Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. Directed by Jacoba Atlas. San Francisco: Video Project, 2019. 79 minutes.

The Souls of Black Girls. Directed by Daphne Valerius. Northampton: Media Education Foundation, 2008. 52 minutes.

Reviewed by Sierra J. Austin-King

Elsewhere, I theorize a framework called Black Girl Genius as the gendered, racialized, age- and class-specific language, art, dance, and hip hop sensibilities used to enact freedom at a time of national anti–Black girlness (Austin 2018). I very intentionally apply the term “genius,” which Merriam-Webster defined in 2017 as one with “exceptional intellectual or creative power,” to Black girls in thinking of them as advanced theorists in their ability to read the word as well as the world around them (Richardson 2002). This remarkable ability allows them to make critical and epistemological analyses related to their positionality and systems of oppression. Both Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools and The Souls of Black Girls elucidate the nuance, complexity, beauty, and brilliance of Black girlhood.

In an early scene in Pushout, Emma (a student representing my hometown and the physical building in which I attended middle school) boldly asserts that Black girls “go through a lot. I know they go through a lot because they live in America.” Baby sis did not come to play, period.

From this point forward in the film, Black girls’ voices are centered as they provide intersectional critiques of K-12 school culture. A colorful mixed-methods tapestry rooted in Black Language is created, where narratives of adultification, over-policing, and stereotyping are interwoven with data calling for humanization and healing.

Viewers are confronted with the harsh realities of white supremacy and its impact on education. This includes the dangers of implicit bias and microaggressions, and their linkages to inequitable and disparate outcomes for Black girls in the classroom. Additionally, the film highlights the importance of familial engagement and community building in narrowing some of these gaps. At a time when the term “anti-racism” is used ad nauseam in school spaces in regard to professional development and curriculum design, this film provides a frame for prioritizing social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and policy reform. The film problematizes education’s history of approaching Black girlhood from deficit-based models. It forces us to contend with our culture’s tendency to applaud Black girls’ resilience and grit rather than dismantling the systems that require them to be so very strong, especially when such traits are often not required of their white counterparts. 

For educators who may be overwhelmed with the structural and systematic obstacles facing Black girls, they may appreciate that the film explicitly asks and articulates a response to one very important question: what do Black girls want?

Pushout would pair well with a wide array of interdisciplinary content from the fields of education, women’s and gender studies, African American and African studies, and social work, to name a few. I suggest beginning with the Pushout Discussion Guide, which is accessible free of charge. Other resources include Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhoods (Epstein, Black, and González 2017), “Centering Black Girls’ Literacies: A Review of Literature on the Multiple Ways of Knowing of Black Girls” (Muhammad and Haddix 2016), and Black Girls’ Literacies: Transforming Lives and Literacy Practices (Muhammad and Price-Dennis 2021). Released in 2019 and 2008, respectively, Pushout and The Souls of Black Girls also pair well together, as they provide viewers with a snapshot of a genealogy of Black feminist thought and girlhood theorizing across time.

The Souls of Black Girls centers Blacks girls’ experiences and critical understanding of the world around them through an intersectional lens. What makes the film unique is that it both emphasizes the historical legacy of the institution of slavery and highlights the influence of hip hop and popular culture in the lives of Black girls. It also undertakes the important work of contextualizing hegemonic beauty standards through the lens of colonization. It tackles the global practice of colorism and explores how proximity to whiteness is imbued in ideas about popularity, sexual scripts, and beauty. While the film successfully and powerfully offers relevant and compelling critique, this critique is undergirded by respectability politics that can strip girls of their agency and perpetuate status quo ideology. Additionally, hip hop’s social justice origins are rendered invisible in the film, and the culture becomes culpable for the male gaze, patriarchy, and capitalism, letting other genres (and visual media, more broadly) completely off the hook. To honor the intellectual legacy of Black feminist scholar bell hooks who just recently passed away, educators might ask students to think about how Black girls can also employ an oppositional gaze in order to find empowerment, agency, pleasure, and freedom within pop culture representations (1981, 1990). 

The Souls of Black Girls can be used alongside critical hip hop and girlhood studies scholarship, including The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop (Gaunt 2006), Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy (Brown 2009), “‘One Time For My Girls’: African American Girlhood, Empowerment, and Popular Visual Culture” (Lindsey 2013), and “‘Let Me Blow Your Mind’: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis” (Lindsey 2015). The film also lends itself to exploration into the politics of representation for Black women in precolonial Africa that can certainly enrich classroom discourse. 

Both films have a viable space in the canon of Black girlhood studies and, when viewed together, show the radical labors of love Black women and girls have poured into the field to boldly envision the futures our feminist foremothers dreamt for us centuries ago—a future that we so rightly deserve. 

Works Cited

Austin, Sierra J. 2018. Black Girl Genius: Theorizing Girlhood, Identity and Knowledge Production. PhD diss., The Ohio State University.

Brown, Ruth Nicole. 2009. Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalia González. 2017. Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. Washington, DC: Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Gaunt, Kyra D. 2006. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. New York: NYU Press.

hooks, bell. 1990. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.

———. 1981. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Lindsey, Treva B. 2015. “‘Let Me Blow Your Mind’: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis.” Urban Education 50, no. 1 (January): 52-77.

Lindsey, Treva B. 2013. “‘One Time for My Girls’: African-American Girlhood, Empowerment, and Popular Visual Culture.” Journal of African American Studies 17, no. 1 (March): 22-34.

Muhammad, Gholnecsar E., and Marcelle Haddix. 2016. “Centering Black Girls’ Literacies: A Review of Literature on the Multiple Ways of Knowing of Black Girls.” English Education 48, no. 4 (July): 299-336.

Muhammad, Gholnecsar E., and Detra Price-Dennis eds. 2021. Black Girls’ Literacies: Transforming Lives and Literacy Practices. New York: Routledge.

Richardson, Elaine. 2002. “‘To Protect and Serve’: African American Female Literacies.” College Composition and Communication 53, no. 4 (June): 675-704.

Sierra Austin-King, PhD, is a mother to a Black girl and a lecturer in both the Departments of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University. She also serves as Regional School Improvement Coordinator for Equity and Diversity at the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio. Sierra’s research focuses on Black girlhood, hip hop feminisms, and social change.