This performative text places in conversation the work of Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a practice of black girlhood celebration, with Robin M. Boylorn's Sweetwater. Both SOLHOT's archive of original poetry, movement, and music and Boylorn's Sweetwater document the power and potential of listening to and being transformed by black women and girls' truths. Building on the legacy of black feminist writing traditions, this piece celebrates brilliant women and girls who testify to their lives, the labor of writing and creating (sometimes alone and sometimes collectively), and ourselves as critical witnesses to the people, rural spaces, and imaginations that have grown us up.

Introduction

Black girls are beautifully complex and their/our living is no different. As such, any articulation of black girl living should be multi-layered and equally complex. This performative text deploys performative writing1 to articulate the complications, struggles, contradictions, and overall beauty of black girlhood and womanhood captured in Robin M. Boylorn's Sweetwater2 and in the labor and praxis of Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT). SOLHOT is a space, an experience, a movement to practice a kind of transformative love. By design, SOLHOT encourages the use of time and talent to shape newly accountable ways of celebrating each other while imagining, and re-imagining black girlhoods.

SOLHOT 101: An Introduction to Our Practice

The lived experiences of black girls and women are varied, singular, layered, and diverse. SOLHOT, therefore, honors dynamic participation of an intergenerational cadre of black girls, black women, and black men who labor collectively to make SOLHOT a space they want to come to, be, and share who they are in the best way(s) they know how.3 Black girlhood is the organizing construct we deploy to language our work. Black girlhood as a boundless political articulation intentionally points to black girls while also directing our attention beyond those who identify and are identified as black girls.4 SOLHOT commits to an ever-evolving praxis of deconstructing the restrictions and ideologies that prevent girls from having freedom to be, alive and supported fully.

SOLHOT practices benefit from the studied intentional questioning of how structural formations work (and toward what means and ends) to reproduce the interdependence of black women and girls.5 Doing the work of SOLHOT allows us to resist, organize, and create new processes of being together as black girls and even more than that. In SOLHOT, those present (with privilege given to the girls to direct the telling) articulate their/our experiences and what we know about our lives and the lives of other black girls and women in the context of (and often counter to) stories told about us, contested histories, institutional realities, and those who are not with us.

The locale where SOLHOT began organized us to work in and through various non-profits and schools. However, SOLHOT is not an after-school program; nor is it a disciplining/mentoring space where girls are taught politics of respectability,6 how to be young ladies,7 or an interim space for girls before they go home from school. In SOLHOT, we get together to create and organize around issues that we as a collective of diverse ages, hues, sexualities, gender-representations, and even race, would like to take up. Importantly, SOLHOT's creative practices, including music, dance, visual art, photography, theatre, and poetry allow us to show some of what happens with the girls in SOLHOT sessions and extend the sentiment of what SOLHOT is all about with others.

Staging Black Girl Utopias

To stake a claim in SOLHOT comes with expectations—expectations to engage in deep digging, unlearning, relearning, self-recovery, and the process of daring to see black girls, black girlhood, black female bodies as beautiful and important. In honor of deep digging, unlearning, relearning, self-recovery, and the process of daring to see black girls, black girlhood, black female bodies as beautiful and important, SOLHOT joins with Boylorn to elucidate the convoluted, beautiful, conflicting, full-of-possibility, and transient realities of black (girls and women) living. The performative text that follows merges words, narratives, and memories prompted by the labor of SOLHOT with the stories, hurts, and lessons of living in and going back to Sweetwater. Constructed as a performance on page,8 the voices, truth-telling, and knowledge about black girls and women comes to life, to enact a vision of black girl utopia(s), as provided through the hopes and dreams we collectively envision and stage.9 

If utopia “exists in the quotidian,”10 then SOLHOT's practice of working and creating with/for black girls, is one way to stage utopia. Rooted in the creative potential of black girlhood, we see engagement with the creative as a means to practice freedom and illustrate “the possibilities of social change ignited, for example, by a poem.”11 However, utopianism and the subsequent hope it creates, and the labor of the creative, which is necessary to sustain such radical visions and critical interventions, are neither popular nor seen as vital to the intellectual development of student's lives, particularly those in institutions of higher education.12 José Esteban Muñoz believes critical utopianisms might be just the thing needed to “combat the force of political pessimism,” and function as a means to promise “a futurity, something that is not quite here.”13 Thus staging black girl utopias provides a generative and creative frame necessary to help escape the containment of thought that continue to perpetuate our demise.

However, as Ruth Nicole Brown notes, the use of the creative, particularly as a way of knowing, is understood in SOLHOT as enough—academic (enough), non-academic (enough), artistic (enough), hip hop (enough), and punk (enough)—to create theory, generate new knowledge, and provide other ways of being in the world.14 SOLHOT defies elitist logics of who a knower can be and resists definitive meanings of “known” and “unknown” by making futures premised on the now—a laboring of the present moment to ensure our survival, bringing our loved ones with us. To stage utopia requires collectivity, an insistence on educated hope,15 and a burning desire for a future greater than the present. SOLHOT is not alone in this desire, and we acknowledge that we are building on the legacies of black feminist writing traditions, which have always sought to celebrate black girls' and women's brilliance, while also attesting to the realities of their lives and interrogating ideas of belonging, home, and generations.16 

As Sweetwater shares the experience of change, growth, and love through Boylorn's loving narration, SOLHOT creates texts and performances to share our experiences of growth, love, and most importantly, the beauty of black girlhood as we have known and experienced it together. The following performance script is in dedication to the labor of writing black girl and women stories, to the various truths and contradictions that occupy our lives, and to the brilliance that SOLHOT and Boylorn's Sweetwater exhibit in their tenacious embrace of creativity.

Sweet Water Tribute

Cast delivers lines in a horizontal line in front of the audience

Sweetwater 117

dmc:

to know everybody's business while holding your tongue takes everything you have—

it robs you of the story you long to tell

the story that makes you feel something

the story that comes when I am ready to release the pain and the past that is attached to it.18 

dch:

The stories spill out, liberating me from the chains of shame, hopelessness, and disguise. my business

balled up

like a fist

contained

between my lips

locked in my throat19 

rnb:

because my story

is hers

hers is mine

what does it mean for me to tell our story?20 

pg:

my secrets are someone else's secrets

my pain unlocks someone else's pain

my memory is not the same as someone else's memory

i leave room for discrepancy21 

jr:

It is my story

My family's embarrassment

My father's abandonment

My business22 

Telling was murder and I anxiously became a co-conspirator, killing the silence with the story23 

Sweetwater 2

jr:

On this particular day I am invisible to them and they are laughing. From where I sit I cannot make out what they are saying, but their smiles are open-mouthed, cheeky, gap-toothed, and gummy, reaching from one side of their faces to the other. Their heads are pushed back and their eyes are sealed shut. I like to see them like this. Full-round and unapologetic. Vulnerable and fragile. Beautiful in their own right and not competitive. Laughing like they don't have a worry in the world, as if being a woman and black and poor makes you free24 

rnb:

She didn't know a lot about her body but she knew…. Something wasn't right25 

Pretty Eyes

dch:

I've got smooth deep chocolate skin, but anybody ever notice?

Don't you think too hard

Cause

The answer is

po:

yes

That's all they ever notice

Take notice

I am simply a massive amount of dark, ebony

Angry, beautiful but too dark

dch:

So it's an “unconventional”—which makes it wrong—body of blackness

This is all I am to the world

Hey Black Child,

You cute for a dark girl

po:

Charcoal

Burnt biscuit—Aunt Jemima mixing pancakes

Ain't cha mama an African booty scratcher, dark girl

My skin is black—which makes it wrong

dch:

I am wrong

po:

The wrong skin, the wrong shade—black

dch:

The wrong sex, the wrong religion—black

po:

The wrong shape, the wrong size—black

dch:

The wrong curves, the wrong geographic

po:

She be black

And you sho' is ugly

Black girl

Disgusted stares like I be contagious

I hear 'em thinking

“We got a 5-foot, 9-inch nigger woman, good for reproduction

She be dark black like dirt”

dch:

Like coal-like no

Like ants, like soot, like tar

Like death, like night, like evil,

po:

She be real dark and black

dch:

Hey Black Child

po:

Do you know you are strong?

dch:

And I mean really strong

po:

Do You Know You Can Do Any Thing You Wanna Do If You Try To Do What You Can Do

dch:

She be real dark and black

po:

Hey Black Child—you cute for a dark girl

Charcoal—burnt biscuit

Aunt Jemima mixing pancakes

Ain't cha mama an African booty scratcher dark black girl?

dch:

I've got deep pretty almond shaped eyes

I've got full plump curvaceous lips and a smile the sun envies

But anybody ever notice?

po:

Don't you think too hard, cause the answer is…. no

dch:

She be real dark

po:

Mahogany brown coffee

Chocolate chip mocha

dch:

And deep

po:

And ebony

dch:

And beauty

po and dch:

She be black

po and dch:

She be black girl

Sweetwater 3

rnb:

The women pretend, at first, to be annoyed at the attention but slowly and surely smile in satisfaction and wait around to hear more. This is why women sit around worried about their daughters, because they remember what attention was like. The women in my family would often watch the way I smiled when men offered me any ounce of affection. “‘Fast ass’… she got womanish ways, Bread. You better watch her.” They didn't know I was too insecure to be fast.26 

Just Like Apples and Oranges/Lessons from BJ

pg: So I didn't come bustin out my momma's coochie like Winter.
Rather I made a smooth transition outta the depths of my momma's womb
Dey asked “did you use any substances while you were pregnant?”
“Yea” is her reply
Off to the incubata I was whisked
Separation of momma and daughta
Separation of daughta and world
So you see I guess 
 
It was only destiny ta be separated fa eva from my momma dch: Truth is, I can't see myself for other folks telling me who I am 
crawlin' kickin' screamin'
crawlin' kickin' screamin' 
Truth is I can't fly free for caging myself 
Outta dis deep dark hole
Robb'd of da “American Dream”
Picket fence, house, 2 parents, and a dog
2 parents be something like
2 grandparents now. Whateva happened t'
“Momma and Daddy sittin' in a tree
k-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love den comes marriage
Den comes the baby in the baby carriage”? 
Truth is, ain't nobody fault but mine, now. 
Is dis a black girl's dream
Is dis my life, liberty, and Pursuit of happiness?

O how I long to run into my momma's arms
And have ha sing me a lullaby
“Rock-a-bye baby on da tree top
When da winds blows da cradle will rock
When da bough breaks da cradle will fall
 
 
And down will come baby cradle and all.” You see my descent from my cozy cocoon was forced
I wasn't ready to leave
so
I
stalled
and
I
stalled
Until dey had to come and get me!!
Even den I moved to the beat of my own drum
Dum Da Dum Doom Da
Dum Da Dum Doom Da
Not entering like I was “suppose to”
Yes act like a lady,
speak wit eloquence, intonation, and enunciate
“Just… like… this”
All dem words I can't say let alone define
Dum Da Doom Dum Da goes the beat of da drum
Calling for me t' choose. Choose me
Who will I be
Yes I would like to jump rope
but I just caint get da rhythm of da beat
But boy oh boy can I run climb jump and hop
Too bad I'm in dis skirt… 
Wait Wait Let me get this straight you think you got it bad?! I used to wish I was dark skinned then I wished for the other end of the spectrum. Anything but in between, me. People piss on and applaud the extremes while ignoring the in between. Publicity is publicity and being seen is being seen. But growing up wadn't no shun or shine shown for the “in between.” 
Wait Wait Let me get this straight you think you got it bad?! Yea I know I got it bad!
Especially wit you around
I don't wanna live in yo shadow! I just wanna be me! No HooRahs for da team… no spirit for the school. Shit I'm tryna be da team. Hair and nails done, but dat ain't stopping shit. Pass me da ball and I know I'll win. 
I do everything that Granny tells me to
I wear da skirts and keep my head in dem books
Yet stil no Jock… wait wait wait
So now they snicka and talk loudly
As if I caint hear, “You see her?
She might be one of those ball lovers!”
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha”
What I aint no ball lover I'm looking for my Jock!
Ball lover please, You aint neva gotta worry about me
Becoming one of them! It's not me I swear it aint! 
 
 BJ told me to mind emptying my pocketbook
that I should put more in than I take out
somewhere, I stopped listening to BJ
started letting folk/more like men/more like women/more like lovers/more like in the name
I got milked 
Afta all, what I look like?
One of dem basketball playas
Or softball playas?
I cheer for da team ain't tryna be on da team. 
 
Despite the abandonment and robbery of my American Dream,
I have blossomed into the woman I was destined to be.
The woman my Granny helped me to be… wanted me to be.
I am educated, beautiful, and I love it! 
Either way you cut it, I was hiding from the truth
No matter how you slice it, I was shamed of myself 
My search is just beginning
but one day I'll find my special love. 
 
Uh love not similar like oranges and oranges
But different like apples and oranges. 
Truth is, I can't see myself for other folks telling me who I am
Truth is I can't fly free for caging myself
Truth is, ain't nobody fault but mine, now. 
pg: So I didn't come bustin out my momma's coochie like Winter.
Rather I made a smooth transition outta the depths of my momma's womb
Dey asked “did you use any substances while you were pregnant?”
“Yea” is her reply
Off to the incubata I was whisked
Separation of momma and daughta
Separation of daughta and world
So you see I guess 
 
It was only destiny ta be separated fa eva from my momma dch: Truth is, I can't see myself for other folks telling me who I am 
crawlin' kickin' screamin'
crawlin' kickin' screamin' 
Truth is I can't fly free for caging myself 
Outta dis deep dark hole
Robb'd of da “American Dream”
Picket fence, house, 2 parents, and a dog
2 parents be something like
2 grandparents now. Whateva happened t'
“Momma and Daddy sittin' in a tree
k-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love den comes marriage
Den comes the baby in the baby carriage”? 
Truth is, ain't nobody fault but mine, now. 
Is dis a black girl's dream
Is dis my life, liberty, and Pursuit of happiness?

O how I long to run into my momma's arms
And have ha sing me a lullaby
“Rock-a-bye baby on da tree top
When da winds blows da cradle will rock
When da bough breaks da cradle will fall
 
 
And down will come baby cradle and all.” You see my descent from my cozy cocoon was forced
I wasn't ready to leave
so
I
stalled
and
I
stalled
Until dey had to come and get me!!
Even den I moved to the beat of my own drum
Dum Da Dum Doom Da
Dum Da Dum Doom Da
Not entering like I was “suppose to”
Yes act like a lady,
speak wit eloquence, intonation, and enunciate
“Just… like… this”
All dem words I can't say let alone define
Dum Da Doom Dum Da goes the beat of da drum
Calling for me t' choose. Choose me
Who will I be
Yes I would like to jump rope
but I just caint get da rhythm of da beat
But boy oh boy can I run climb jump and hop
Too bad I'm in dis skirt… 
Wait Wait Let me get this straight you think you got it bad?! I used to wish I was dark skinned then I wished for the other end of the spectrum. Anything but in between, me. People piss on and applaud the extremes while ignoring the in between. Publicity is publicity and being seen is being seen. But growing up wadn't no shun or shine shown for the “in between.” 
Wait Wait Let me get this straight you think you got it bad?! Yea I know I got it bad!
Especially wit you around
I don't wanna live in yo shadow! I just wanna be me! No HooRahs for da team… no spirit for the school. Shit I'm tryna be da team. Hair and nails done, but dat ain't stopping shit. Pass me da ball and I know I'll win. 
I do everything that Granny tells me to
I wear da skirts and keep my head in dem books
Yet stil no Jock… wait wait wait
So now they snicka and talk loudly
As if I caint hear, “You see her?
She might be one of those ball lovers!”
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha”
What I aint no ball lover I'm looking for my Jock!
Ball lover please, You aint neva gotta worry about me
Becoming one of them! It's not me I swear it aint! 
 
 BJ told me to mind emptying my pocketbook
that I should put more in than I take out
somewhere, I stopped listening to BJ
started letting folk/more like men/more like women/more like lovers/more like in the name
I got milked 
Afta all, what I look like?
One of dem basketball playas
Or softball playas?
I cheer for da team ain't tryna be on da team. 
 
Despite the abandonment and robbery of my American Dream,
I have blossomed into the woman I was destined to be.
The woman my Granny helped me to be… wanted me to be.
I am educated, beautiful, and I love it! 
Either way you cut it, I was hiding from the truth
No matter how you slice it, I was shamed of myself 
My search is just beginning
but one day I'll find my special love. 
 
Uh love not similar like oranges and oranges
But different like apples and oranges. 
Truth is, I can't see myself for other folks telling me who I am
Truth is I can't fly free for caging myself
Truth is, ain't nobody fault but mine, now. 

Sweetwater 4

dmc:

All I have is Sweetwater and home, which mean the same thing even though Sweetwater is the town, and home is what I call the house I live in. I also have these women, who look right past me because I am too damn much too soon, and they want to concentrate and wrap themselves up in this everything-is-all-right moment, laughing out loud and together because moments like that are too few and far between.27 

pg:

I came to understand the interconnectedness of our lives as women, relying on each other because we were all we had.28 

NOTES

NOTES
1.
Dwight Conquergood, “Beyond the Text: Toward a Performative Cultural Politics,” in The Future of Performance Studies: Visions and Revisions, ed. Sheron J. Dailey (Washington, DC: National Communication Association, 1998), 25–36; Norman K. Denzin, Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003); Della Pollock, “Performance Trouble,” in The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 1–8; Laurel Richardson, “Poetic Representation of Interviews,” in Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method, ed. Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 822–91; Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, “Writing: A Method of Inquiry,” in Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), 473–500.
2.
Robin M. Boylorn, Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).
3.
Ruth Nicole Brown, Black Girlhood Celebration: Towards a Hip Hop Feminist Pedagogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2009); Hear Our Truths: The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
4.
Ibid.
5.
Brown, Hear Our Truths.
6.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); E. Frances White, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010).
7.
Joy L. Lei, “(Un) Necessary Toughness? Those ‘Loud Black Girls’ and Those ‘Quiet Asian Boys,’” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34, no. 2 (2003): 158–81; Monique Morris, “Black Females Represent the Fastest Growing Segment of the Juvenile Justice Population,” Black Star Journal, 5 October 2012, accessed 3 December 2013. http://blackstarjournal.org/?p=1744.
8.
Tami Spry, Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011).
9.
See José Esteban Muñoz, “Stages: Queers, Punks, and the Utopian Performative,” in The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 9–20.
10.
Ibid., 9.
11.
Brown, Hear Our Truths, 1.
12.
See Ruth Nicole Brown, Rozana Carducci, and Candace Kuby, eds., Disrupting Qualitative Inquiry: Possibilities and Tensions in Educational Research (New York: Peter Lang, 2014).
13.
José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 4, 7.
14.
Brown, Hear Our Truths.
15.
Muñoz, “Stages.”
16.
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (New York: Harper, 1990); Joni L. Jones, “'sista Docta': Performance as Critique of the Academy,” The Drama Review 21, no. 2 (1997): 51–67; June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan (New York: Basic, 2002); Audre Lorde, Audre, Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices (Latham, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1990); Sydne Mahone, Moon Marked and Touched by Sun: Plays by African-American Women (New York: Theatre Communications, 1993); Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf (New York: Scribner, 1975).
17.
Sections marked “Sweetwater” are passages taken directly from Boylorn's Sweetwater. The intention was to merge these black girl narratives with the words, stories, and narratives of SOLHOT participants. Moreover, as a tribute, we sought to gift some of Boylorn's words, which resonated deeply with each of us who participated in the tribute, back to her.
18.
Boylorn, Sweetwater, xix.
19.
Ibid., xx.
20.
Ibid.
21.
Ibid.
22.
Ibid.
23.
Ibid., xxi.
24.
Ibid., 74–75.
25.
Ibid., 59.
26.
Ibid., 84.
27.
Ibid., 75.
28.
Ibid., 77.