain: Hopefully sooner than the first book. I’m focusing on the period in the 1970s and 1980s when fast food becomes black. I’m looking at the moment where people of color become the target consumer base for fast food and the politics and the economics behind that.

I had so much fun talking about this book and traveling with it. And although I love it, it’s time for me to work on a second one. Like everything I do, there is a strong gender component that I’m really excited to bring out in the story.

FH: What I love about your work is that it’s intersectional.
Dr. Chatelain: I think for us, this is the way. This is what we learned and now we’re doing it so our students can be better at it and think in these ways. I’ve had an incredible journey getting this book out and being in academia and hopefully being a person who can be a resource for the black women who really want this.

Pick up South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration and follow Dr. Chatelain on Twitter.

Deonna Anderson is an Oregon-based visual journalist and editorial assistant at For Harriet. Connect with her @iamDEONNA.

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