115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Literary Black Girl Magic: Visualizing Underrepresented Female Adolescents in African American Literature

Sondra Washington, University of Alabama

This paper interrogates the visibility of black girls in African American literature from early representations to more contemporary portrayals of these characters. It also explores the impact that these portrayals might have had on current literary trends and American society at-large.


With little effort, literary scholars can locate countless allusions to African American girls in fiction. Some early American texts such as Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl focus on the lives and experiences of black girls during the nineteenth century. However, in recent years, depictions of black female children and adolescents often appear in literature as context for more centralized characters—African American women and men—rather than as fully developed individuals. Yet, long before the coinage of #BlackGirlMagic, many scholars credited Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) with altering this literary tradition. Clearly, Morrison understood the significance of this endeavor since she explained that her aspiration for writing the novel was to share the stories of the “most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls [who] had never existed seriously in literature." While The Bluest Eye certainly calls this narrative norm to task, numerous African American women writers including Alice Walker, Sapphire, and Sister Souljah have advanced Morrison’s efforts to correct the omission or glossed over representations of black girls in literature raising awareness about their lives and struggles and allowing, or demanding that, readers intently envision this population as worthwhile literary subjects.

My paper highlights the historical representations of black girls in African American literature and identifies some of the various efforts across the decades to reveal their literary significance. I also argue that the ripple effect of this work is still experienced today as evident in the proliferation of children’s literature with young black girls as centralized characters to the prominence of #1000BlackGirlBooks in social media.