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“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” ~Zadie Smith
“What am I going to do about a time of my life in which the brilliance of Black girls had no mirror?” ~Jacqueline Woodson
Recently, I’ve been researching Black girl economics in literature, specifically the value placed upon African American girls and women in youth literature. There are a few ways to consider this valuation. We can determine the value placed upon the presence of African American women as writers and then, we can consider the ways African American girls are valued in the literature itself. Today, let’s just look at the presence of African American women writers in children’s and young adult literature and why these numbers are important.
Economics is the science of decision-making. At its fundamental level, it considers the opportunity cost one faces when trying to maximize their utility or satisfaction. Consider young adult (YA) literature in this context. For each year 2014–2017, I’ve used data collected from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) University of Wisconsin-Madison to count the number of books published by traditional publishers written by African American women. Because this data only reflects titles submitted to them each year, I added titles that were also identified in the annual lists curated by Dr. Zetta Elliott and myself and released every December. This data indicates a mere 1% of youth literature published each year are written by African American women for readers ages 8-18. My numbers include neither picture books nor nonfiction books.
Books Published by African American women for readers ages 8-18
Looking at the roughly 3,000 youth books that are published annually, I’ve been able to identify the following number of YA (age12-18) books written by African American women with African American female lead characters.
Among these traditionally published books over this three-year period, I only found one with LGBT+ content (Little and Lion by Brandi Colbert. 2017, Little Brown Books) and two that were speculative fiction (Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. 2017, Viking; Siege of Shadows by Sarah Raughley. 2017, Simon Pulse). None had Afro Latinas that I found. The vast majority of these traditionally published texts are realistic fiction, situating the vast majority of these girls and the women who tell their stories outside the creative realms of comics, graphic novels, speculative fiction, mystery, horror and suspense.
In this quantitative context of YA literature, with publishers investing little in books by African American women, these books and ostensibly the stories they tell seem to have little value. With so few books written by these women about African American girls, they too are devalued and become practically invisible.
Data collated from the educational system suggests similar messages about these girls. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reports on student achievement in mathematics, reading, science, and writing through the Nation’s Report Card. This online tool annually relates information on progress in these areas by race or by gender, but not by race and gender thus telling us nothing about African American girls. It is difficult to determine whether this is an issue of states collecting standardized test results by race and gender or in choosing to release it.
In 2017, CALmatters was able to access unpublished standardized test results from the state of California that was broken down by race and gender. This data indicated that across racial lines, girls outperformed boys in reading. 24% of Black boys and 38% of Black girls were tested to be proficient readers. With both groups far below an acceptable level, all attention went to Black boys who no doubt need the attention, but so do the Black girls who were tested. This data offers a rare opportunity to document the academic progress of Black girls and to begin to show where schools are failing to meet their needs.
Other than the data from California, there seems to be little research addressing what African American girls experience in schools other than punitive actions taken against them. The invisibility of Black girls is a reality that extends beyond youth literature.
After reviewing research devoted to overall African American girl literacies, Muhammad and Haddix recognized the need for additional research around these literacies particularly of a type that will incorporate African American girls’ perspectives into educational practices. A more comprehensive image of these girls will allow for the educational system to better meet their needs while transforming perceptions about the girls. It’s important to realize that the issues of value and visibility extends beyond books and schools into matters that reflect the genuine vulnerability of this segment of the population. This small examination of youth literature only uncovers a small, but important way that Black women and girls are unheard.
This is where I turn to YA literature and question what value is placed upon African American girls inside these fictions because literary texts reflect societal practices. Rather than looking solely at the numbers of books published, what evidence of value can be found inside the narratives themselves? This is where my work continues.
edited 12 March 2018