Girls at Play: Do We See Black Childhood Clearly?

 “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”
― Dr. Seuss

Where Have All the Children Gone?

As I watch YouTube videos of black girls who twerk, as I invite and request my students to study their performance as both play and to examine how others’ views of black girls’ childhood are distorted and distorting how those girls see themselves, I have been remembering my earlier work on black girls’ games. I don’t want to lose that black girls are children at play while also critiquing what it means to play with self (sexual)-objectification. This video doesn’t have that objectification piece in it from the girl or the boys. Check it out. Perhaps introducing this music and dance to adolescents would be interesting. Having them analyze its difference from US twerking in videos.

PS What I love about this video also is that they are playing freely in the mud after a rain in their yard.

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 “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
― C.S. Lewis

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning…They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.”
~ Fred Rogers (from the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)

The Black Girl YouTube Project Begins

I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” … at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 
― Audre Lorde

This fall I am teaching an Anthropological Analysis course for the first time in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Baruch College-CUNY. I decided to use this process as a working group focusing on my latest research — black girls, explicit hip-hop videos and YouTube. I recently completed a chapter for the book Remixing Change: Hip-Hop and Obama titled “YouTube, Bad Bitches and a M.I.C. (mom-in-chief): Hip-Hop’s Seduction of Girls and the Distortion of Participatory Culture” edited by my great colleagues and friends Travis Lars Goma and Erik Nielson for a forthcoming publication by Oxford University Press. 

I did so much research and data collection that I realized I had the makings of a book. So ANT4800 Anthropological Analysis seemed a perfect realm to continue my research and empower and educate undergraduate students taking a capstone course how to conduct and apply anthropology’s distinctive research strategy — ethnography — to the intersectionalities of real-world politics including domestic race and gender issues to social media publicness and privacy to the globalization of mediated identities and culture. 

 

In our 5th week of collaborative study, we begin creating our own YouTube videos as participant-observation and collecting user-generated content for what I am calling simply the Black Girl YouTube Project. With 18 female and male students from various ethnic and national backgrounds from Bangladesh to Barbados in the course, we will collect data on YouTube videos via a Google Docs form that generates a spreadsheet of our data (which we will soon share). We will also be collecting data from the relatively new YouTube Trends Map and Dashboard

We will use the collected data to analyze the field of our study and ultimately create our own ethnography or anthropological introduction to black girls on YouTube before the semester ends. Hope you’ll follow our discoveries.


SPECIFICS OUR OUR YOUTUBE STUDY

Simply put, we are exploring digital ethnography, social media, and the identity construction and socialization of adoloscent black girls ages 13-17. The participatory culture or user-generated context of YouTube is our field of study. We will examine black girls’ user-generated content (twerking videos, blogs, memes, gifs, and more) and other re-presentations and/or mediations of or about black female embodied identity including representations inferred by VEVO’s always-on explicit hip-hop videos that include immersive advertising for liquor and other products including the strip club scenes.

This collaborative study involving myself and 18 undergraduate research assistants is unique at a college like Baruch better known for collaborative work in the Zicklin School of Business within our institution. Our model of ethnographic social science comes from the previous digital ethnography of YouTube by former U.S. Professor of the Year and KSU distinguished prof Michael Wesch known for his Anthropological Introduction to YouTube uploaded July 26, 2008 that has over 1.9 million views to date. His incredible research still resonates as does similar research by social network expert Professor danah boyd whose work on teens touches significantly on matters of gender and race but still too little research exists in this realm. Just search work in sociology, anthropology and ethnomusicology and see what you find on black girls in this digitally mediated age. It’s revealing but there’s little ethnographic research relative to social media and social networks yet.

I just found a great article by Dionne Stephens and Layli Phillips titled “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes” in Sexuality and Culture 7/1 on adolescent African American women’s sexual scripts that will be very useful to educating students in the group. This is not a light subject to take on in a classroom setting. It’s complicated. 

 

NEW BODY OF RESEARCH

This is a new line of research following my previous scholarship and award-winning book on the popular offline social play of girls called The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop.  Handclapping games, cheers and double-dutch jump rope and the rhymed chants and embodied percussive play are in decay and the rise of social media online and mobile devices contributed to its decay as  African Americans are the fast-growing mobile devices users in the U.S. and yet black girls represent the demographic with the highest rates of obesity which I discovered from examining the fight to end childhood obesity around FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. Studying black girls online is a natural extension of my social media participation and presence since 2007.

In 2011, I was one of six finalists for Nokia’s Special Connecting People Shorty Award along with Amanda Palmer (of “The Art of Asking” TED Talk fame). We both lost to a school librarian in Iowa which speaks to the real power of participatory social media today.  But teen black girls on YouTube are “winning” on YouTube for all the wrong reasons if you asked me some days. 

BATTY-WUK AS FACE-WORK

The team of our Black Girls YouTube Project will be specifically studying twerking through first-hand personal study on YouTube rather than simply the firestorm of recent events sparked by Miley Cyrus in the blogosphere. We will track and analyze user-generated content including vlogs by or about black girls reflecting on the meanings of their symbolic, embodied behavior. Said another way, how do we understand their body work as “face-work” (following the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1967 study). As social beings, we all do “face-work” — performing social calculations that involve evaluating situations and the context(s) of our audience(s) while also evaluating our own selves and how that self fits into a situation(s). “The image we portray of ourselves (our “face”) is constantly being negotiated, a process Goffman calls “face-work” (p. 12). And although the individual takes an active role in the presenting, preserving, and sometimes adjusting [of] her face [or ‘batty-wuk’ (body-work) in the case of many black girls], it is not an object of solo authorship….Face-work us a complex collaborative dance in which all participants and their every word, wink, gesture, posture, stance, glance and grunt take part” (Michael Wesch, “YouTube and You,” 2010, p. 22).

So how do we provide a richer ethnographic context to the stereotypical views of black girls in a social media vlogosphere that tends to play on 1) racial and gender stereotypes of low-class, loud and angry black females, 2) negative perceptions of social media as well as debased popular “views” or view counts that do not always reflect their perceived reality, and the influence of commercially mediated images of black female-ness by the lyrical blow jobs of VEVO music videos featuring popular rap artists from Lil Wayne to Nicki Minaj?

 

A CURIOUS CONNECTION FOR THE CURIOUS WHO QUESTION

Ultimately, we will ask:

How do we and how can we learn to understand the complex sociological dance and the “face-work” of a black girls’ life-world on YouTube and in the context-collapse of today’s socially-mediated public culture?