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Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship

Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship

by Aimee Meredith Cox
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In Shapeshifters Aimee Meredith Cox explores how young Black women in a Detroit homeless shelter contest stereotypes, critique their status as partial citizens, and negotiate poverty, racism, and gender violence to create and imagine lives for themselves. Based on eight years of fieldwork at the Fresh Start shelter, Cox shows how the shelter's residents—who range in age from fifteen to twenty-two—employ strategic methods she characterizes as choreography to disrupt the social hierarchies and prescriptive narratives that work to marginalize them. Among these are dance and poetry, which residents learn in shelter workshops. These outlets for performance and self-expression, Cox shows, are key to the residents exercising their agency, while their creation of alternative family structures demands a rethinking of notions of care, protection, and love. Cox also uses these young women's experiences to tell larger stories: of Detroit's history, the Great Migration, deindustrialization, the politics of respectability, and the construction of Black girls and women as social problems. With Shapeshifters Cox gives a voice to young Black women who find creative and non-normative solutions to the problems that come with being young, Black, and female in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822359319
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/14/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 653,364
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Aimee Meredith Cox is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University.

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Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship


By Aimee Meredith Cox

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7537-1


"We Came Here to Be Different"

The Brown Family and Remapping Detroit

I'm from a big family.
Deep as the ocean, close as twins.
I'm from the Dirty D
You know it's the place to be
I'm from originality x2
Great Grandma's legend leaves us blue.
Eyes that see kids skating ghetto kids
Still a place of love.
Where I keep my head up high
'Cause I know I can make it.
— a seventeen-year-old Fresh Start resident

I be from a place
Where shelters used to be
An option.
I moved to a place
Where not many houses were built
But many ghetto kids stay.
I moved again to a place
That I hate where hos stroll
And tricks pay.
The school is a disgrace
Feels like it is erasing
The images of my face.
— a sixteen-year-old Fresh Start resident

What she wanted for her girls was more than that. She wanted happiness, however they
could get it. Whatever it was. Whoever brought it.
— Ntozake Shange,Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

Getting Lost and Coming Home

"Stop! Turn here!" Janice hustled her older cousin, Karlyn, out of the right to sit in the front seat and was making the most of the coveted spot by screaming directives in my ear.

It was only my second time driving the monster fourteen-seater white van that transported girls home after the Give Girls a Chance (GGC) program activities ended for the evening. What I had read as lethargy among the group during the hour-long dance class I taught now felt like an intentional, almost meditative, stillness. The quiet was nice, and I was happy to accept it without question. The dance classes were open to participants in all of the GGC programs, so the van carried a mix of middle-school girls who were a part of the Early Start Program, high-school young women in training to become peer educators and street outreach workers, and a few of the Fresh Start residents who felt like coming along for the ride on this unseasonably warm early October evening. We were lost. Or at least I was, and it was getting darker as the shadowy dusk transitioned into night. We left the Corktown neighborhood where GGC was located, almost directly across the street from what was then the historic Old Tiger Stadium, a half hour earlier. The van was making slow and hesitant progress down the wide expanse of West Grand Boulevard. We passed homes with wooden front porches that wrapped around their large brick frames like shaky, fragile arms. Houses boasting recently mowed lawns whose edges were dotted with planted flowers sat next to structures that were barely whole, boarded up and leaning to one side. As we approached the Dexter Davidson intersection, there were more pedestrians on the sidewalk, and the streets appeared brighter, better lit.

"What you doin' out here, boy? Where's your brother? Get back home." Janice leaned over me, nearly turning the steering wheel, to holler at a young man who looked to be about fifteen and who was just coming out of a corner store. He smiled, looking both shocked and pleased to see her, and then turned down a side street with a quick wave.

"You know him from school?" With my right hand, I tried to gently persuade her back into her seat.

"No, that's Troy. He just be around the streets. He used to hang out with my cousin, Davey, but now he's out here on his own. Doing whatever. Worry about him. I know how people can watch you. Nobody really wants to see us out here. He'll get picked up for nothing. Might come back tomorrow and see if I can find him." Janice craned her neck to look back at the spot Troy vacated, then turned to face the passenger window and was silent for the rest of the ride.

A few of the older girls from the shelter talked in low tones in the row of seats directly behind us, apparently charting the next day's route through job interviews, uncertain child-care arrangements, visits with friends, and their nightly chores at Fresh Start. As it became clearer that I was lost, it also became clearer that no one was interested in telling me the way home or cutting short the meandering tour of the city and their conversations — which were, finally, safely out of judgmental and authoritative earshot. So I settled in, too. With one eye on the gas gauge and both ears wide open, I paid close attention to the young women as they used their own stories and fragments of historical anecdotes about the streets and neighborhoods we passed to narrate a Detroit different from the one I was coming to know through urban legends and social science texts (which were not mutually exclusive). This van ride was just the beginning of a nearly decades-long project grounded in a deep listening that compelled me to experience Detroit through a cartography of the city mapped by the young Black women who both form and are formed within its geography.

In this chapter, the process of getting lost and the repeated act of coming home form the basis for understanding a past, present, and possible future Detroit through the experiences and speculations of Black girls and the women in their extended families. Traveling along unknown paths, with both the limited freedom of mobility and potential dangers in the unexpected this implies, accurately describes the shapeshifting movements I explore here. Janice, her younger sister Crystal, and their cousins were the third generation of women in the Brown family currently residing in Detroit. The first generation was Janice, Crystal and their cousins' grandmother, Bessie Brown, who moved to Detroit from Alabama in 1964 during the latter part of the Great Migration. The second generation, which included Janice and Crystal's mother and aunts, made lives for themselves in Detroit as young women during the 1970s and 1980s. Each generation of the Brown family tells historical and contemporary versions of a Detroit story that disputes the constructed normativities on which much of the canonical social science literature on urban poverty and race is based. The rapid deindustrialization Bessie Brown encountered almost immediately after arriving in the city meant that she, her children, and her grandchildren would have a very different relationship to work, stability, success, and comfort than she had anticipated when she left the South. The disconnect between her expectations and the reality with which she was faced can be traced in large part to contested meanings of home and family.

The impact of deindustrialization on Detroit and the consequences of related factors such as depopulation and disinvestment in the center city, high unemployment, suspect city and state legislative practices, and the erosion of public services has been covered extensively in several rigorous works from various disciplines. The so-called Moynihan Report (Moynihan 1965), the pivotal social text that has left us with the enduring trope of the emasculating Black matriarch, has also been discussed extensively in other work, particularly by theorists interested in the social construction of Black women and the ways in which the Black family has been pathologized.Although this background is essential for contextualizing the Brown family and the experiences of Black girls in the twenty-first century, what is most needed now is a situating of this historical narrative and a remapping of urban geographies like that of Detroit by the girls and women at the center of these interwoven discourses of urban ruin and dysfunction. A critical aspect of this reimagining is located at the intersection of space and the body and takes shape from the prospects that Black girls' place making allows for identifying new physical and psychic sites of empowerment.

The fears and anxieties of the nation-state are projected onto Black women and actualized through the discursive and material control of their bodies. In Troubling Vision, Nicole Fleetwood attends to how "human value is assessed based on visual blackness" (2011, 71). Largely through a detailed exploration of the work of visual and performing artists and representations found in popular culture, she demonstrates the ways in which "blackness and black womanhood are coded historically and geographically" (ibid., 119). The concern with the relationship between black women, value, and citizenship that is embedded in Fleetwood's analysis plays out in real time in the lives of the Brown family. Normative codes of white femininity mark the boundary between valued and devalued that determine how the Brown women and girls experience the multiple political and economic variables tied to their partial social citizenship. The three generations of Brown women confront several layers of corporal containment in their daily lives, including the reading and categorizing of their bodies, the regulation of their bodies legislated by the state, and the use of their bodies as surplus labor.

You Really Live in Detroit?

"Your mayor was voted worst mayor of the year. How fitting for the worst city in America," commented an acquaintance of mine who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some forty miles west of Detroit. She was referring to Kwame Kilpatrick, who became Detroit's youngest mayor in 2002. Kilpatrick was just at the beginning of a decades-long scandal that included a felony conviction and his resignation as mayor in 2008. Across various media, smug amateur pundits implied that Kilpatrick was the embodiment of the character of the city and its residents. I traveled the stretch of highways that connects Detroit to its suburban and outlying neighbors at least three times a week. Although the drive could be mind-numbingly boring, the contrast between living and working in Detroit and functioning primarily as a student in Ann Arbor was quite dramatic. As a Black woman who grew up learning how to mediate predominantly white institutions, I found a great sense of comfort in Detroit, a so-called chocolate city.

To the youngish, professional middle-class Blacks who worked and made their living in the heart of the city, the "in your face" Blackness of Detroit was a source of both pride and frustration. This segment of the population, in which I somewhat reluctantly included myself, was happy to be a part of the revitalization of the city but confounded by the daily reminders of the failures of the economic and social turnaround of Detroit that always seemed to be just on the horizon. Over the eight years that I lived in Detroit, I became an invested resident of the city — a Detroiter. This was an identity that people felt, believed in, and claimed in ways that could never be accurately represented through an official marker of citizenship like a certificate declaring that someone had been born within the city limits. To many native and self-proclaimed adopted Detroiters, an authentic Detroiter was identified according to intentions and actions in the present — the conscious choices people made. You might be authentic, or at least an authentic ally, if — like being Black in America — being a Detroiter was a badge you polished every morning and wore with pride despite (or often because of) its implications. Just as complicated and uncontainable as Blackness, Detroitness is an identity and a way of being in the world that has generated its own policed boundaries and criteria for inclusion. And, like Blackness, it is defined by the continual transgression of these boundaries. Thus, history becomes another measuring stick for legitimacy and belonging.

Beyond just living in Detroit, a Detroiter had to become familiar with misrepresentation, dismissal, disrespect, and hostility. Being a Detroiter meant digesting the things other people thought and said about you, while holding onto the truth of who you know yourself to be. In many ways, this game of identity defending and self-conscious self-protection is not unlike the one Black girls are forced to play. Detroiters' double consciousness involves simultaneously reading themselves and others through the emotionally colored implications of race, class, and place. Detroiters seemed to understand the deeper meaning beyond all of the disrespect and cultural clowning, whether it was being the butt of jokes on late-night television shows or having images of crack houses in the city broadcast during a nationally televised NBA game to depict the character of the city's basketball team, the Pistons. The national dissing of Detroit, which continues in the present with more aggressive undertones following the city's bankruptcy, reflects a nation struggling with its own discomfort about and fears of the poverty and Blackness that Detroit seems to embody. Thus, Detroit — dark and dangerous — can be stripped of its gritty, urban powers to intimidate and inspire guilt and become a laughable enigma in the narrative of the United States as a nation with accessible wealth and limitless opportunity. In light of these contemporary images of Detroit, the importance placed on history (both personal and collective) in the lives of many Detroiters can be better understood. Detroit's history is like its shadow — always close by and moving like a darker version of the present.

The history of Detroit as understood through that of the Brown family is cast in relation to cars, music, and creative self-making and is punctuated by the relations of power that make race, gender, and class coherent as experiential categories. The life experiences of the three generations of women in the Brown family represent a challenge to the history of Detroit that is taken for granted and retold in popular culture and the academy. The Browns' experiences also raise new questions about the relationship Black women and girls have to notions of respectability that are deemed so central to their ability to succeed. Janice and the other members of the third generation of Browns are influenced by their family history of migration from the South and the subsequent problems their grandmother and mothers faced living in Detroit, but the younger women are not solely defined by these narrative precursors. Although the Browns could be seen as a casebook example of the many families of different races who face challenges living in underresourced urban areas, including generations of households headed by single women, early pregnancies, low-wage work, absentee fathers, inadequate housing, and minimal education, these labels do not tell the full story. The work that these labels primarily accomplish is to mark young Black women, like Detroit, as sites of perpetual devastation and pathology. This mutually reinforcing bodily and geographic devaluation influences how Black girls move through and carve out space for themselves in the city and create communities of care.

Home Is a Verb

The van hummed along a wide avenue whose name I tried to confirm as we passed one headless street sign after another, the empty posts erupting from the ground and triumphantly signaling nothing. At this point, I didn't even bother to ask my passengers for directions. Two of the older girls from the shelter had fallen asleep, and as their snores rose and fell in volume, the younger girls alternately lowered and raised their voices. I recognized the large white wooden frame house on my left and realized that we were just a block away from Janice's grandmother's address. I had made a full circle almost back to where we started at GGC. I looked out of the corner of my eye to see if Janice had noticed and then, sheepishly, glanced in the review mirror to see who would be the first to call me out. No one said a word until I started to turn back toward Bessie's house.

"We can keep riding, right? I can tell you the shortcut to drop the Morris girls off but then we can keep riding, right? The rest of us?" Karlyn asked. I met her eyes in the review mirror and nodded yes.

"Just don't take us past Wesson," Janice said. "I don't feel like seeing nobody tonight." Wesson was the street where Bessie Brown and, at any given moment, at least four of her six children and seven of her nineteen grandchildren resided. The rented two-story house was always filled beyond capacity. I thought of the house as literally bursting at the seams whenever the younger children pulled back the thin window treatment on the second floor and poked their heads out of the window. This happened every time I picked up or dropped off one of the Brown girls. The loud idling of the van's engine gave me away before I could honk. Eyes glued to the van, the children would melodically yell out of the window in unison, "Cryssssstaaaal!" or "Geeeeeenah!" even though Crystal or Gina was usually sitting right beside them.

I knew why Janice did not want to pass by her grandmother's house but was not sure of Karlyn's reason for wanting to linger in the van. Karlyn was arguably the coolest of the Brown girls and, I was told by other staff members, frequently refused to ride in the van unless the driver agreed to remove the magnetic decal with GGC's logo from the side of the vehicle. On this night, she sank down low in the seat until we had safely ridden out of her neighborhood. Karlyn lived with her mother, Donna, and her three younger brothers and sisters on 7 Mile Road near Dexter Road on the west side of the city. Janice and Crystal lived with their mother, Gwen, and their two younger brothers with Bessie on Wesson Street, just a ten-minute walk from GGC. Bessie's oldest daughter, JoJo, lived less than three miles away on Fourteenth Street with her boyfriend. Ruby, the daughter born between Gwen and Donna, lived with Bessie on and off, when she wasn't staying in the homes of friends or other family members.


Excerpted from Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship by Aimee Meredith Cox. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface  vii

Acknowledgments  xi

Part I. Terrain

Introduction  3

1. "We Came Here to Be Different": The Brown Family and Remapping Detroit  38

Part II. Scripts

2. Renovations  81

3. Narratives of Protest and Play  122

Part III. Bodies

4. Sex, Gender, and Scripted Bodies  155

5. The Move Experiment  185

Epilogue  237

Notes  243

References  263

Index  273

What People are Saying About This

Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture - Elizabeth Chin

"In this powerful and passionate book Aimee Meredith Cox communicates important messages about the integrity and humanity of black girls, their potential, and the ways this potential is variously thwarted, squeezed, bounced, and redirected. Rich in detail and at times hilarious, painful, and revealing, Cox's ethnography provides an account of the ways girls move through the obstacle course of poverty, racism, and gender violence to create and imagine lives for themselves."

Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem - John L. Jackson

"In this powerful book, Aimee Meredith Cox boldly re-conceptualizes the very meaning of 'public anthropology' in the twenty-first century. With vibrant, nuanced, and crackling ethnographic material, Shapeshifters offers a poignant telling of these women's stories."

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