The theater in Harlem was filled—literally, there were no seats—with black women. Some audience members were getting on in years, their faces and bodies a comforting and visible promise for what us younger black women will look like one day. All around me were different shades of black women, and different hairstyles too: locks, twists, natural curls, and relaxed. Interspersed in the crowd were a few white faces, and some men, but those attendees were few and far between. Mostly, this was a room for and filled by black women to snap and clap in agreement when a panelist said something poignant, or sigh collectively when a sad anecdote hit home. And of course laugh, an expression crucial to the survival of black women. An hour and a half of black women unloading: Who are we? Where are we at? What is our pain? What is our strength?
The panel, moderated by writer and professor Salamishah Tillet, was entitled “The Past, Present, and Future State of Black Girls,” and was part of the three-day Black Girl Movement conference put on by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies. Seated on stage were five black women, a reflection of those in the audience: they ranged in age and experience.
“The legacy that brought me here, it’s very sankofa-oriented,” said Makayla Gilliam-Price, a Baltimore youth organizer, referring to a Ghanaian concept employed by the black diaspora to mean one must always be focused on the past to understand and create a positive future. Price told the audience that her penchant for organizing work started before she was born. “My mother, while she was nine months pregnant with me, was marching in the streets,” Price, 17, said. “She always tells me that my first lullabies were protests chants.”
Price’s uncle, Tyrone Gilliam, was executed, she says, for a crime he didn’t commit. “It was a ten-year long struggle for my family.” Being born into the fight for her uncle’s life - he was executed the year she was born - inspired her to organize for civil rights. And using the concept of sankofa, she always returns to her uncle’s death as a way to stay grounded in the work. “Our generation of movement babies—we’re so dangerous because of who came before us,” she said to claps and snaps.
Another panelist, trans youth and homeless activist Daniella Carter, was asked when she found her voice. “I found my voice at age 14,” she responded. Carter took a deep breath, and when she began to choke up, gestured to the crowd that she needed a moment. “You can cry,” an audience member yelled out to her. “I’m trying to keep my pain together,” Carter responded, laughing through tears. Carter went on to describe a harrowing experience as a young gender queer black youth. “I was attacked at school and got stabbed,” she remembered. Her adoptive parents blamed her when a teacher told them that she needed to be taken out of school for her safety. That night, Carter said, she tied together sheets and jumped out of the window “and never looked back.”
Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, spoke about the erasure of black girls. “To be ignored is traumatic,” Morris said, referring to the ways in which black girls and women have been largely been left out history books on movements for civil rights. But Morris reminded the crowd that black girls and women have always been there. “Their presence is powerful,” Morris said, and reminded the crowd that black women have been “at the center of every social movement in the country.”
And according to Price, black girls are making their presence known. “We were walking down main streets in downtown Baltimore and it’s surrounded by whiteness and white money and me and few other girls I met were just standing in the middle of the intersection twerking,” she recalled of last April, during the uprising after Freddie Gray’s death. “In Baltimore, black women and black girls have been reclaiming their femininity and creating spaces for themselves,” she continued. Black girls and women have been creating “transient zones of freedom, inserting their own sexuality, inserting their intersectional identities, and creating spaces for ourselves to be embraced.”
Certainly, levity was necessary in a panel discussion on the past, present, and future of black girls. And there was plenty of it. But perhaps paramount to the discussion of black girls was the acknowledgement, and moreover, the acceptance—articulated by each panelist—of black girl pain. Price was careful to puncture what she described as the myth of “the strong black woman.” Strength, Price explained, isn’t the only characteristic black women manifest, or should project. Because there is black girl pain, and black girl pain is as important for the world to see as our strength.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.