LaKisha Michelle Simmons, PhD, is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Chair in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Simmons is a historian of African American gender history, and joins Michigan Minds to talk about her research specializing in Black girlhood, history of the family, history of sexuality, and southern history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“My expertise is as a historian of Black women and my research interests are really along three lines. I’m interested in the history of race, gender, and age… and my research is really focused on the history of experiences of racism and sexism.”
Simmons is the author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, which won the SAWH Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for best book in southern women’s history and received Honorable Mention for the ABWH Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award for the best book in African American women’s history. Simmon explains that her inspiration for the book was inspired by the question “How did it feel like to be a young girl during segregation and to grow up learning or knowing that you are a second-class citizen?”
During her investigation of historical archives, she discovered that there were no experiences of Black children documented—only the experiences of white children. Simmons says that she knew she would have to find a different way of researching the lives and stories of young Black girls that went beyond publications in the library.
“I sort of became a quilter and looked for any scraps of Black girls’ lives and what they left behind in order to reconstruct their worlds and thoughts and feelings during that time. And so I found them hiding almost in plain sight—whether that was in newspaper articles, or in police records, or in social workers’ records who were working at after school programs, or finding poems that they had written.”
The Global History of Black Girlhood, a book Simmons co-authored, is a collection of writing that explores the many ways scholars, artists, and activists think and write about Black girls’ pasts. She discusses how the idea for the book was inspired by a conversation with other historians on how they each view Black girlhood differently. The contributors engage in interdisciplinary conversations that consider what it means to be a girl; the meaning of Blackness when seen from the perspective of girls in different times and places; and the ways Black girls have imagined themselves as part of a global African diaspora.
“We ended up hosting a series of conferences on the global history of black girlhood, engaging a lot of different kinds of scholars and artists and young people in these questions. And from those conferences, we made this book called The Global History of Black Girlhood, which includes scholarly articles about Black girls’ lives across the globe.”
Simmons says she aims to help people think about the ways in which racism and sexism are felt in individual bodies. She doesn’t just want to focus on understanding the systems, but on understanding the people and their experiences. Her mission was to help people understand the effects of racism and sexism on individual lives.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, Simmons explains why it’s so important to focus on the individual histories of women and children and their contributions.
“I think for me, what’s important about Women’s History Month is just realizing that women and children have histories and they’re part of history, all histories, and not just a kind of special category of history.”