Black Girl Magic, Storytelling and the City Space

When I was growing up in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1980s and 90s, I never had any indication that my life couldn't be whatever I wanted it to be. I was a girl of color, African American to be specific, and yet despite the real socioeconomic and racial issues of the time that affected not only larger urban areas but also smaller cities like mine, the worlds represented in literature allowed me to think that my world was still big enough for dreams and creativity. My father was a military medical doctor who went into private practice, and I knew then, and know even moreso now, that class and access makes a big difference to one's experience. I also went from a public school in early elementary where I felt motivated and loved to a private school which, although not as diverse, still provided support and affirmation to a fine arts magnet school based in what would be called the urban area of the city. I was in that school from fifth to twelfth grade and enjoyed what I could only call a magical experience based in the heart of an area that to drive by would be described if not as urban blight certainly not the immense growth and access of more suburban areas of the city. What I now know as Black Girl Magic (which was created as a social media hashtag recently but is now part of the African American Policy Forum platform as well) was the experience I found in books and enjoyed every time a class would be given independent exploration time in the media center.

As a university professor and instructor of a course for Charlotte Teachers Institute (CTI)—an initiative based at UNC Charlotte in which local universities partner with the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System to lead seminars for K-12 educators—I realize more than ever before, as I have instructed English education students for a decade, how much university education impacts our young scholars as well. Since my training and instruction is in English literature (African American narratives, to be specific), I have always appreciated a good story. Beyond that, however, I have always been impacted by stories that reflect and speak to who I am as a person. This seminar, and my work overall, have reaffirmed the need to see how stories impact spaces beyond and between K-12 and university classrooms and shape the ways in which we all see the world through urban narratives.

In my own educational experience, first in a suburban area of a small city in Georgia and then in a magnet school inside the city (where students came of age walking across the city canal to the parking lot or through downtown to the public library after school before parents worried much about what happened and before cell phones). School libraries also played a huge role in what I had access to. I don't remember much besides the bookshelf in early primary school, but in both of my schools from first through twelfth grade I found a wealth of authors from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I still remember some of the titles: Eloise Greenfield's Sister in elementary school and beautiful picture books including Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe and The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. As a benefit of coming of age after social movements that ensured my access to diverse texts, I could always see characters that looked like me. As I got older, I found joy and solace in such texts as James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. I can remember checking out Toni Morrison's Paradise as soon as it came out. More than just providing access to print and media culture, school media centers and public libraries provided space for students to educate and advocate for ourselves.

Through CTI, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools teachers examine representations of childhood in city settings, with a specific focus on underrepresented populations and themes that feature them. A group of twelve fellows are encouraged to explore the influence of setting (both architectural and natural environments) in city spaces, the potential to influence others, and ways to engage students who do not necessarily see themselves featured in positive ways around these themes.

Building upon research that fewer than 14% of books in recent years feature children of color, the "Childhood and the City Space" seminar highlights these experiences through readings (Davis 2017). Additional research developed by teachers in a CTI summer research project argued that most books highlighting children of color, and specifically black girls, feature experiences that can be looked at as negative, such as oppression endured due to racism (and specifically around slavery). While these are important educational experiences for all students and can instill themes of triumph and resilience, the seminar also engages themes such as leadership and engagement in contemporary settings that feature children of color and specifically girls.

Areas of engagement include black girlhood in STEM by looking at science fiction (Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents), girls learning about social movements (One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia), girlhood in storytelling (a Latina girl telling her own story in House on Mango Street and adolescent girls responding to tragedy and finding their own voices in Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and On the Come Up), as well as representations of childhood in national and even global cities. Participants also draw upon Charlotte as a cityscape by examining how local art, science, and history museums represent or connect to underrepresented experiences of children. Arts may be further incorporated by examining representation of children, and specifically marginalized populations in local theater in 2019.

The purpose of the course is not to argue for universal representation of children in literature, science, and the arts but instead to expand the landscape of how children navigate experiences through cities in literature and to diversify where we look for children's representation in urban cityscapes. Ultimately, we will challenge what it means to be a child and think about what experiences are missed in reading about and for purposes of student engagement. Through CTI, I guide seminar fellows through texts that represent urban experiences, encouraging them to look through new lenses, including those of our students. We began with the question of how we view "urban" and "city" as terms. "Urban," often seems harsher or rougher than "city," which connotes a cosmopolitan location. As all schools involved are part of the city or county school system, we explored what obligation we have to a particular type of representation. Through F. Isabel Campoy's and Theresa Howell's Maybe Something Beautiful, we initiated our reading list by bringing in descriptions of what makes our school beautiful. Our discussion included character-building and values that take place at the educational level, physical representations of beauty like murals and student art, and the community members who contribute to the fabric of the school communities.

Next, we moved to James Baldwin's picture book Little Man, Little Man (1976 2018). By reading Baldwin's story behind the publication (after his nephew imploration to "Uncle Jimmy, when are you gonna write a story about meeeee!!") and how Baldwin communicated through story what the neighborhood looked like to French artist Yoran Cazac who had never been to New York City, we explored the story of the city space through a child's eyes Seminar participants will talk by video call with co-editor Dr. Jennifer DeVere Brody about what it meant to recover and recirculate the book and how it speaks to a contemporary audience.

The seminar explores the Afrofuturistic views of Los Angeles in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents; fictional and real city spaces explored in Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and On the Come Up; rural and urban spaces Jacqueline Woodson traverses between South Carolina, Ohio, and New York City in Brown Girl Dreaming; and the Chicago of The House on Mango Street and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter even as we explore the architecture of our own city through art and history museums. Our goal is not to try to capture all cultures through one seminar but to open up possibilities for what educators can do with urban narratives to which we are connected.

Ultimately, these texts bring together focus on education, family, and community narratives and expand the ways in which characters are able to advocate for themselves. Furthermore, educators are able to connect to students in ways that are more inclusive and expansive. During the seminar, fellows create curriculum units to implement in their own classrooms and have opportunities to present and discuss these units with each other. Through an intentional focus on Black girlhood and urban city spaces that feature characters from many cultures, we weave together the magic of childhood, the wealth that cities can offer all of us, and the value of storytelling.

Work Cited

Davis, Millie. "Students Have a Right and a Need to Read Diverse Books." NCTE. (September 27, 2017).

Select "City Book" List (Grades K-12)

James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac, Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, Parable of Talents

Katrina Goldsaito, The Sound of Silence

Paule Marshall, Brown Girls, Brownstones

F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood

Sandra Cisneros, House on Mango Street

Matt de la Peña, The Last Stop on Market Street

Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

Ann Petry, The Street

Sapphire, PUSH

Benoit Tardif, Metropolis

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, On the Come Up

Carole Boston Weatherford, Freedom in Congo Square

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

Defining Terminology

How we define certain terms (in this case, "urban") are not always defined the same across reading audiences. We may be defining these terms for our readers and need to think about the connotations.

Valuing Place

Books help readers to celebrate locations in addition to the people in them. Books like The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Little Man, Little Man by James Baldwin recognize the value of city spaces (through sights, sounds, and other senses).

Moving in Space

Narratives of cities can help readers think about the ways in which we move through whatever spaces we are located in. Guides (librarians, educators) can use these narratives to help the reader think about their own space and place. For example, if a bus is featured in a text, the reader can think about how they get from place to place. Likewise, if a character takes a walk, what does the reader see when they walk? Connections don't have to be exact.

About the Author

Janaka Bowman Lewis, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She earned Bachelor's Degrees in English and African and African American studies from Duke University (Trinity, '03). Lewis earned her Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University and was an instructor at Spelman College before beginning as assistant professor at UNC Charlotte in 2009. She is the author of several book chapters and articles on 19th Century African American women's writing and material culture, two children's books (Brown All Over and Bold Nia Marie Passes the Test), and most recently, a monograph, Freedom Narratives of African American Women (McFarland 2017). Her current scholarship is on representations of black girlhood in American literature and film.

MLA Citation Lewis, Janaka. "Black Girl Magic, Storytelling and the City Space." School Library Connection, February 2020,

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Entry ID: 2215487

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