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EQUITY & EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION, 46(3), 327341, 2013

C University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education


Copyright 
ISSN: 1066-5684 print / 1547-3457 online
DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2013.808095

Developing Critical Hip Hop Feminist Literacies: Centrality


and Subversion of Sexuality in the Lives of Black Girls
Elaine Richardson
The Ohio State University

The present article explores discourses surrounding the bodies of Black1 women and girls as they
engage the meanings of Black womanhood in (American) society in an afterschool setting. Drawing
on Black and hip hop feminisms, African American literacies, and critical discourse perspectives, the
author analyzes two young girls narratives, which reveal competing and controlling discourses of
Black female sexuality. Brias2 narrative of being sexually harassed by older boys while riding the bus
is favorably assessed by the community of Black female interlocutors because she projects herself
as asexual. Thus, the community of Black females bestows compassion upon her. Assatas narrative
shares her budding womanhood and sexuality and is evaluated negatively by the group of Black
females. Although both 11-year-old girls and the community of Black female interlocutors enact
critical literacies amidst dominating racist, sexist, classist, and patriarchal discourses, their resistance
strategies also perpetuate the very dominance they seek to oppose. Juxtaposition and critical analyses
of the differential discourses invoked by the two narratives provide insight into the lived experiences
of Black women and girls in relation to dominating discourses. As Black women and girls sexual
agency, desire, and early sexualization figure prominently in larger economies of power, knowledge,
and society, their embodied and societal knowledge around these issues must be mined for the
purposes of self-validation and the creation of new knowledge for collective empowerment (Hill
Collins, 1991). Implications for critical literacy research, pedagogy, and theory are presented.

1 ER (Author): Has anyone in here ever been wrongly approached by a guy just
2 because of dancin? [Bria raises hand] You Bria?
3 Bria: No, not because of dancin.
4 ER: Say you aint even got to be dancin for them to approach you wrong, huh?
5 Ayanni: Oh, me too. Me and her, the same thing.
6 ER: What happened in your situation?
7 Bria: I was on the bus and uhm, these boys . . . these boys stard talkin to me and
8 they thought that I was like . . . they thought that I was like uhm 12 or somethin, and I was
9 only, I think I was only like 11, I just turned 11, like. And then one time, I said, they, they
10 asked me how old I am and I said 11 and then they was like, and you that big?
Address correspondence to Elaine Richardson, College of Education & Human Ecology, The Ohio State University,
265 Arps Hall, 1945 North High Street, Columbus, OH 43210. E-mail: Richardson.486@osu.edu

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11 And then one of em tried to ask me out. And then they kept on saying, oh can I have
12 your number and stuff like that and I was like no.
13 Debra: Did you do it?
14 Bria: uhm uhm [shakes head no]
15 Students: Ummmmm. That wasnt right. Uhmmmmmm
16 KayKay: You shoulda called 911.
17 ER: Im glad you told them you were 11, cause some girls lie about they age cause they
18 want that attention.
19 Ayanni: Id a been like, you can have me. And I woulda called 911.
20 Students: Yep, Uhm hmm. Uhmmmmm.
21 ER: I know thats real. Yall said 911.
22

Students: Yep.

The question that I ask invites the girls to tell me what they know about the politics surrounding
young Black female dancing bodies. The question assumes that dancing with boys is an activity
that can pose risks for Black adolescent girls; however, Bria changes the activity from dancing
to riding the bus and the risk it poses for a Black girl. Her recollection of the interaction with the
boys indicates that they see her as a sexualized target. In lines 810, Bria problematizes the boys
rationalization of her sexual maturity and availability. The following statements are revealing:
they thought that I was like uhm 12 or somethin and I was only, I think I was only like 11, I just
turned 11, like. The boys at first thought Bria was older, like uhm 12 or something. However,
Bria indicates that she is barely 11 years old. The modifiers only (used twice), just and like
(used twice) underscore her sense that her age of 11 should be respected as youth and innocence
and also function to indict the boys sexualization of her. This is substantiated in lines 910: And
then one time, I said, they, they asked me how old I am and I said 11 and then they was like,
and you that big? Brias preteen status disclosure does not deter the boys from targeting her.
They are focused on her youthful developing sexuality. As indicated in lines 1112, the boys then
began to press her, one of em tried to ask me out. And then they kept on saying, oh can I have
your number and stuff like that. Bria reads this situation for what it is, sexual harassment, and
says no. In lines 1320, her peers and I monitor (Debra: Did you do it?), evaluate (Students:
Ummmmm, That wasnt right [in reference to the boys]), and validate her actions (ER: Im glad
you told them you were 11) as well as offer her alternate protection strategies (KayKay: You
shoulda called 911).
By simply being a big Black girl in impoverished public space, this young Black girl
is targeted and read as being sexually available to boys. In this case, the community of Black
females read a Black girls sexual agency and sexuality as un-projected and, thus, worthy of honor,
empathy, and undivided attentionaspects of what Staples (2012) calls literate witnessing (p.
471), compassionate empathetic acts of sense-making and assessment of experience. These
acts occur in relation to shared experiences, testimonials, or perspectives and are incited by
participation in purposeful communal reading, writing, speaking, and listening that attests to
truth, strong emotions, hardship, or negating behavior as a part of affirmation, healing, and
self-recovery.

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African American3 women and girls receive mixed and conflicting messages from various
spheres of society about who they are, their sexual and gender identities, what they can become, and how they should act (Fine, 1988; Hughes, Manns, & Ford, 2009; Richardson, 2009;
Stephens & Few, 2007). Twisted constructions of Black womanhood have long been a pivotal element of the American (globalized) economy. The system of brutal patriarchy and chattel slavery
has been reduced and metamorphosed into present day forms of structural racism, sexism, and
cultural hegemony and still powerfully influences the lives and futures of Black females, their
families, and people around the world. Black women and girls struggle for self-determination
and self-definition against the worlds ghettoized and distorted images of them (Richardson,
2002). Contemporary hip hop generation young womenespecially urban Black girlsare often identified as being particularly vulnerable, as certain imagery, music, styles, and symbols
have been hyper-commodified in mainstream media, providing a steady stream of socially dominating distorted constructions of femininity that emphasize passivity, outward appearance, and
attractiveness (Cole & Guy-Sheftall, 2003; Pough, 2007; Sharpley-Whiting, 2007; Witt, 2007).
Some young women are able to resist such self-representations, while others perform identities
that mirror harmful sexual scripts portrayed in the media, popular culture, hip hop, and youth cyberculture (freaks, bitches, pimpettes, ride or die chicks, and female macks) (Love, 2012; Stokes,
2007; Winn, 2011). Patriarchal hegemonic ideologies dominate Black female sexuality in the
public sphere and construct it as a target for immorality. Though this is the case for all females,
African American females have to develop different strategies to guard themselves because they
are generally in less insulated environments (from the hood to the United States government).
For example, unlike females from the dominant culture, it is likely that a Black female may be
continually sexually harassed and unsupported. To say the least, navigating Black girlhood and
womanhood in public space is very serious business.
AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMENS LITERACIES
There is a growing body of work that addresses these issues as part of African American female
literacies education and research. Studies of African American female literacies are interested in
Black womens special knowledge and special ways of being in the world (Richardson, 2003).
African American female literacies (Richardson, 2003) refers to the development of skills and
expressive vernacular arts and crafts that help females advance and protect themselves and their
loved ones in society. These make up the constellation of African American cultural identities,
social locations, and social practices that influence how members of this discourse group make
meaning and assert themselves socio-politically in subordinate as well as official contexts. African
American literacies include vernacular survival arts and cultural productions that carve out free
spaces in oppressive locations, such as the streets, the workplace, the school, or the airwaves
(Richardson, 2008).
Informed by New Literacy Studies, work in African American literacies emphasizes the
importance of social approaches to language and literacy education. Literacy is traditionally
conceptualized as print bound, politically neutral, and private mental activity, wherein letters
correspond to sounds, and sounds to words, and reading and meaning making are universal and
context-free. This traditional view minimizes literacys sociocultural, context-bound, and ideological nature (Gee, 1996, 1999; Street, 1993, 2000). Two major points in New Literacy Studies
underscore the social nature of literacy: (1) people internalize or appropriate images, patterns,

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and words from the social activities in which they have participated and (2) meaning making and
reading are connected to identity negotiation and broader dominating discourses in society that
control beliefs about the way the world works (Gee, 2000, 2003). For example, Black women
and girls, their so-called inherent at-riskness, in particular, is socially constructed through a
web of social practices related to economic, political, patriarchal, racist, and sexist arrangements
reproduced through text, talk, and social interaction (Richardson, 2009). Thus, African American
new literacies work centralizes Black peoples experiences of racism, (hetero)sexism, classism,
cultural conflict, social equality (including the struggle for language), and identity as central to
literacy education.
Pedagogical projects aligned with this work underscore the importance of carving out space for
the cultivation and support of Black females lived experiences and literacy traditions and building
support networks, institutions, and practices geared toward self and collective empowerment
(Kynard, 2010; Muhammad, 2012; Richardson, 2007; Winn, 2010; Wissman, 2011).

HIP HOP FEMINIST LITERACIES


A particular branch of African American womens literacies, hip hop feminist literacies, is a
growing line of study, which can be seen as a generational and culturally relevant vehicle through
which hip hop feminists can encourage feminist modes of critical analysis, political education,
community institution building, and empowerment of women and girls (Peoples, 2008). Morgan
(1999), who coined the term Hip-hop feminist, helped to bring hip hop and feminism together
to advance a poststructuralist view of Black feminism, a complex and sometimes contradictory
feminism that promotes sexual agency and admits the pleasures of patriarchyin short, a feminism for the gray areas of life (Lomax, 2011; Richardson, 2009). Durhams (2010) articulation of
hip hop feminism informs hip hop feminist literacies work as it emphasizes artists, activists, and
scholars strategic quest to transform the perpetuation of oppressive popular media representations
of young women and girls of color through using the language and oppositional consciousness
of hip hop to craft culturally relevant, gender-specific, creative, intellectual, political movement
(p. 117). Pough (2007) argues that hip hop feminist literacy actively opposes sexism, misogyny,
and homophobia and promotes situated analyses of power, inequality, exploitation, and oppression in the service of promoting dialogue on issues of relationships between Black women and
men, health, social justice, and overall well-being.
Initiatives, such as Browns (2009) afterschool program, SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives Hearing
Our Truths), and Stokes (2007) community literacy initiative, HOTGIRLS (Helping Our Teen
Girls In Real Life Situations), are examples of groundbreaking work that celebrates Black girl
culture while fostering critical feminist literacies. Similarly, Girl Time, Winns (2011) study of
a theater program for formerly incarcerated teen girls, highlights the ways race-, gender-, and
class-specific ideas about Black and urban girls render them as disposable. Through writing and
acting out plays about their lived experiences and exploring the circumstances surrounding their
incarceration, the girls develop critical literacies of liberation. Winn points to a web of rules,
laws, and practices that label and position girls as poor, dispossesses them of an education, and
assembles them on the school-to-prison pipeline. Development of critical literacies among Black
adolescent females involves centering their experiences in the world in which they live. As this

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study reveals, race, gender, class, and sexuality are major and interlocking categories of critical
inquiry in hip hop feminist literacy work.

BACKGROUND
I have a passion for working with young girls after overcoming my own life experiences of
being a troubled teen: I was raped at age 13; I had low self-esteem; I became involved in teenage
prostitution through a string of criminal boyfriends; I grew up in a non-insulated, poverty-stricken
Black community in Cleveland, Ohio. In short, I struggled to find myself, nurture my intellect,
and love myself. I share my past with young girls so that they know I understand a lot about being
a young Black woman like them. I have had years to reflect on my journey, but I am still learning.
I see the girls as experts and I strive to facilitate their critical thinking about the world in which
they live and their abilities to intervene in it.
Part of the rationale for Black Girl Friends, an afterschool club located in an economicallydepressed, segregated, neighborhood and school district in an urban midwestern city, is to create
a space for the exploration and evolution of healthy Black womanhood in the lives of everyone
involvedthe middle school girls as well as the adult women who attend our two-and-a-half-hour
weekly meetings. Teen participants range in age from 11 to 14 years and are in grades six through
eight. Though the afterschool club began three years ago, the work reported here occurred in our
second year. Twelve girls were regular participants, but the number who attended fluctuated from
8 to 16 girls per week.
We read about Black womens lives, including those who have made a difference, such as
Waangari Maathai, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy, Queen Amina, and Michelle Obama, to name
a few. We also watched documentaries, such as the Life and Times of Sara Baartman, The Souls
of Black Girls, A Girl Like Me, How to Be a Pop Star, and We Need to Talk: A Message to Our
Daughters. We watched and read rap music videos, snippets of shows and documentaries on
YouTube, and TV commercials. We discussed images of Black women in the media. We talked
about our mothers, fathers, sexuality, families, our aspirations and dreams. The girls wrote journal
entries, interviewed and debated each other, and made videos, artwork, and poetry. Most of our
discussions took place in a circle, and most of the girls graciously offered their experiences and
ideas. At the beginning of each session, we had refreshments, mingled, played a game, had talent
shows, danced, sang, and chilled before getting into our set agenda of a chosen text, video clip,
or discussion item. Despite our agenda, we let our time together flow as the spirit led.
Black Girl Friends is based in Black feminist pedagogy. Black feminist teachers pedagogy is
political, both implicitly and explicitly, though the political character of Black feminist teaching
is only one aspect. Themes of Black feminist women teachers include: Teaching as a Lifestyle
and a Public Service; Discipline as Expectations for Excellence; Teaching as Othermothering;
Relationship Building; and Race, Class, and Gender Awareness (Dixson, 2003, p. 225). Further, Black womens pedagogy is undergirded by womanist themes comprising female activism,
caring as a key force for activism, and life-long human development. Womanist approaches
value womens individuality, recognize womens central contributions to survival and transcendence of their communities, and validate Black womens mother wit and counternarrative to
hegemony (Beauboeuf Lafontant, 2005). Black feminist teachers raise historical and contemporary awareness about Black womens lives in society toward the goal of personal and collective

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empowerment. The present work highlights the struggle for collective empowerment among girls
and the author in an afterschool context. The discursive production of the subversion of sexuality
is described and explained through an examination of social interaction and social structures
invoked in discussion.

DATA COLLECTION AND RESEARCH QUESTION


To generate and extend upon what the girls knew about how they are positioned as young Black
women in the(ir) world, the participants and I explored their day-to-day activities. One cultural
practice I asked the girls about was twerking. Twerking is a dance that engages the buttocks in
sexy, rhythmic, gyrating and shaking moves. In short, it is a booty dance. Dance is a form of
identity work, through which the dancer can assert her sexuality and femininity. I showed a brief
portion of one of numerous YouTube clips of the Atlanta-based Twerk Team (Twerk Team Lookie
Looky, n.d.) as a prompt to generate the girls knowledge. The Twerk Team consists of young
adult Black women who dance for a living in the hip hop industry. Bria and Assata provided the
two focal narratives that invoked what I identify as important discourse and literacy practice from
the girls in this session.
Bria is an 11-year-old, sixth grade, African American girl, who describes herself as loving
math, her friends, and teachers. She has a twin sister, and though she lives with her mom,
she spends lots of time with her dad. She mentioned to me that her dad suggested that she
let her hair grow natural instead of wearing a perm but that she is not ready. She also mentioned, on more than one occasion, that she is making good decisions about her friends and
activities inside and outside of school. When describing what she likes most about herself, she
notes her intelligence, body, and choice of friends and that she knows what she wants out of
life.
Assata is also an 11-year-old, sixth grade, African American girl. She has two sisters and two
brothers. Assata lives with her mom and describes herself as someone who likes to get good
grades and learn new ways to do math. Good grades, her life, her fashion sense, and her big
heart are what she says she likes most about herself. She admits to getting caught up sometimes
in drama (altercations) in and out of school with classmates and girlfriends. She is really into
fashion and reps for female rap star Nicki Minaj, meaning she wears Nicki Minaj-inspired
Barbie accessories, such as necklaces or bracelets. Both girls are regular contributors to weekly
sessions of Black Girl Friends.
I collected data via participant observation, whole group and individual semi-structured discussions, conversations, and field notes. I returned to the girls to ask for clarification of issues
or language to be sure I understood their comments. The narratives under analysis in this essay
are from a videotaped session that occurred in November 2011. I viewed the videotape once
through to see if my field notes matched what I thought would be significant topics to examine
and transcribe from the session.
Discourse analysts begin with some sense of the social practice in which the discourse is
embedded. As a Black woman researcher of Black womens discourse and literacy practice, I
knew that a discussion of twerk dancing would generate societal discourses surrounding the bodies
of Black women and girls. I watched the videotape again and transcribed selected passages of
the conversation that highlighted such discourses. Following Fairclough (2001), I paid particular

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attention to and transcribed those moments in the conversation that corresponded to topics that
revealed discourses in crisis. Fairclough (1992, p. 230) explains that cruces points, or moments
of crisis, can show when something is going wrong in the production of a text: a misunderstanding
that requires repair of a communication problem; silences; repetitions; corrections; or disfluencies.
Closely examining such moments illuminates practices that have been naturalized and show
people dealing with the problematization of practices (Fairclough, 1992, p. 230). The critical
discourse analyst seeks to bridge micro-level language use to macro-level social structure to
explain and interpret how social discourses and social relations are maintained, reproduced, or
challenged (Van Dijk, 2001). The research question that undergirds this ongoing study is: What
are the discourse and literacy practices that middle-school age, Black girls produce as they engage
discourses that surround the bodies of Black women and girls in their lived experiences, popular
culture texts, and society?

INTERPRETIVE/THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
Discourse is a key concept in studies of African American literacies. The pluralizing of literacy
to literacies underscores the point that literacy is a socio-political construct, which groups define
to serve their interests and needs. Literacy is constructed from distinctive social languages that
work in tandem with other socially-situated activities (Gee, 2000). Discourse shapes ways of
being, knowing, and doing, and shapes social interaction. Discourse is central to social cognition.
Although embodied in the minds of individuals, social cognitions are social because they are
shared and presupposed by group members, monitor social action and interaction, and because
they underlie the social and cultural organization of society as a whole (Van Dijk, 1993, p. 257).
Meaning is derived from semiotically-imbued socially shared representations of text. Semiosis
includes all forms of meaning makingvisual images, body language, as well as language
(Fairclough, 2001, p. 122).
People internalize or appropriate images, patterns, and words from the social activities in
which they have participated (Gee, 1999). They perform these social activities based on their
social positioning (Fairclough, 2001). All meaning making resources are applicable to discourse
analysis. This includes, for example, grammar or lexis narrowly; but also, people, places and
things combine[d] in visual statements of greater or lesser complexity and extension (Kress
& van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 1). As aspects of discourse, these multimodal conceptions of meaning
making inform this study on the ways that young African American females read and respond to
the world in which they live.
Discourses are always already hybrid. I consider hip hop discourse as an extension of the
hybrid system of Black discourse, which is itself engaged with mainstream culture and dominant
discourses. Black discourse practices influence how Black people read and respond to the social
world. They are sociocultural practices forged from existing African ideologies and practices
and those that people of Black African descent encountered, developed, or appropriated in the
context of negotiating life in European-dominant societies. Hip hop literacies foreground the
ways in which people who are socialized into hip hop discourse manipulate as well as read
language, gestures, images, material possessions, and people, to position themselves against or
within discourse to advance and protect themselves (Richardson, 2006). In keeping with this
line of argument, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) in New Literacies Studies focuses on an

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examination of the ways people make language (and other acts of identity) work to (re)construct,
maintain, negotiate, or resist identities and situations. Gee (1999) calls this recognition and
enactment work. Literacy can be liberating or powerful when used as a meta-language or a
meta-Discourse . . . for the critique of other literacies and the way they constitute us as persons
and situate us in society (p. 74). This liberating literacy is a particular use of Discourse (to
critique other ones), not [necessarily] a particular Discourse (Gee, 1996, p. 177). As a critical
discourse analyst, my work is to recognize and support girls moves for agency. Critical discourse
scholars take an explicit socio-political stance of solidarity with those who suffer from social
inequality (Van Dijk, 1993).
These ideas inform my exploration of discourse practices at work among the Black Girl
Friends.

TWERKING
I asked the girls if they could tell me about local twerk dancing. One girl was nominated by the
other girls because of her love of twerking. She mentioned that other girls twerked, too, not just
her. I asked her to show me how to do it.
Most girls thought it was inappropriate for me to learn to twerk and said I should not do it.
Nevertheless, I encouraged Assata to school me. She explained that their twerking was a little
different than the way the Atlanta-based Twerk Team does it. But she proceeded to face the wall
and bust a very slight move. She continued by showing me how a boy gets behind a girl, holds
on to a girls jean buckle, and grinds behind the girl. The dance movement is clearly sexual.
Upon deeper reflection of this interaction, I realized that I do not have the words to facilitate
the girls exploration of themselves as healthy, beautiful, sexual beings. As shown below, the
questions that I posed to Assata center on the sexist male patriarchal gaze, informed by my
hyper-awareness of discourses of Black female hypersexuality. My inquiry created dissension
and stratification among the girls, revealing cultural stereotypes and controlling discourses used to
promote social inequality and obscure empowered sexual self-awareness. The example presented
below demonstrates through its patriarchal orientation that although linguistically the question is
open, ideologically it is closed.

CLOSED, OPEN ENDED, PATRIARCHAL-ORIENTED QUESTIONS:


I STATEMENTS, SEX POSITIVITY, THE NASTY GIRL,
AND RESPECTABILITY
1 ER: How do you think that makes them feel?
2 Assata: They get a feelin from it.
3 ER: Yeah, they get a hard on and possibly ejaculate. Do you think that makes them like
4 you?
5 Assata: Im just havin fun. I like to dance and have fun.
6 Students: Its nasty. Uhmmmmmm. Thats why I dont do it.

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7 Assata: I just like to have fun. I know what I am gonna be in the future, since Im going
8 to college, I am not havin no
9 babies. I aint no ho. My mama said she aint keepin no babies. But I have a future.
10 ER: Do you think the boys really like you for yourself when you dance with them like
11 that, or do they like you because of how you make them feel?
12 Assata: [silence]
13 Lorain: Girls do it because they want to be popular

In lines 14, my questions do not center Assata and her feelings. In fact, the form and function
of my questions position her to ignore her feelings and focus on boys sexuality. Using the
pronouns them and they in my questions and responses lead her to focus on boys feelings:
them feel?; they get a hard on; makes them like you? My questions momentarily alienate
Assata from her feelings and center the very sexist patriarchal discourse I am fighting against. My
orientation is influenced by Black respectability politics, which tend to suppress Black womens
and girls sexuality as a means of fighting sexism and racism. Strategies of Black respectability
politics are both liberating and constraining in their deployment of honor, self-respect, piety,
propriety, surveillance, and suppression of Black women and girls (Durham, Cooper, & Morris,
2013), thus presenting a conundrum. A more hip hop feminist-centered question would have
been: When you dance how do you feel?
Assata, nevertheless, tries to relay her feelings as best as an 11-year-old girl can. Her response
can be characterized as sex-positive, as seen in line 5. She indexes her own feelings with the
unequivocal pronoun I. Im just havin fun. I like to dance and have fun. Sex-positive is
another term for sexual agency, which, used here, means that women and girls are sexual beings
and experience sexual desire. Sex-positivity can also be equated with sexual identity broadly
to mean ones status as a biologically sexual being with sexual and romantic desires (James,
2010, p. 134). Sex positivity also indicates sexuality, which can be understood as the systems of
mutually constituted ideologies, practices, and identities that give socio-political meaning to the
body as an eroticized and/or reproductive site (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004, p. 470). Assatas agency
also extends to the power she feels knowing that she has some effect on the male dancers feelings.
Her assertions, They get a feeling, Im just havin fun, reflect this. However, this response
also reveals the minimization and, perhaps, even youthful ignorance of her sexual feelings as
fun. This is implicated in the adverbial modifier just in Im just having fun.
A chorus of students voices in line 6 denounces twerk dancing as nastyrevealing this Black
girl dance as a semiotic sign, referencing the Jezebelian myth of Black female sexuality. The
Jezebelian stereotype has its history in slavery, and is an identity foisted on Black females that
calls them immoral in order to justify their rape, violence, and exploitation at the hands of slave
owners and the institution of slavery (hooks, 1981). The Nasty Girl is promoted in popular culture
as a way of being in rap music, videos, teen magazines, and cable television shows filled with
half-naked females (Barron & Lacombe, 2005). The Nasty Girl image is race- and class-specific
and circulates in Black and hip hop discourses, though stemming outside of Black communities.
Durhams (2012) discussion of racialized classed sexuality of young Black women as proliferated
by hip hop music industry is instructive:

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While colonial discourses suggest that all black women are promiscuous, the hip hop booty [dancer]
has been reassigned to working class black women specifically. Rap modifiers about the booty as
junk, ghetto, bubble, big, or bootylicious not only assess its physicality, but also its value and the
spatial location for women who possess that body type (read: ghetto). To call attention to a sexual sign
already imbued with racist discourses of hypersexuality is, in the words of Destinys Child, classless
(read: without value or virtue) or nasty. (p. 41)

Other girls communal cry of nasty is an active opposition to Assatas position of sexual agency.
Another girl adds to this chorus of refutation, Thats why I dont do it. However, there were
girls there who did admit to twerking, as well as some who did not twerk. Of those who do twerk
and deny it, their distancing is perhaps their attempt to downplay their sexuality and to avoid
being thought of as nasty.
This interaction is a marked contrast from Brias opening narrative and the literate witnessing
that it ushers forth. In that incidence, the Black girls sexuality is read as respectable and
unprojected. Assatas projection of sexuality is met with Diss-Course4 lack of communal support,
and labeled nasty. Assata, however, draws upon discourses of education and consequences of
early single motherhood on successful life course achievement to reject the Nasty Girl identity
and subvert its discourse.

I STATEMENTS, EPISTEMOLOGICAL POSITIONING,


AND YOUTHFUL RESPECTABILITY
Assata is thoroughly aware of Nasty Girl ideology and refutes it, with her own respectability
politics, as seen in lines 79.
Assata: I just like to have fun. I know what I am gonna be in the future, since Im going to college, I
am not havin no babies. I aint no ho. My mama said she aint keepin no babies. But I have a future.

I am interested here in how Assata constructs herself in opposition to Nasty Girl ideology and
the knowledge upon which she draws. Her repeated use of I statements reveal her epistemic
position. The first I statement, I just like to have fun, establishes Assata as someone who
just enjoys her sexuality for fun. Her next statement, I know constructs her as someone who
thinks and is intelligent. She is a speaking subject, not just a booty or a body without knowledge.
I am gonna be constructs her as someone who thinks about her future and who will live a life
intact. Im going to college relays her sense of self as intelligent and desirous of an education.
I am not havin no babies signifies herself as in control over her body and knowledgeable of
consequences of early single motherhood: I aint no hoIm respectable. All I statements
up to this point indicate Assata as the source of her knowledge. The next statement reveals
the basis of Assatas knowledgeher mama, who aint keepin no baby and is undoubtedly
a constant source feeding Assatas subjectivity. A review of the qualities Assata lists reveals
opposition to the Nasty Girl image, which is associated with hypersexuality, ignorance, hardship,
and illegitimate (unplanned) babiescharacterizations that normalize the demonization of poor
Black girls. These discourses actively shape Assatas consciousness and they are also part of
dominant societal discourse and social cognition.
Lines 1011 (my questions), which position Assata against the sexist patriarchal gaze, leave
her stranded and unsupported. She does not answer. And why should she? Her silence rings in my

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ears: I just like to have fun. And herein lies the cruces point wherein Assata, an 11-year-old girl
has problematized hetero-sexist-patriarchy alone. The room is silent. Lorain breaks the discussion
away from Assata when she states, Girls do it because they want to be popular.

DISCUSSION
Researchers who study childrens sexuality affirm that children and adolescents are sexual beings
and that that sexuality develops in stages, though they need time to develop into their adult sexual
bodies (e.g., James, 2010). Therein lies the hip hop/Black feminist educators dilemma. My job
is to facilitate the not-yet-fully developed Assatas healthy sex-positive identity and her critical
awareness of the dangers of heterosexist patriarchy, which pervade so many aspects of daily lived
realities of Black women and girls and results in emotional, physical, and social wounding.
The analyses of the two narratives presented here exemplifies a current debate in Black and
hip hop Feminist Studies, that of sex positivity and respectability, which goes something like this:
In todays world, we need a feminism with a hip hop sensibility, a feminism that acknowledges
the benefits of objectified female sexuality, male chauvinism, and patriarchy (Morgan, 1999).
In this view, women have the right to express their sexuality in homo- and hetero-erotic ways,
linguistically, rhetorically, lyrically, and physically; they have a right to display their bodies as
they want, in the dance hall, the club, or wherever they deem appropriate; they have a right to
own their sexuality. Some variation of this argument is put forth by Morgan (1999), Perry (2004),
Pough (2004) (in Afro-American studies), and Cooper (2004), Page (2003), Tafari (1994), and
Skelton (1995) (in Afro-Caribbean studies). Although scholars, such as Hope (2006) agree, she
would add that a womans power ultimately feeds into male sexual fantasies and women as
sexual objects (p. 75). Hope further explains:
[The] displays cannot be classified as either femalefemale reinforcement or as female idolation in
isolation. On the contrary, they are primarily direct femalemale engagement and these women broker
some level of advancement in their own self-empowerment as a kind of residual benefit, almost by
default.

These arguments focus on mature adult women who understand the ramifications of their sexuality
and lives. The significant women, moms, aunts, and othermothers in Brias and Assatas lives
have actually done a good job of preparing their 11-year-old daughters with knowledge to help
them navigate this society. This can be seen in Brias ability to handle herself in the face of sexual
harassment (combatting sexually promiscuous discourse) and Assatas definition of herself against
the Nasty Girl discourse. My job as Black and hip hop feminist othermother and critical literacy
educator is to support the girls development of a healthy sense of sexuality, to problematize how
poor Black girls bodies are read in society, to help develop their critical literacies of self and
society, and to support their critical assessment of situations so that they are equipped to protect
themselves. Although I want the girls to understand how Black girls and women are being read
in society, I also want to promote the disintegration of discourses that do not allow Black women
and girls to see ourselves outside of the stereotypes that have been foisted onto us. Dominating
discourses thwart our attempts to imagine ourselves as beautiful (sexual) beings and to build
collective community. Such dominating discourses keep us in our places, thereby upholding the
status quo.

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Recent work in hip hop feminist studies discusses Black and Latina womens need for a
pro-sex framework that provides language to describe both the pleasure and pain of sex and
sexuality outside a singular heteropatriarchal lens while also looking at the nexus of hierarchical
structures that shape our sexual selves (Durham, Cooper, & Morris, 2013, p. 724). Because
Black adolescent girls deserve to see themselves as fully human and normal, I submit that an age
appropriate pro-sex framework also is needed.
It is nearly impossible to avoid gender-, race-, and class-specific representations of womens
sexuality in popular culture and American discourses and to think against them. The globalization
of negative class-specific images of Black men and women, as well as the disparate and gendered
distribution of resources, structure the new racism. There is a symbiotic movement between
larger political and economic forces on the macro-level that influence micro-level behavior
among African Americans whose culture is continually mined for new material. Black popular
culture reflects the new racism in its gender-specific mass mediated forms (Hill Collins, 2004).
Representations of Black women performers as nasty, freaks, hos, bitches, pimpettes, or female
macks are abundant, contested, and troubling. Popular media bombard youth with sexually
alluring images and alter egos portrayed by women performers such as Beyonce, Nicki Minaj,
and Trina, among others. Adolescent girls consume sexuality from popular culture, yet live at the
grassroots level where they have little positive affirmation or critical exploration of themselves
as sexual beings and where they are harassed, pressured, or seduced into becoming sex objects.
In her work on Black girls and their sexual oppression, James (2012) argues that the Black girl
body [is a] site of sexual terrorism (p. 55). This problem of lack of protection for our girls is
reported in Girls in the Hood: Evidence on the Impact of Safety:
Girls in all types of communities experience at least some verbal and physical harassment, but as
Popkin and her colleagues describe in The Hidden War, in the socially isolated world of distressed
public housing, the pressures for sexual activity are much greater, the threats more blatant, and the
risk of rape and assault very real. To avoid these threats, parents often monitor their daughters closely,
making them spend much of their time indoors. (Popkin, Leventhal, & Weissmann, 2006, p. 4)

Society bears some responsibility for placing poor Black girls at-risk for psychological, physical,
sexual, and spiritual trauma and Diss-advantage when girls have to live in a media-saturated
world where being sexually attractive and sexually revealing is disproportionately promoted over
other types of human value; when girls have to live in environments where they have little to no
protection and resources; and when girls and those around them receive little to no education
or training about sexism, racism, or classism and how these work together to encourage the
oppressed to collude in their own subordination. Brias and Assatas narratives, and the discourses
and dilemmas that surround Black girls, illustrate that caring youth workers must act upon these
pressing issues to break oppression in our communities.

CONCLUSION
Browns (2009) work in SOLHOT faced the dilemma of adolescent girls sexuality and the adult
protective fear that surrounds it. She ultimately found that the space we provide to celebrate
and nurture Black girlhood is namely an ideal that encourages feelings of self-love, mind-body
connection, peer support, physical activity, listening and creating connections between girls and

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women (p. 92). Brown reminds us that applying our own standards to the actions of girls
limits our understanding of what it means to celebrate Black girlhood. Although embracing
youth culture is fraught with lifes difficulties, the larger goal is to draw adolescents into critical
consciousness. Assata is well on her way as she was able to define herself in opposition to the
Nasty Girl image. However, discourses such as the Nasty Girl perpetuate inequality as they refer
to poor Black moms, both teen and adult, negatively. Further, sex-positivity and sexual agency are
read negatively for adolescent Black girls, leaving them vulnerable to not only Diss-advantage,
but also to sexual exploitation and negative self-concept.
Youth workers, educators, and parents have to work together to support and nurture types of
critical consciousness and feminist movement that adolescents can embrace. Race, class, gender,
sexuality, and age inform sense-making and reading and literacy practices. Literacy education for
social justice forces us to confront the politics of knowledge and power as part of reading, writing,
listening, and speaking holistically about ourselves in society. Developments in new literacies
studies argue for engaging peoples lived experiences, no matter how difficult. This is where
learning and education for life can occur. If caring adults do not struggle through it together with
youth, we leave them to struggle alone.
NOTES
1. Throughout the article, I capitalize Black as a proper noun (as in Black American or Black language) to
reference political and ethnic designation, on par with African American, which is not lower case.
2. All student names are pseudoymns.
3. I use the terms African American and Black interchangeably to refer to descendants of sub-Saharan
Africans in America.
4. A riff off of the Black language practice to diss (to disrespect). See Smitherman, 2000.

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Elaine Richardson is a professor of Literacy Studies in the College of Education and Human
Ecology at The Ohio State University.Her research interests include the liberation and critical
literacy education of people of the Black African Diaspora.

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