Dissertation Title and Summary

Representations of Black Girlhood in (African) Diasporic Literature

My dissertation examines articulations of black girlhood in the fiction of black women writers. Since the portrayal of black girlhood has a long history in the tradition of African American literature, this study contextualizes that portrayal in contemporary texts among those from earlier moments in the tradition beginning with Harriet Wilson’sOur Nig and concludes with Yaa Gyasi’sHomegoing. My focus, however, is more specifically on fiction written by black women since 1972. As one of the texts most overtly committed to exploring the realities of black girlhood, Toni Cade Bambara’s short story collection Gorilla, My Love presents us with varied young girl narrators who challenge prevailing assumptions about childhood, femininity, and the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Bambara’s girls, named and unnamed, provide models for understanding the subversive nature of black girlhood and also for understanding how black girls question, but ultimately sustain, certain ideas about black females.

Like all generative scholarship, this study seeks to understand the central features and dynamics of the tradition it interrogates. Accordingly, it places “text against text, story against story, and trope against trope, gradually reconstructing the contours of a dynamic field of expression designed to navigate” the currents of fictionalized black girlhood (Ernest 246). Like African American literature, which has continually encompassed a significant range of concerns, my study of black girlhood as portrayed in contemporary fiction by black women writers, explores concerns ranging from the literary to the historical to the cultural and philosophical, to identify what the study of black girlhood teaches us about how black girls recognize and resist oppression, and how their bodies function as sites of power.


Amirah Heath is a doctoral candidate in English at Howard University. Her research interests include black women’s studies, African-American literature, archival research, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to Howard University, Amirah earned a Master’s degree from The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), where she studied the social implications of marketing the Lingerie Football League as a legitimate athletic franchise for professional women athletes.