Dr. Jennifer Baszile’s memoir, The Black Girl Next Door, complicates and exposes an African-American girlhood in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. This book could have easily been a historical account of the post-Civil Rights Movement in the United States since the author, herself, is a Princeton trained professional historian. Baszile chooses not to lose her narrative within the caricature of academic discourse but shapes it on a lived personal/political history. This book dares to ask, what does post-segregation American childhood look like for black youth, black young girls? Who gets to think about race? Who gets to frame and shape black girlhood? These are the questions that linger in this book.
The choice by the author to write this book relying on personal memory begs the question: can the memory of children be relied upon? It is Baszile’s close attention to details: the ability to bring life to her California childhood so vividly, to define the texture of her home, the faces and smells of her town and the emotions that were once experienced. Because memory-knowledge of those that have been and continue to be structurally marginalized, is often contested, Baszile adds to the canon of literature that contends that even through the eyes of girl-children, the world is but a complicated place and children can see through those complications.
In a world where black women are not heard and continue to be silenced, this book stresses the need to look through memories and see if we can make sense of those memories. If this book does anything incredibly profound, its unintended engagement with the claim made by black feminist thought scholar, Patricia Hill Collins, that “living life as Black women requires wisdom because knowledge about dynamics of intersecting oppression has been essential,” makes it a required classical reading. Baszile’s invocation of memory in this memoir provides the view that lived experiences shape consciousness and thus, provide an avenue to navigate a world engrossed in racism and sexism towards black woman.
An African-American girlhood is not formed in a vacuum but through the ways she interacts with the world and how the world interacts with her and her world. Young Jennifer in 1975 had her first “real” encounter with racial micro-aggression. She remembers an early morning running play competition with friends and of course, she won the race. Sore-loser, Tammy, a white freckled girl dismisses Young Jennifer’s victory with the scoff that “black people have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people.” Taken aback, Young Jennifer challenges this and takes this matter to her educator, Mrs. Branch, who also corroborates Sore-Loser-Tammy.
On the surface, this seems like an innocent game, an innocent claim, an innocent validation for Sore-Loser-Tammy—but it reflects how pervasive racial aggression found its way into Young Jennifer’s life, persistent racist vandalism of her family home, the pressure to prove her blackness in the home and outside the home. In this scene, Baszile shows that black girls are aware of their race, aware of it for themselves, but whiteness tends to assert what blackness is, what blackness does and what it means for the world and what whiteness can do with it.
Although this running competition took place in 1975, how much of that has changed in Bush’s America, Obama’s America, Trump’s America for black children? Here, Baszile captures the de facto experiences of black people in “post-racial” America. Baszile shows how a black person’s victory will/can be reduced to a racial aggression—the meaning of their victory to whiteness. Young Jennifer did not out-run Sore-Loser Tammy because there was something beastly about her feet due to her blackness, she won because she can run because she can run better. Sore-Loser Tammy did not lose because she is white, she lost because maybe she is not a great runner, or that day was not a good day for her to run, or she did not eat a proper meal in the morning to have sufficient energy to beat Young Jennifer. But isn’t this the reality of blackness throughout history? —this idea of having to prove that we can be successful because we can, not because of our magical negritude.
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