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Smith, D., Caruthers, L. E., & Fowler, S. (2019). Womanish Black girls: women resisting the contradictions of silence and voice. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

Reviewed by Phoebe Price, Academic Advisor, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, phoebe.price@maine.edu

Womanish Black Girls has thoughtfully brought together a collection of essays addressing slavery, abortion, coming of age, education, and trauma that embody the journey of Black women finding their voices because of, and in spite of, these transformational life experiences. The editors, Smith, Caruthers and Fowler, have given us powerful glimpses into the personal struggles, triumphs and self-reflections of very intimate stories. They display the journey of finding and hearing one’s own voice, and how the complex influences of family, culture, race and religion create circumstances that support silence, not voice. These writings offer us, as humans and professional advisors, the opportunity to reflect closely and honestly on our own voices. How has our own cultural and personal stories supported or suppressed our ability to voice who we truly are? Only through this honest introspection will we be able to support and mentor our students to find their voice within the world of academia and beyond.  We must look at the implicit bias the world of academia creates, that we may silently support, that does not acknowledge the suppression of the Black female voice and spirit in our modern society.

Part one of this collection looks at the struggle between the contradictions of womanish behavior that historically resulted in not being acknowledged and validated. There is a cultural memory that still exists within the Black community of being raised to be seen and not heard. “When my sisters and I were perceived by mama and other woman as stepping out of place, we were often told ‘stop being womanish’. For us it was a way of silencing our voices” (Caruthers, 2019, p.16). This cultural memory also holds an ingrained pattern of Black women’s lack of control over their bodies, both as sexual being and as mothers. Our nation’s history of black slavery and oppression, including the patriarchy of the segregated black church, created a life of fear and survival, knowing that slave owners were in charge of their bodies. “The inner turmoil my mother and other black women of her generation faced connected to a history of rape and the understanding that they would not be protected” (Caruthers, 2019, p.20).  This lack of safety, both physically and emotionally, seeped directly into the early experiences of education for young Black women. Being womanish in the school setting created a perception that one was trying to be white if they were determined and smart. “We go C’s for color” “I also did not believe my teachers read my work and did not dare ask for help or ways to improve my performance. My low self-esteem was apparent in my writing- I wrote small because I felt small and insignificant” (Caruthers, 2019, p.24).  Womanish behavior, being smart, vocal, opinionated, and successful, has been a journey of both resistance, against the hierarchy of religion, patriarchal culture and the educational system, and the persistence of growing one’s voice, creating a community of safety, and the navigation of our political world wrought with micro-aggressions.

The second group of essays address issues of sexuality, slut shaming in our culture and media, and the journey of finding who one is within these contradictions of outer culture and inner sprit. Our modern media of film and TV have created representations of the Black female as one of immoral sexuality and a mistress stereotype hidden within the contradictions of a desire for sexual attention and resistance to rape and sexual harassment. “This mutually conflicting condition validates her objectification and perpetuates the notion that all women are in some way responsible for the sexual victimization they experience at the hands of predators” (Jeffries and Jefferies, 2019).  Mass media should not be allowed to perpetuate these stereotypes that Black women are engaged only in sexual experience based on power and control, and are unworthy of loving relationships.

The final section of this collection gathers stories exploring the impact of our mothers on the Black womanish experiences and how these stories lay the ground work for supporting our Black female youth to find hope, joy and redefinition of who they are in the world. The mothering stories for the contributors in this section speak of the mother figure as being an early teacher, educator, and supporter, but yet the continued contradiction of the criticism of womanish ways held deep within the black community.  “Using our lives as data, we analyze womanist mothering as a process of transferring cultural codes, which engender wisdom for survival, during Black girl/womanhood. Through this lens, we theorize the educated Black woman as a conscious resister and acknowledge our mother’s love as the foundation for out womanist maneuvering in academe” (Jackson and Jackson, 2019, p.133).  The ability of the mother in the black community to balance the navigation of societies prejudice for their children within the educational system and beyond, while supporting them lovingly in making risky and conscientious choices for their journey in academia is a testimony to their wisdom, strength, and spiritual ways of knowing and being.

               This moving and varied collection of essays provides the professional academic advisor the opportunity to deepen one’s ability, in support of NACADA’s core values, to hear, respect, and empower, our students of color through understanding the deep impact their cultural and individual stories have on their abilities to be successful in all areas of academic life. These stories are a call to the advisors in higher education to see the imperative need to understand our students from a holistic viewpoint. Seeing all our students as complex humans, with stories of culture, trauma and love, is the only way we can communicate in an inclusive and respectful manner, a crucial NACADA Core competency, and create an advising space that is safe and supportive of all their individual growth, personally and academically. As these essays so clearly depict, there is no separating intellectual and spiritual development, so we must be prepared to address both in our daily work with students.  Womanish Black Girls opens the door for us to ask ourselves as advisors; are our students feeling safe to be who they are in our institutions of academia and in our individual offices?  How can we look at our own stories, as individuals and institutions, to further understand the impact our cultural and institutional stories have on our students today?


References:

Smith, D., Caruthers, L. E., & Fowler, S. (2019). Womanish Black girls: women resisting the contradictions of silence and voice. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA core values of academic advising. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

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