Who is a black girl? What does “black” mean in a transnational context? How are the boundaries between black womanhood and black girlhood negotiated?

These were just a few of the questions that guided three days of discussion at Narrating Black Girls’ Lives, an Eisenberg Institute forum organized by Women’s and Gender Studies Professor LaKisha Simmons. Held from February 25 to 27, the symposium took an innovative approach to understanding black girls’ lived experiences, examining history, politics, literature, and the arts through a series of talks and workshops.

There was standing room only at the symposium’s inaugural keynote from Saidiya Hartman, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Hartman’s lecture, “A Serial Biography of the Wayward” drew from research conducted for her recently published book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which sold out at a reception following the talk.

The reception also served as an opening for Lane Hall’s current exhibit, she was here, once, created by Virginia artist Nastassja E. Swift. she was here, once visualizes a performance art piece Swift conducted last year in Richmond, which allowed eight women to travel along the Trail of Enslaved Africans and consider the contemporary significance of these historical sites.

“The project was birthed from me wanting to acknowledge my lack of knowledge of these historical spaces in Richmond that I was frequenting as a black female artist,” said Swift in an address at the reception.

Central to the project are large, wool masks that participants wore during the piece, and which now hang over the exhibit in Lane Hall.

“These masks became vessels or portals of stories and ancestry, and almost gave a face to some of the women we were mustering up with this performance,” said Swift. “I hope…it gave recognition to the women who have existed in those spaces before.”

The following day saw graduate students and faculty conduct roundtables on topics such as “Girlhood, Representation and Culture” and “Black Girls, State Violence and Political and Civic Participation.” Open to the public, the roundtables attracted participants from across the university eager to engage in an open dialogue about methods of and reasons for studying black girlhood.

The symposium concluded with a workshop designed for undergraduates, where Swift gave a tutorial in the wool method she used to create her masks. Students had the opportunity to make and bring home their own wool portraits.