Black Girlhood has been explored in various forms of media and entertainment, but it hasn’t always been consistent. When looking at the scope of black female representation in the coming of age genre, they are often absent in protagonists roles. Black actresses often fill the role of the supportive friend for leading characters in mainstream films, tv shows and books. Despite the fact that black girls have been visible protagonists in the past, the issue that remains is the lack of consistency in this visibility within the coming of age genre.
Firstly, what is coming of age? It can be defined as a rollercoaster of firsts that can mould one’s journey through teenagehood and early twenties. This might include a first kiss, first sexual experience, or first job. At this trying time in our lives, we come into our own in terms of sexuality, identity, and where we see ourselves in the world. This transitional period can be explored in spaces like school/college and youth-related events.
The Golden Age of Black Girlhood on TV was an era never to be forgotten, we saw an influx of iconic shows with unforgettable characters that made a lasting impression on us. As a child, I grew up watching reruns of shows like Moesha (1996-2001) and Sister, Sister (1994-1999) which dealt with the issues that the average teenage girl would normally face – all in a tone and language distinctive to black people. This meant colloquial terms like “shorty” were used and the depiction of blackness was often natural and not whitewashed. In Moesha, the titular character (Brandy) and other characters talked authentically with expressive voices and used informal language throughout the series. Moesha distinctively sported black hairstyles like box braids which were and still is strongly identifiable for black teen girls.
Moving on to the ’00s, That’s So Raven (2003-2007) was a major go-to show for many black girls and gave us probably one of the most iconic black teen characters on TV, Raven Baxter (Raven Symone). From her iconic “ Ya Nasty” phrase to her constant makeovers, Raven created a lasting impact that undoubtedly makes her the most recognizable black teenage girl in television history. The show provided life lessons on racism, body-shaming and identity; Raven often had difficulties with her psychic abilities which elevated the quirky black girl image that we don’t often see.
Books are where a deeper exploration of black girlhood can be often found, and there are many unique stories where the black teenage girl is the protagonist. In the driving seat of their own narrative, black girls go through a complex characterisation in which they develop into individuals that exist in a space where joy, pain, and carefreeness are explored cohesively.
I remember reading Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003) as part of the GSCE English curriculum in secondary school. Adichie’s poetic writing creates a haunting yet engaging tale of how a trauma-stricken teenager experiences infatuation, expression, and authentic bonding for the first time in postcolonial Nigeria. As a voiceless protagonist in the outside world, Kambili’s inner voice dives the reader into an innocent tale of learning the nuances of girlhood under the influence of her headstrong auntie and her like-minded children. Her character development progresses from a silenced and bruised girl to a matured young lady that finds her voice.
In contrast, the carefree black girl is immortalised in Sophia Acheampong’s light-heated Ipods in Accra (2009) as the protagonist, Makeeda embarks on a family trip from London to Accra and quickly finds out that she has to embrace a few cultural firsts such as a traditional puberty ceremony. Makeda’s story is centred on her daily issues as a teen like exam revisions and boyfriend troubles which are dealt with in a charismatic manner. Her complex characterisation is rooted in her dual identity of being British and Ghanaian. We see this when she visits Ghana; her liberal western attitude is a far cry from her conservative Ghanaian beliefs. As a result, this makes some of her extended family less accepting towards her. However, she shocks her extended family by speaking Twi (a Ghanaian dialect) as fluently as she speaks English highlighting the internal discrimination faced within families.
Discussing these representations of black girlhood reveals how significant their existence is and provides a unique look at the black teenage girl from many angles. The real impact is how multilayered these characters are as they dissociate from toxic racialized stereotypes, indicating positive progression to how we are characterised in the media. Nonetheless, without the powerful influence of mainstream media, the visibility of black girl protagonists will remain inconsistent and iconic black teenage girl characters will become forgettable to the world.
Written by Tamara Mensah