In her 1859 novel Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, African American writer Harriet E. Wilson weaves a semi-autobiographical story about a Black girl named Frado, a child servant indentured to a white family in antebellum New England. After Mrs. Bellmont, the mistress of the house, inflicts years of physical and mental abuse upon Frado, the girl begins to wonder why God made her Black. She poses this question to James, the teenage son of Mrs. Bellmont who attempts to protect Frado from his mother’s attacks:
“Who made me so?”
“God,” answered James.
“Did God make you?”
“Who made Aunt Abby?”
“Did the same God that made her make me?”
“Well, then, I don’t like him.”
“Because he made her white, and me black. Why didn’t he make us BOTH
Frado registers her girlhood experiences of abuse to the disregard of God, prompting her to wonder later in the novel, “Is there a heaven for the black?” (51, 84). Her provocations converge with W.E.B. Du Bois’s canonical question “How does it feel to be a problem?” For Frado, the sociopolitical “problem” of being a Black child in antebellum America is a theological one. Frado’s questions serve as literary representations of the “metaphysical dilemma” of Black childhood. As historian Crystal Lynn Webster has argued, Black girls and boys, who face marginalization at the intersection of race and age, must continue to move through the world as Black children in a society that refuses to recognize their childhood (57).
Recognizing the metaphysical problem of Black childhood raises several questions that this essay will explore from a historical perspective: What are the religiopolitical structures that might move a Black child to interrogate her existential belonging, as Wilson’s character Frado does? How have Black communities and Black children themselves fought for the recognition of Black childhood? What might examining the category of Black childhood teach us about the biases we bring to categories of age, race, gender, and sexuality?
Childhood is messy. Ideas about who children are—and who they can be—are fluid, contested, and historically contingent. The concept of a “child” is a malleable construct onto which actual children—and, sometimes, pathologized adults—get mapped. In the United States, racial, sexual, and gender ideologies have shaped which children have been eligible for normative protections and provisions of childhood—and which have been exempt.
Modern conceptions of American childhood have been coded as white and elite. Throughout the long nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Euro-American religious leaders, writers, and reformers articulated visions of childhood as a stage of dependency and innocence during which children should be protected by their caregivers and society writ large. As Karen Eppler-Sánchez has argued, these cultural commentators colored the first years of life “in emotional and imaginative terms.” The child was a person who relied on adults and who possessed enough leisure time to explore her “imaginative freedom” (22, 18).
Both free and captive African American children in the nineteenth century experienced uneven access to this particular vision of childhood. Enslaved children possessed little leisure time. From birth, they faced the labor injunctions of white enslavers, who mobilized white supremacist Christian ideologies of work. In striking contrast to growing conceptions of childhood as a stage of dependency, some enslaved girls and boys were themselves charged with dependents. The story of a six-year-old enslaved girl in antebellum Louisiana named Adelaide serves as one example. Her enslaver, Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, forced the young enslaved girl to watch over her infant, reflecting in her diary that Adelaide “save[d] [her] a good many steps in the way of errands” (87). Contrary to idealized visions of Euro-American childhood as a state of dependency, Adelaide and other enslaved children were charged with the care of white children. Enslaved children also navigated distinct vulnerabilities and forms of violence, including nutritional deficiencies, exposure to the elements due to scanty clothing, separation from kin due to the nature of the slave market, and extreme violence.
At the same time that captive children faced the horrors of antebellum slavery, they also experienced affirmation within their communities, particularly from their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, who taught children to recognize their “soul values.” As Daina Ramey Berry demonstrates, older enslaved women, the spiritual leaders of enslaved communities, “reminded [children] of a value that enslavers and traders could not commodify—the spiritual value of their immortal selves” (61). By tending to and transmitting spiritual rituals to the children in their midst, these women built an institution of care-work that critiqued the religiopolitical labor ideologies of enslavers and taught girls and boys their inner value amid a culture of violence.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as African Americans gained legal citizenship and navigated Jim Crow discrimination, states and white citizens introduced new methods for ostracizing Black children from the “social recognition” of childhood. These methods included convict leasing, the prison system, juvenile reformatories, and lynchings. Ideas about Black children’s gender and sexuality figured centrally in these new methodologies. For instance, in Jim Crow Georgia, three Black girls—aged eleven, twelve, and sixteen–were arrested for picking flowers from the home of a white person. As Sarah Haley illustrates, this historical example codified the “mischievous playfulness” of Black girls as a moral failing and a criminal affront to the state (196).
In turn, networks of African American Protestants, particularly Black Baptist women as well as women in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination, advanced religiopolitical ideologies they believed would protect Black children. These religious race reformers, many of whom were also a part of a growing number of clubs centered around suffrage and racial justice, made gendered arguments that the social progress of future generations depended on Black girls’ abilities to be “sexually and morally wholesome” (111).
Formerly enslaved sociologist Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South emblematized this religiopolitical platform. Cooper advised readers that African Americans’ political futures were contingent upon churches preparing “girls in head, heart and hand” to become virtuous Christian women (45). In tandem with activists like Cooper, Afro-Protestant women like Amanda Berry Smith and Emily Christmas Kinch established institutions dedicated to the support of Black children. These spaces aimed to provide social services and education but certainly sought to reign in Black children’s perceived “waywardness” as well. A formerly enslaved Methodist missionary, Smith opened the first orphanage for Black children in the state of Illinois in 1899. Kinch, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sunday School movement, advocated for the literacy of West African and African American children and opened the Eliza Turner Memorial School in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1909.
While these adult reformers aimed to regulate Black children’s behavior, many African American adolescents, particularly those who resided in urban centers, rejected the religiopolitical visions of race reformers. Instead, they frequented entertainment venues, engaged in sexual relationships as they saw fit, and joined communities that felt meaningful to them. As scholar Saidiya Hartman has argued, across the historical record of the early twentieth century we see a cast of “riotous black girls” who refused to participate in the religiopolitical vision of Black middle-class uplift presented by the “talented tenth.”
The Black girls who sang, danced, and loved in the juke joints, theaters, alleyways, and churches of early twentieth-century U.S. cities theorized a different “black radical political imaginary” than that of their elders. They embraced an alternative “spirituality that encompassed sexual desire, pleasure, messiness, criminality, and gender transgression” (211, 243). Many Black teenagers living in cities during the period merged their Afro-Protestantism with their pursuits of pleasure. As scholar Ahmad Greene-Hayes has suggested, some Black adolescents during this period likely attended church on Sundays “after having strolled the back alleys of New York and Philadelphia in scantily-clad dresses with cigarette alight on Saturday evening.”
As the twentieth century progressed, Black children—and institutions that cared for them—continued to be criminalized by governmental bodies. Leaders of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Black religious movement that initiated in 1930s Detroit, Michigan, demonstrated their investment in the theopolitical training of boys and girls by starting the University of Islam, the NOI’s alternative to public schools and a place where they believed children could learn their true history and value. While private Christian schooling was not uncommon among Black Americans in this era, historian Ula Taylor highlights the panic that ensued when “Moslem parents began withdrawing their youngsters in droves from the Detroit public schools” (27). Subsequently, the city’s public schools lost funding due to low numbers.
In 1934, Detroit police officers raided the University of Islam and arrested Minister Elijah Mohammed for “contributing to the delinquency of minors,” evidencing the intervention of the U.S. state in the religious education of Black children (28). The NOI’s attempt to take their children’s education into their own hands—and the financial precarity they sparked in Detroit when they successfully enrolled students—were threats to the state’s vision of what the education of Black youth should look like.
As the twentieth century progressed, reports of white supremacist violence against Black children were central turning points in fights for Black freedom and sparked national discourse. These included the 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and the murders of six Black children on a single day in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1980s, the police bombing of the MOVE organization drew attention nationwide to the fact that Black children regularly faced state violence. MOVE was a small, predominantly Black religious movement that began in 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and that was heavily pathologized as a “cult” by outsiders. Members of the MOVE organization aimed to detach themselves from the System, which they identified as the forces of evil in the world that “made humankind dissatisfied with the natural order of Life” (38). For MOVE members, fighting the System meant living in rhythm with their natural human states by maintaining daily practices such as eating raw foods and working towards the larger goal of exposing how the System caused social inequities. The Black girls and boys of MOVE were central to this religiopolitical vision as they were the first generation of humans to follow forces of good or the Law of Nature (the converse of the System) from childhood.
In 1985, Philadelphia law enforcement bombed and murdered eleven MOVE members, including five children. MOVE partially came under the scrutiny of police because of reports about the neglect of its child members (more recently, former members of the organization have taken public stands about the mistreatment of children within the group). Regardless of any alleged concern about the well-being of the children in the organization, law enforcement acted in a manner that ironically caused the murders of young Netta Africa, Tree Africa, Phil Africa, Delisha Africa, and Tomaso Africa.
Black children’s vulnerability to police violence persists in the present. Cases involving police brutality and Black children often involve “adultification”—that is, the act of perceiving Black children “as less innocent and adult-like” than their non-Black peers (1). Many Black girls and boys have been murdered or physically harmed by police while engaging in ostensibly child-like activities, which underscores enduring perceptions of Black childhood as socially illegible.
In 2023, sixteen-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot in the head after stopping at the wrong house to pick up his younger brother from a playdate and ringing the doorbell. In 2015, fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton, whom a local official described as a “verbally abusive, disobedient girl,” was swimming with friends when she was slammed to the ground by a police officer. In 2014, twelve-year old Tamir Rice was murdered by police while playing with a toy gun. And in 2000, twelve-year-old Ansche Hedgepeth was arrested for eating a French fry in a D.C. metro.
This essay cannot contain the litany of Black boys and girls who have been murdered by police or suffered racial, gendered, and sexual violence. As we hold their names and their stories and fight for the justice of Black girls and boys, the “metaphysical dilemma” of Black childhood becomes abundantly clear (57).
A critical analysis of childhood from the theoretical purview of political theology requires that we deepen our analytical lenses to consider how race, gender, and sexuality bear upon ideas of childhood. The study of Black childhood teaches political theology to interrogate the construction of childhood itself, to ask not only how religion and politics affect children and shape childhood, but also to examine how religiopolitical ideologies and institutions make some living children socially illegible as such.