Marcia Chatelain: South Side Girls

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Chatelain HeadshotMarcia Chatelain is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. She received a B.A. in Religious Studies and a B.J. in Magazine Journalism at University of Missouri–Columbia and a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. She is the author of South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015). Follow her on twitter @DMChatelain.

Can you briefly describe your book?

South Side Girls is a glimpse into the experiences of girls and teenage women from the South who migrated to Chicago during the height of African American urbanization between 1900 and 1945. I examine how discourses on black girlhood and the experiences of black girls converged and conflicted in a city undergoing dizzying social, economic, and political change.

What initially drew you to your topic?

In graduate school, I knew that I wanted to conduct research within the field of African American women’s history. I thought I wanted to maybe look at black women’s role in public health, but slowly I returned to a question that developed when I was twelve or thirteen: What about girls? I grew up in Chicago in the 1990s, and I got a sense that few people really cared about what was happening to black girls in terms of gun violence, educational disparity, and sexual assault. I always had a sense that there was an assumption that girls were doing okay and that community resource and energies needed to be devoted to boys solely. This was also the start of the same-sex education reform movement in public and charter schools, and I always had an uneasy feeling about the way adults talked about it. So, I wanted to look back into the past to think about what black girlhood looked like before the 1950s, before the stirrings of what we call the Civil Rights Movement.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

I think I’m proudest of the book’s archive. I really hope I can influence and inspire other scholars of childhood and youth to be relentless and to reconsider what the archive is when looking at children who existed at the margins of a time, a place, or a culture. Initially, the manuscript was lacking because it was a book about women’s work on behalf of girls, which was fine, but it didn’t really introduce terribly interesting archival materials. Then, I had an “Aha!” moment in the archive at the University of Chicago, when I decided to look at dissertations from scholars of color during the Great Migration who were doing their own cutting edge research on the social, economic, and educational life of black girls and teenage women. The dissertations then led me to E. Franklin Frazier’s interviews with unwed mothers, and then I started to think differently about where my girls could be found. When I started to understand the people and the institutions in the book better, I gained a better sense of where their stories were in the archives. So, in my chapter on black girls’ participation in the National Youth Administration’s (NYA) Resident School for Girls in Chicago, I not only used the archives of the Chicago Defender newspaper, but I also delved into the papers of Mary McLeod Bethune, as well as the NYA’s records on training camps for girls. 

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research? 

I was fascinated by how open and how funny the girls in my archive were when they were asked to comment on their relationships to their parents, their communities, or their romantic partners. These girls don’t hold back! One of the girls in Frazier’s interviews was asked about her family’s religious life and she said, “My father don’t go to church, he goes to the pool room… He is a member of the pool room.” Another girl explained to Frazier that in her dating life, “I have a beau. You know how it is… You have about two or three. But you have a main one to fall back on you know.” These girls are research and narrative gold!

What surprised you while writing this book?

I was surprised by how enjoyable finishing up the book felt after years of struggling to find a way to really frame the topic and restructure the dissertation into a manuscript. After I found the new archival items, I had a renewed sense of myself as a scholar and I really started to understand what it meant to find a way to contribute to the discipline and expand your field.

What are the risks of focusing the Great Migration on Chicago? Did you experience much pushback in centering your study in Chicago?

I think the risk in writing about the Great Migration is that so many scholars have written about it so beautifully. It’s not easy to enter your career as a Great Migration scholar. It can be so intimidating. But the joy of this experience for me is how supportive and helpful the Migration folks have been to me, especially Jim Grossman. I didn’t receive any pushback on looking at Chicago and the Great Migration, but I did get some strange looks when I said that I wanted to focus on girls. I think for many this was the first time they had considered black girls as historical actors at all.

What do you think are the benefits of focusing a history of the Great Migration through the lives and experiences of children?

I think there can be a lot of freedom in studying the Great Migration because it’s so expansive and it’s so influential that you can take a small piece of it, focus on it, and still produce an incredible story. As for studying children, I think they are the ultimate mirrors of a culture’s anxieties and ambitions. A person—who may be really guarded about their own thoughts and motivations about themselves—starts talking about their own children or children in a symbolic sense and it speaks volumes about them. So children are so important to include in all our historical inquiries because they complete the story of any time.

What do you think is the future of childhood studies? Of historical examinations of the lives of children? 

When I was in the first year of dissertation writing, I went to the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth Meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it was a small meeting with a few panels, and I knew only a few of the people there. In a short period of time, the community has expanded wildly and as I prepare for this year’s triennial meeting in Vancouver, I’m hoping I have time to see all the people in the field I know and admire. I think that there is a great cohort of emerging scholars who have just published books and are now advising top notch graduate students. I think that for those of us who do girlhood studies, we’ve finally made a space for our work among an area that was once mostly driven by sociology, media studies, and social psychology. I think we have better questions about the limits of age as a category of analysis, we have better models of using the archive, and we also have a stronger base of collaboration so we can talk to each other about what we are working on and what we are trying to achieve.

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