Lynnette Mawhinney arrived at Rutgers University–Newark in fall 2020 as Associate Professor of Urban Education and the new chair of the department, and is also affiliated faculty in the Department of African American and African Studies.
Her research focuses on the professional lives of urban and pre-service teachers; the schooling experiences of urban youth; biracial identity development; and auto-ethnographic approaches in educational settings. Prior to coming to RU-N, Mawhinney was Professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she has taught on American Indian reservations and in a range of urban contexts, including middle school, high school, and GED and employment training programs for welfare recipients and dislocated workers. She's also conducted teacher training in the U.S., Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, South Africa and Egypt.
Recently Mawhinney co-edited a volume titled, Strong Black Girls: Reclaiming Schools in Their Own Image (Teachers College Press), a collection of oral histories, essays, letters and poetry that shines a light on the experiences of Black women and girls in schools, and on the invisible barriers affecting Black girls’ K-12 educational trajectories.
We sat down with Mawhinney to discuss her research and the book, as well as a children’s book she also published this past year, Lulu the One and Only, which deals with biracial identity and navigating racism.
What inspired you to write Strong Black Girls?
There’s not a lot of research, from an own-voice perspective, on Black girls and schooling, so my colleagues and I had an idea for an edited book and put out a call for chapters from people who wanted to talk about their experiences, and we got 85 chapters back. We have a professor, we have grad students—one of whom talks about three generations in her family—we have a school administrator, and we also included a fifth-grader. This diversity of voices is important and is one of the reasons it can connect with a lot of people.
Why the emphasis on stories?
My work focuses on capturing people’s stories and voices in the educational realm, including current and past teachers, students and incarcerated adults who dropped-out. I draw on the African concept of the sankofa bird: We learn best with stories, and how we move forward is by looking backward and taking the feedback from these stories to help us to do better in our schools.
The book tackles an array of issues related to Black girls in school.
Yes. It's a multidisciplinary look at the silencing of Black girls’ voices; the adultification of Black girls’ bodies, which includes hair as expression and resistance; and the notion of Black Girl Magic.
We learn best with stories, and how we move forward is by looking backward and taking the feedback from these stories to help us to do better in our schools.
Let’s unpack some of these issues, and the history here.
Sure. Historically, public schools were not built for Black children—a legacy of slavery—and then you have the gendered aspect on top of that. There’s still a lot of racism and sexism in schools, from how classes are designed and taught, how students are tracked, and the fact of tracking itself, to teacher training, curriculum and teacher diversity. Our chapters include adults recounting the racism they faced from teachers and how the concept of silence played out for them. Others address the adultification and hypersexualization of Black girls’ bodies, which dates back to slavery, with one chapter on sex education, sexual assault and racialized violence, and another on hair by a graduate student: We still see news stories about Black girls’ being sent home because of their hair.
You've also mentioned how Black girls are often pushed on in school?
Yes. This is different from dropping out, but both are serious issues for Black girls in public schools. Being pushed on means your academic skills lag but teachers keep pushing you on to next grade so that you graduate but without a good skill-set. Dropping out is leaving school without finishing, usually due to roadblocks. I’ve done research on Black women who experienced both.
Some of the chapters also examine the concept of Black Girl Magic, a social movement focusing on Black female identity and empowerment. One talks about being invisible within schools, playing off the concept of the model minority: Teachers saw her as strong and doing well and so sent the message that “we don’t need to worry about you.” Helena, our fifth-grader who was adopted and has two dads, talks about the gift of Black Girl Magic and shares a phrase poem. So, one interrogates the concept, and the other embraces it.
Each chapter ends with reflective questions, correct?
Yes, we included those to encourage discussion and make the book an active tool that teachers, parents, administrators and students can use.
Let’s pivot to your children’s book, Lulu the One and Only. What inspired you to write this?
As a kid, I never saw any books with biracial kids or children of color. When I became a teacher, I didn't have many books with kids that looked like me, and the problem still exists. I thought if you can’t find it, you’ve got to do it yourself, and so I did. These kids are always asked, What are you? And this book challenges that, the idea they should fit into a certain box.
Has it been rewarding to venture into this new non-academic medium?
It's been great. My current academic book is accessible, but with children’s books, everyone can read it—my mom actually read it. It’s nice to take the work on race I do in the academic world on race and apply it to 4–11 year olds, and it’s a tool to be used in classroom and with parents. I’ve enjoyed trying to figure out ways to have my research enter the worlds other than the ivory tower. This has been a great way to do it.
Thank you for sitting down with us.