This semester, I took an amazing course titled “How Did We Get Here? From Slavery to #MeToo” with Dr. Linda Chavers at Harvard FAS. We studied Black womanism for 16 weeks. Black women like Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Tarana Burke, and Patrisse Cullors sparked my thoughts below. Why have Black girls and women been called ugly since the founding of this country?
I never believed that I was ugly. White society disagrees.
Growing up, I had never felt more invisible. My middle school years were defined by excessive in-school suspensions and meetings in the principal’s office. I was a straight A student in a public charter school, but that was impossible to see when my behavior was always defined for me. I was not a troublesome student. In fact, I enjoyed following the rules. So, why could the school administrators not see that? Why was I punished significantly more than other students for the same behavior?
During my first suspension in middle school, I did not have the vocabulary to defend myself. I remember sitting at my principal’s round table, hands crossed in my lap. Her office, lacking personal touches and color, mirrored an interrogation room. The door to her office was only slightly ajar, but I could hear everything. It was as if my teachers couldn’t be bothered to hide their opinions of me.
She’s a distraction during study period.
She cannot keep speaking out of turn.
Quite frankly, I was invisible – an unfortunate symptom of my ugliness. I sat there alone, awaiting a punishment that I knew would be too strict.
What I did not realize was that the coming-of-age process for Black girls had an extra layer: we were ugly, whether we believed it or not. Tarana Burke describes what I’ve termed the Ugly Plight in Unbound. Being ugly is the “funny way that some people interact with those they deem physically unattractive…I know this because I’m ugly. At least that’s what the world finds new ways to tell me every day” (Burke, 16). For Burke, the ugliness the world attached to her was physical. She recalled men literally fearing her looks. For me, ugliness spoke to being unimportant, unseen, and unheard as a child.
Black women have been called ugly for longer than we’ve been deemed human. Black girls live in a paradoxical state where they’re too ugly to be loved, yet too sexualized to be appreciated. Unsurprisingly, all of this occurs at an age so young it strips Black girls of their childhood. America knows all too well the consequences of labeling Black girls as promiscuous; there is no forgiveness or innocence awarded to Black girls who simply want to be children.
Simply put, Black girls are emotionally violated as children. Harriet Jacobs was no exception. While enslaved, she faced threats of sexual assault from her slaveowner. According to Jacobs, a short-lived childhood for Black girls is inevitable. They “will become prematurely knowing in evil things…She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child” (Jacobs, 28). Jacobs’s “premature knowing” of sex developed without her consent; which is a trend for many Black girls in contemporary America. Black girls experience sexual assault at a higher rate than their counterparts. In fact, 1 in 4 Black girls will be abused before the age of 18.
Patrisse Cullors identified the exact age at which Black girls become criminals. At the age of “twelve, the moment our grades and engagement as students seem to matter less than how we can be proven to be criminals, people to be arrested…Twelve, and childhood already gone…Twelve, and out of time” (Cullors, 27-28). When I was twelve, being ugly meant people did not care to understand me or hear me. Nobody believed that I could be a rule-abiding student, even though I valued my education. As Black girls, we don’t have the luxury of making mistakes during our childhood.
Now, as an almost twenty year old woman studying at a predominantly white institution, I’m still proving myself. I find romantic relationships difficult to navigate because I am hypersexualized. The ugliness that was once attached to my body has morphed into something to lust. Sojourner Truth’s words ring in my head: “Aren’t I a woman?” (Truth, 1851).
Apparently not. Black women exist in a space between femininity and masculinity that denies us access to either. As the socialization of Black girls changes – often for the worse – it is vital that society recognize the power of anti-Black womanist rhetoric. For Black women, “ugly” means something deeper. It means that we aren’t considered human and therefore; we do not fit into the Eurocentric construct of gender. It also means that other people define us before we get to define ourselves.
Black girls, I see you. More importantly, I am not afraid to look at you. We deserve softness both throughout and beyond our childhood.
References in this piece
- Burke, Tarana. Unbound: My story of liberation and the birth of the Me Too Movement. Headline Book Publishing, 2021.
- Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Publications, 2001.
- Khan-Cullors, Patrisse, and Asha Bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
- Truth, Sojourner. “Aren’t I a woman?” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, 21 June 1851.
Stay tuned for my biannual Rating My Semester at Harvard!