Character conflict in What`s it like to be a black Girl” by Patricia Smith Unit

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Characterconflict in What`s it like to be a black Girl” by Patricia Smith


Summary of text

The poem “What`sit like to be a black Girl” by Patricia Smith tells the story of ayoung black girl born into a period of racial disintegration. Thepoem, which was published in 1991, explores the author life herexperiences as a young girl up into womanhood. It also addresses theracial and ethnic conflict that formed the environment that she wasborn and raised. The fact that she felt the need to write this poemand title it as she did means that she felt, or at least believed,that the issue racial conflict and girl child experiences needed tobe brought into the light. For many years, the US lived as asegregated society where black people were not allowed to interactwith the whites under the Jim Crow rules. While these laws wereabolished in 1964 after numerous protests led by the civil rightsmovement, the American society is yet to fully integrate. Racialtensions continued to exist even into the 21st century.Given that the poem was published in 1991 when the author was 36years old, it would be expected that she experienced the racialtension and conflict that existed during her early years. Thus, thepoem can be said to narrate her experiences of being a young blacktransition into womanhood through a third person.

  1. How is the character alienated from community and howdoes she/he respond to it?

The character in the poem is alienated from society by the mere lackof understanding of her growth process. She says that “First ofall, it’s being 9 years old and feeling like you’re not finished”(Smith, 1991). By this, the author refers to the fact that she isstill growing and there is no one to explain the growth process.Ordinarily, at the age of nine years, her body would be ready to moveinto the puberty stage which is characterized by major biological,psychological and physical changes. The development process made herfeel like she was not a woman already. This may have beenprecipitated by words from older persons in her community whoinformed her that she was yet to grow into mature woman.

From a biological point of view, a young girl undergoing puberty mayexperience some changes in her body that she may not understand onher own. The failure to have someone explain these changes made herfeel alienated. She highlights some of these changes when shesymbolically refers to her menstruation by saying “it’s smellingblood in your breakfast.” Again, the black feels unaccepted bysociety as a black girl with different skin color and hair texture.In fact, she felt “like there’s something, everything, wrong.”She thus made attempts to correct these wrongs in her by primpingherself by “dropping food coloring in your eyes to make them blueand suffering their burn in silence. It’s popping a bleached whitemophead over the kinks of your hair” (Smith, 1991). Thus the blackis largely alienated on two fronts: her unexplained bodily changes inline with development and the unexplained difference in terms of herlooks which is different from the accepted blue-eyed blonde look ofthe whites.

  1. What does that character’s alienation say about the surrounding society’s assumptions, morality and values?

This alienation clearly indicates that black girls were alienated bysociety. The society did not take time to educate the girls abouttheir sexuality and development. Ideally, the girl would not havefelt incomplete as a woman just because she had not reached the ageof puberty. The poem thus creates an impression that young whitegirls her age understood better the bodily changes that came withdevelopment and especially at puberty (Clugston, 2010). This argumentis primarily based on the title of the piece as “What It`s Like toBe a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren`t)” (Smith, 1991). Fromthis title, the author seeks to explain not what just girls gothrough but rather what young black girls go through. This means thatthe conflict with the race, color, and other issues that she facedwhile growing up was common to all young black girls. Thus thesociety did not take is as a moral obligation to explain growth anddevelopment to young girls. Again, the society comes out as raciallysegregated where differences were not appreciated. The character inthe pome had not been brought up to appreciate herself and her worthas black persons. Instead, the society had funneled her thoughtstowards hating her race generally and in particular her skin and eyecolor as well as her hair texture and color. She considered herselfas less beautiful something that she definitely learned from asociety that shored preference for the blue eye white blondes.

  1. In what way(s) do literary elements reflect how that society defines race, gender, classand/or ethnicity?

To drive the message home, the poem employs several literallyelements. To start with, the author employs symbolism to refer tocertain things. For instance, she writes that “it’s smellingblood in your breakfast.” Euphemism is employed when the authortalks of one discovery about her body which she considers to beoffensive. The author uses the statement “it’s finding a spacebetween your legs” to refer to the character’s discovery of herfemale genitalia (Smith, 1991). To the author, the term vagina mayhave appeared as offensive. Another example of symbolism is seen inthe phrase “it’s jumping double dutch until your legs pop, it’ssweat and vaseline and bullets” (Smith, 1991). By employing thisphrase the author intends to symbolically imply that black women haveto work extra hard in order to make in the world. The juxtapositionof the terms “bullets” and “Vaseline” which are also usedmetaphorically are used to achieve the hard truths that black womenhave to live with. On one hand, they are expected to be feminine andsoft just like Vaseline while at the same time they are expected tobe tough and effective just like bullets (Rollins, 2010).

However, the author does not care using offensive language when sheemploys an antithesis as literary element in the phrase “fuck withgrace but learning to fuck without it” (Smith, 1991). Here, theauthor achieves the contrast and opposite qualities of the term fuck.Again, the use of the offensive term “fuck”, the author gives ahint of the overt sexuality and immorality that was associated withthe black people especially during the Jim Crow rules where blackswere perceived to have a very high sexual drive and enlarged sexualorgans compared to other races (Rollins, 2010).

  1. How does this create conflict for the character?

The issue of being black and a female at the same time creates a lotof conflict for the characters. The author implies that being blackwas hard enough for anyone growing up in America. A black person hadto deal with racial stereotyping and the perception of being inferiorto whites and other races (Course hero 2014). It was even harder fora black woman who not only had to deal with the issues of race butalso the issue of dealing with a male-dominated world. She refers tothe case of not knowing how to deal with the whistles from men whichclearly points to sexual harassment (Clugston, 2010). Thus, thewoman was in conflict with a society that clearly perceived blackwomen as inferior to whites in terms of beauty and looks. While sheindividually sought to achieve through primping, she was constantlymade to feel even more inferior as she was made to feel “likeyou’re not finished, like your edges are wild, like there’ssomething, everything, wrong” (Smith, 1991).

The brief analysis above has demonstrated the issue of characterconflict. The character in the poem was made to believe that she wasless beautiful and less capable compared to her white compatriots.She was also made to work even harder just to be accepted. Again, thecharacter was in conflict with unexplained female body changes anddiscovery. At the same time, the character was in conflict withfemale sexualization and harassment in a male dominated society.


Clugston, R.W.(2010). Journey into Literature. Retrieved from

Course hero (2014). I am not European. Europe lives in me, but i have no. Retrieved from

Rollins, B. (2010).Literary devices. New York: Classroom Complete Press.

Smith, P. (1991).What`s it like to be a black Girl. Retrieved from,


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