Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century: A New Book on Black Girls in Literature

This post is part of a recurring blog series I am editing, which announces the release of selected new works in African American and African Diaspora History. Today is the official release date for Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, published by University of Illinois Press.


nazeraThe author of Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century is Nazera Sadiq Wright. Professor Wright is an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky. She specializes in 19th- and 20th-century African-American literature, black print culture, and girlhood studies. She is the recipient of national fellowships through the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Thurgood Marshall Fellowship at Dartmouth College and an Erskine A. Peters Fellowship at Notre Dame University. She earned her doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Long portrayed as a masculine endeavor, the African American struggle for progress often found expression through an unlikely literary figure: the black girl. Nazera Sadiq Wright uses heavy archival research on a wide range of texts about African American girls to explore this understudied phenomenon.

As Wright shows, the figure of the black girl in African American literature provided a powerful avenue for exploring issues like domesticity, femininity, and proper conduct. The characters’ actions, however fictional, became a rubric for African American citizenship and racial progress. At the same time, their seeming dependence and insignificance allegorized the unjust treatment of African Americans. Wright reveals fascinating girls who, possessed of a premature knowing and wisdom beyond their years, projected a courage and resiliency that made them exemplary representations of the project of racial advance and citizenship.

“Wright’s research is breathtaking. Her subject matter is of the utmost importance. This book lays the foundation for all future scholarship on African American girls in representation and in life.”—Robin Bernstein, author of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

“An important gift from an emerging scholar with a keen critical eye and impressive sleuthing skills. With depth and insight, Wright explores African American women’s most exigent issues from the cusp and vantage of girlhood: marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and employment, each state intensified by the myriad oppressions black women uniquely face. In addition, Wright’s book enriches nascent black print culture studies through its compelling engagement with archival documents and its valuable illumination of previously neglected newspapers, magazines, conduct books, sentimental discourses of all types. Drawing on a striking variety of print media, Wright revels in today’s incalculable possibilities for research into African American women’s history, literature and culture, and illustrates significant ways understudied black literary gems—from nineteenth century newspapers and scrapbooks—can deepen readers’ insights into the supremacy of education to black people across US history and African American women’s fierce pursuits of justice and self-determination.”—Joycelyn Moody, Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature, University of Texas at San Antonio


Ibram X. Kendi: Books have creation stories. Please share with us the creation story of your book—those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book. 

Nazera Sadiq Wright: I was raised with the belief that with determination and drive, I could attain a future far beyond the limited scope that society held for black girls. I attended the illustrious Holton-Arms School for girls in Bethesda, Maryland, where I learned that my intellectual curiosity, imagination, and self-expression were valued and permissible. The school’s motto—Inveniam viam aut faciam, “I will find a way or make one”—taught me to be resourceful, resilient, and resolute. I was naturally drawn to black girls in African American literature who modeled these qualities. When I took African American literature courses in college, I admired the spirited voices of black girls in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Toni Cade Bambara’s 1972 collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love. Never before had I read about black girls who were outspoken, unafraid, and unmoved by society’s gendered guidelines and institutional structures that sought to restrict them. These early impressions of brave, bold, black girls who battled injustices—when adults in their lives were unwilling to—primed me to recognize similar traits in the representations of nineteenth-century black girl characters that I examine in Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century. I wanted to write a book that traced a literary tradition of irrepressible black girls from the earliest examples of writing on black girlhood by both men and women and in sources that had not been analyzed before.

My investigation led me to several key questions. Why did nineteenth-century black writers convey racial inequality, poverty, and discrimination through the prism of black girlhood? Why did black writers and activists emphasize certain types of girls? What tropes can we identify in the early literature of black girlhood? Where do these girlhood tropes originate?

Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century traces writing about black girlhood in early African American print sources in the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, a span of time that ranges from the early decades of the new republic to the eve of the New Negro Renaissance. During this period, black writers used black girls as tools to put forward their social and political agendas. Often these agendas touched upon national issues of concern to the black community, such as safety and survival during the decades when the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, strategies for achieving full citizenship rights, working for the abolition of slavery, finding work in the postCivil War industrialized North, and crafting strategies for educating the next generation. Just as often, writers relied upon black girls as emblems of home and family. Whatever platform they chose for their writing, the black girls they wrote about appeared to carry stories of warning and hope, concern and optimism, struggles and success.

Finding these literary girls was not always easy. I draw upon familiar representations of black girls such as Frado in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) and Linda Brent in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Yet I wanted to identify and learn about other voices. The materials on black girlhood in this study derive from some of the earliest black newspapers and on fiction that has only recently been recovered, including an early short story by Maria W. Stewart; the newspaper advice columns of Gertrude Bustill Mossell; Trial and Triumph, an under-recognized serialized novel Frances E. W. Harper wrote in the late 1880s; and Silas X. Floyd’s Floyd’s Flowers: Or, Duty and Beauty for Colored Children, an early-twentieth-century conduct manual for black children. My analysis draws upon the writing of black men and black women. Some of the contributors to early black newspapers were anonymous. Each of them felt they had an important message to convey to and about black girls. Some writers wanted to control them. Others sought to empower them. All of them saw their potential power.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century: A New Book on Black Girls in Literature

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    where is the book sold?

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