When she was 11 years old, Marley Dias started a national movement by asking a question. She wanted to know, where are the black girl books? She was an avid reader, but rarely encountered books where black girls like her were the main characters. She asked, then she acted, setting out to collect and donate 1000 books featuring black girls.
Today Marley is 13, and since she launched it, her #1000BlackGirlBooks movement has collected and donated more than 10,000 books. She spent her summer break as the guest editor of a national online magazine (ahem—this one). She has interviewed celebrities and elected officials. And now Marley has written a book of her own. (And yes, Ava Duvernay wrote the Introduction. #Goals.)
Marley Dias Gets it Done and So Can You is now available for purchase. The book is not easily categorized. It is part autobiography, part scrapbook, part inspirational text, and part social justice toolkit—because, as Marley writes, “I’ve never liked being put into a category.” She defies them all.
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Tonight, President Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address, but in the meantime, there is no one better to lead a conversation about the Black Girl State of the Union than Marley Dias. The State of the Union gives presidents the chance to talk, setting out the state of national affairs and laying out their agenda. But Marley suggested we join forces and instead use this time to listen.
We gathered an impressive array of black girls—young women and their adult advocates. Some are just 10 years old, about the age Marley was when the public first met her. Some are in high school and college. Some have been engaged in activism for decades. All are black girls and women. This is the state of our union.
THE STATE OF BLACK GIRLS IS…. STRONG?
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Strong” is the one word President Trump is likely to use during his State of the Union address. For more than two decades, every president has described the state of the American union as “strong,” whether the economy was growing or shrinking, whether we were in a moment of peace or embroiled in conflict, whether the government was united under one party’s control or deeply divided. Using the State of the Union address to say America is “strong” is more of an empty applause line than a meaningful assessment of our shared circumstances.
And as black girls, we know how people can use and misuse the word “strong.” “Strong black woman” is arguably the most common compliment other people give us and that we give ourselves. When Bill O’Reilly made offensive comments about Rep. Maxine Waters’ politics and hair last year, Waters reminded him and the rest of America that she would not be diminished: Black girls everywhere cheered to see her respond to racist and sexist attacks with an irrepressible and unbroken spirit.
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The strength of Maxine Waters is part of us, but so is the vulnerability of the teen girl at a Texas pool party, dressed in only a bikini, pinned and handcuffed by police officer crying out to her friends “call my mama.” So too is the fear of the school girl thrown violently from her desk by a South Carolina school resource officer. So too is the confusion of young sisters suspended simply for wearing braids to school. Black girls are strong. We are magic. We are also fragile and real. If we must be super strong then we cannot be simply human.
Presidents have spent decades telling us,“The State of the Union is strong,” even when sometimes it isn’t. Many insist “Black girls are so strong,” even when sometimes we aren’t. How would you describe the current state of the union for black girls?
“I would describe use the words empowered, educated, striving.” — Gabby Larochelle, a college student and writer with Galore Magazine.
“Yes, black girls are making boss moves, reaching new heights and finally being seen and heard.” — Marsai Martin, actor on Emmy-nominated series, Blackish.
“Ok, and also, black girls are disrespected, overlooked, and underestimated.” — Sierra Williams, a high school senior and a youth organizer with Girls for Gender Equity.
“And unrepresented, isolated, forgotten” — Naa’ilah Frazier, a high school senior and a youth organizer with Girls for Gender Equity.
“I think black girls and women of color are in a state of dissatisfaction. We are unhappy with the way things are and we want them to change. I hope my work helps in moving us closer to creating the change we want to see in the world.” — Marley Dias.
“Marley, at the Ms Foundation we share that goal in our work. We believe black girls deserve our trust and require more of our investment.” — Teresa Younger, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women
“When we listen to these black girls, it is clear The State of the Union for Black girls is resilient and creative in the face of adversity.” — Monique Morris, co-founder of National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So is the state of the black girl union strong?
“We’re stronger together.” — Seleiny Novas, a 10-year-old in New York.
INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT: BUILDING BLACK GIRL BRIDGES
Melissa Harris Perry: That is a powerful reframing. Let’s pause to envision that collective strength. On Tuesday night, President Trump is expected to discuss significant investment in federal infrastructure. Think about the lives of black girls, what kind of infrastructure investment do black girls and young women need?
“Girls of color and young women need to be seen, heard, and valued. Schools can help make this happen by including our stories in the curriculum. Many of us do not have the resources we need at home, schools and local governments should make sure that we have access to resources that can help us. I suggest school buses make stops at local libraries so that children who do not have resources like books at home can get access. Improving the lives of girls and young women begins with how we see and imagine girls. Major institutions need to do more to change the way we think about all girls and our possibilities.” — Marley Dias.
“So true, for the most part when government makes decisions it doesn’t even try to hear from the people most affected. We need to find a way to get black girl voices to the people with power who need to hear them.” — Naa’ilah Frazier.
“Let me reinforce this point. Girls and young women of color need the freedom to draw their own maps and blueprints. In order to do this, they need institutions, people, and cultural practices that support their capacity to co-construct communities that respond to the various ways that oppression manifests. Baseline for that infrastructure is love.” — Monique Morris.
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“Yes! Young women and girls of color need support in all of the facets of our personal and professional lives. We need an investment in a healthcare system. Black mothers need equal access to quality neonatal care, paid family leave, and affordable childcare. Girls need to pursue an education without being criminalized and pushed out of the classroom. We need to be paid fairly and equally for all the work we do.” — Erica Jordan, a junior at Wake Forest University and a 2016-2017 Elle.com Scholar.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand in practical terms. Infrastructure is vague but if you build a levy so my house doesn’t flood or fix a bridge so I can cross safely, then it is very real. Give me a concrete example of investing in black girls.
“As a black girl, I strongly feel we need a place where we can be creative at an affordable cost. Places we can learn to cook, design, and collaborate with other smart girls.” — Anari Davis, a 10-year-old in New York.
“I think girls of color need to have an infrastructure where we can explore hobbies or interests that are not available to us. I’ve been dreaming of learning to ice skate, but unfortunately the one located in my area does not offer a team of passionate people who are willing to help me learn. It is important to have places where girls feel safe to so we can develop great careers and encourage others.” — Seleiny Novas.
“These stories remind us mentors as part of infrastructure. Access to mentors who can provide us with the proper tools are absolutely necessary for success. A lot of girls are discouraged because they don’t have role models who can lead them towards the right path to achieve their dreams.” — Marsai Martin.
Our infrastructure is intersectional. Perhaps it is built at the intersection of Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name and #YouOkSis, where labor and nourishment are happening in real life. I need infrastructure that acknowledges there is something fundamentally wrong the racial and gendered fabric of our society and institutes systems committed to acknowledging and repairing that essential fact. — Jerrika Hinton, actor on Grey’s Anatomy and star of Here and Now, a new film out from HBO.
SCHOOL: A BLACK GIRL’S MICROAGGRESSION MINEFIELD
Marley Dias: Most girls spend most of their time at school. If real change comes from hearing our voices, it has to start in school, but school is a place where black girls tend to experience microaggressions. Microaggressions are not always obvious, ugly, or terrible things but they make you feel as though your voice does not matter. It can be exhausting! Do you have personal experiences with educators who encourage microaggressions in the classroom?
“Last semester, in an ethics class, the conversation turned to a discussion of transracialism and transgender identity. The professor said he couldn’t really explain the difference and he said if he were still in college he would just avoid those types of conversations. Well I am black and I am transgender woman. It is painful and ridiculous to suggest people just avoid the topic. That is toxic for those of us who are people of color and part of the LGBTQ+ community. I was isolated by his ignorance.” —DeAsia Sutgrey, a member of the 2018 Black on Campus initiative.
“In my first year of college, I had to give a presentation on a ‘controversial’ topic in a class where I was the only black student. I argued in favor of affirmative action. My presentation was well-researched and mostly relied on data and statistics. But as soon as I finished, my white classmates aggressively challenged my research. One even asked if I thought I got into Wake Forest because of affirmative action. I was humiliated and I looked to my professor for help. Instead, she just told me to consider the feelings of my white peers who were forced to hear me talk about their white privilege and the systems that benefitted them.” — Erica Jordan.
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“I completely understand. I am part Haitian. In high school, when we would talk about the Haitian revolution, my classmates would look at me in pity. My teacher would ask for clarification and people came up to me saying they felt bad or they were sorry. It was very stressful and rude.” — Gabby Larochelle.
“I attend a predominately black and Latino high school. We were reading Native Son in my English class. During class discussion, it became clear our teacher did not know who Emmett Till is. I mean that has to be a microaggression, right? How in the world are you teaching in our school, and you don’t even know Emmett Till? I was so mad I got my bookbag and just walked around the halls.” — Naa’ilah Frazier.
“Unfortunately, I am not surprised by these stories. By virtue of living in a racially stratified society, we are all impacted by biases—some that we’re consciously aware of, some that we’re not. Microaggressions such as making negative comments about a child’s natural ability, hair, or body type contribute to the tapestry of harm that make classrooms emotionally unsafe for girls of color. Black girls are uniquely impacted by the microaggressions of educators who misinterpret their language and behaviors as aggressive or defiant and therefore recommend harmful and/or punitive interventions as a result. The harm caused by these aggressions does not need to be intentional, nor does it need to lead to punitive action.” — Monique Morris.
“These stories are terrible, but at the same time I have friends who are educators and I see them working hard to be the change they want to see. They’re so different from the instructors I had in grade school and college. They are working to change the willful blindness to the real world that so many instructors create in the classroom.” — Jerrika Hinton.
That is like my teacher this year—Mrs. Morgan White! In the years before I came to fifth grade, we covered the basics when it came to social issues and stereotypes: segregation, racism, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks. We we’re always on the top layer of the ice. After starting Mrs. White’s class, the ice cracked! We are digging deeper and having more meaningful conversations about human rights and microaggressions. — Seleiny Novas.
BLACK GIRLS BATTLE LOCKER ROOM TALK
Melissa Harris-Perry: So you have done a great job outlining the very real difficulties faced by so many black girls and young women. Another ongoing challenge so many of girls encounter every single day is the hyper-sexualization or “locker room talk.” Studies show locker room talk is not harmless banter. It can have far reaching effects on the men who engage in it and the women who are the subject of it. Have you encountered it and how do you deal with it?
“For me, the locker room talk is something that I deal with everyday. I go to school to middle school and sometimes I am the last person left on the bus. Most of the time I am not listening but when I do listen I get very disgusted. There is a lot of talk about girls bodies in inappropriate ways. They objectify girls bodies and often use phrases like ‘I would grab that.'” — Marley Dias.
“‘Locker room’ talk is completely unacceptable. If we allow these conversations to happen, boys and men will think it’s ok to continue to harass women and violate their human rights. My mom doesn’t entertain the negative sexualization of girls on TV or social media.” — Anari Davis.
“When we hear boys talk about their preferences, it creates expectations for us. If they are saying, ‘Oh, I like the natural look’ or, ‘I like the beat face look’ then I find myself coming to school trying to look like that. It is not even that I realize I am doing it. It is more subconscious. But it is there.” — Sierra Williams.
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“You can’t escape it even as part of media. As an actress in the public eye, I’m prone to being scrutinized, especially now that I’m getting older. Comments range from the size of my breasts, the height of my heels, whether or not my outfit is age appropriate, or if I’m growing up too fast. I mostly ignore them, but there are some instances where I have to stand up for myself and risk being called a clap-back Queen.” — Marsai Martin.
“Whether it’s Serena Williams’ curves or Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ hair, the bodies of black women are always criticized to create this hyper-sexual image. The effect is pernicious. Now add the policy dimension. As college students, we are living in a time of reduced protections. I think about what would happen if I or my friends were attacked. We are more vulnerable because the recent rollback of Title IX in Secretary DeVos’ Department of Education includes more protections for the accused and less guidance for schools conducting those investigations.” — DeAsia Sutgrey.
“The question of how I experience the sexualization of young girls is so large I find the question itself too heavy to carry. There are times when I don’t have the bandwidth, and so I connect with loved ones, feeling my feelings, and keep the conversations between myself and my therapist. Then, there are other days where I have the energy to speak up and/or out in unsafe places. Both days are solid ways of operating. In an ideal world, girls get to remain girls regardless of race, and young girls of color aren’t automatically deemed seductive or grown. In an ideal world, we penalize R. Kelly the same as Larry Nassar. And it still fucking astounds me that this country has a president that spoke so blatantly of perpetrating sexual harassment and assault with no repercussions.” —Jerrika Hinton.
TRANSFORMING BLACK GIRL OUTRAGE TO ACTION
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let’s sit with Jerrika’s outrage. Let’s honor our black girl bodies bodies, our black girl lives, and our black girl selves, and those of all we love. A little old fashioned outrage about inequity can be humanizing. The strength of the black girl union is not diminished by acknowledging price of struggle.
Marley Dias: Ok, but then we have to do something! I believe activism is the true source of change in the world. Pushing to change social structures in communities that you are apart of, is critical for making real lasting change. You can be the catalyst to create systemic change.
I use my passion for reading and writing to help others in many ways. My goal is to motivate young people to become social activists and use the things that they love doing to create positive change in the world.
What actions do you take in your community to create change and motivate others to do the same?
“I formed my own production company with my parents and we are creating content that is inclusive. This summer, we will being production on a film called, Little, that I will executive produce with Will Packer, Kenya Barris, Regina Hall, and my father. I came up with the idea when I was told that there weren’t enough roles for young women of color. I want to inspire girls my age to create their own opportunities, especially when there are none. What Marley Dias is doing with books, I am trying to do in the film and television space. Representation matters.” — Marsai Martin.
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“My blog is dedicated to black womanhood, so I try to use my writing to talk about issues affecting black women that are too often neglected by mainstream media.” — DeAsia Sutgrey.
“EveryBlackGirl programs provide girls with the space to express their voice through music, dance, poetry, art, and then use it to make social change in their communities.” — Vivian Anderson, Executive Director/Founder of EveryBlackGirl, Inc.
“Activism takes many shapes. We sometimes limit our definition of ‘activism’ to marching in the streets, but protest can come in the form of art, scholarship, literature, civic participation, corporate leadership, community service, etc. When we align these actions with the intention to improve conditions for Black girls and young women, that’s when we force accountability. That’s when we see change. I believe there is healing power in truth-telling, so that is what I try to do.” — Monique Morris.
“I speak up and speak out. Many people do not have access to educational resources or media platforms to bring about social change. As a journalist, I use my talents to speak on behalf of marginalized communities and tell the stories through an array of unheeded voices. Journalists play a key role in the vigorous crusade to bring about political and social change. Our stories are what drive the movement.” — Savannah West, a member of 2018 Black on Campus initiative.
“As a fifth grader, I am constantly using my gifts and talents to create social change in school. For example, I tell my friends to talk to me if they have a problem or if they need to get something off their chest. It makes me sad to think that my friends could go home and hurt themselves because of bullying, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to a friend, than an adult. If the situation is serious, then I can tell my teacher.” — Anari Davis.
BLACK GIRL AGENDA
This conversation is a glimpse into how our our political priorities might shift if we began the State of the Union with black girlhood at the center.
As part of that effort, we propose four areas that demand improvement at a national level: education, violence and criminal justice reform, health care, and economic justice. To invest in black girlhood, we need to close racial and economic disparities, end sexual harassment and rape culture, end mass incarceration, institute common-sense gun reform, make reproductive health care affordable and accessible, implement comprehensive immigration reform, and fight for equal pay, with an emphasis on what it will take to get there for black and brown women.
Readers, share your ideas on social media, using the hashtag #BlackGirlSOTU.