This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
Over the past year, #BlackGirlMagic has populated my social media feeds. Coined by CaShawn Thompson, it is a celebratory hashtag that applauds the achievements of Black girls and women. As a youth minister and scholar whose work focuses on ministering to girls, I am drawn to anything that encourages girls to celebrate who God created them to be. I am especially drawn to avenues of celebrating a group that rarely see positive images of themselves because hurtful images are forced upon them by society and Christian traditions. This is why #BlackGirlMagic is not only good for society, but good for youth ministry.
We need #BlackGirlMagic because Black women and girls are often bombarded with negative images of themselves. In her text, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hills Collins calls them “controlling images” and contends that these images are socially constructed to maintain Black women’s subordination. She names five main archetypes: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, the Black lady, and the jezebel. All of these images exist to dissect and control African American women’s sexuality and understood femininity. The mammy is the asexual happy woman who cares for the children of the White family she works for more than her own. On the other hand, the matriarch is the bad Black mother who has children out of wedlock and emasculates men. In fact, all but the asexual mammy are seen as emasculating men. All are seen as being part of the reason for the lack of strong Black families. All of these images are juxtaposed to a more feminine image of the White counterparts of these women. These images further tell women that whether they are the wanton jezebel or the educated and hard-working Black lady, they are an abnormal section of their gender.
That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep… These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule.
Many of these images take on similar, but distinct, forms when speaking of Black teenage girls. When manifested in pint-sized forms, the “welfare mother” becomes the “teen mom” or the “baby mama” who is seen as a drain on the larger society. The “matriarch” becomes the “lil’ momma,” the bossy girl who tries to take care of everyone and is often called womanish. The “Black lady” is morphed into the “mini diva” who is always organized and involved in numerous activities and clubs, while maintaining a picture perfect appearance at all times. The image of the “jezebel” becomes the “little hoochie” or “ho” that is talked about and blamed for the rise of oral sex in middle and high schools. Like their adult counterparts, these images point to real concerns, but place all of the onus and blame squarely on the shoulders of those who bear these images.
And before we shake our heads and berate secular culture, it is important to realize that many Christian traditions have theologized several controlling images and presented a few of their own. As one example, let’s use Collin’s analysis to look at another image being taught in churches—“the Proverbs 31 woman.” First, it must be noted that referring to a “Proverbs 31 woman” right away ignores half of the chapter. So, we are already on exegetically shaky ground. This image is not unique to Black women, but the passage can take a particular twist when paired with the other images that have been used to control U.S. Black women. She is often presented as a controlling image that is a combination of the capable and docile mammy that cares for everyone else and the educated upper middle class Black lady that has done everything right. The only difference is she has learned the roles well enough to earn a husband whom she makes proud.
My issue is not so much with the proverb itself, but with the way the proverb is taken out of context (what mother doesn’t want perceived perfection for her son?) and used to create a controlling, cookie-cutter image into which all Christian women are compelled to try and fit. Placing Proverbs 31 (and other poems and stories of women in the Bible) in the context of these controlling images should help us see how easy it is to theologize controlling and unhelpful images.
To help girls discover healthier images we need to analyze what controlling images we are placing on them in our talks, our activities, and our relationships. Even when we think that we are presenting healthy images, we may need to check ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being a lady. But by saying that one has to live into a particular understanding of what that means and what that looks like is how we get the controlling image of a Black lady and how we then force women to say that they are not ladies because they don’t like high heeled shoes. Controlling images come with such a long list of dos or don’ts that there is no freedom to discover the nuanced selves that God has created us to be.
That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep. We celebrate the scientist, the gymnast, the historian, the community service volunteer, the book collector, etc. They all carry themselves differently and choose different looks, but that is not what is mentioned. It’s not about what they are wearing or what mold they fit. It’s about celebrating what they are doing and who they are―about realizing that there are many more like them. These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule. The controlling images are the exception. In fact, the controlling images are lies; lies we have been convinced to believe.
Let’s move away from the lie into the truth of #BlackGirlMagic. Let’s post and publicly celebrate our own achievement. Celebrating the accomplishments and many different images of girlhood is celebrating the beautiful complexity of the imago Dei and realizing that it cannot be pinned down to look one particular way. God has created each of us differently, so God’s image manifests itself differently within each of us. May each girl know that however they are made, their best self is magical.
Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.