The Magical Negro: The Magical Negro is a supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film’s white protagonists. These characters, who often possess special insight or mystical powers, have been a long tradition in American fiction.
Yesterday I was invited to be a guest at a local book club meeting. The ladies had selected my book Daughters of Swallows (the one you see in the toolbar over to the left) as their book of the month. They had nothing but praise and told me it was the first book they had universally liked. Of course I was thrilled – surprised, because these were all Southern white women – but thrilled nonetheless. I confessed that I was unsure how audiences outside of the African continent and diaspora would relate to it, or if they would relate to it at all. A woman named Allyssa* told me that she truly identified with Afosua, my main protagonist, and after a while she had forgotten that these were Ghanaian characters and that the setting was in Accra. This made me happy. If you’ve ever spent a day in African skin, all you really want is for the world to see you as a human being, and not some charity case or mythical creature from a far off land imbued with divine powers.
No, seriously. There are people who think all Asians can do Kung Fu and all Africans know how to work juju. Because of the portrayal of our race and continent in film, there have been times when even I thought I had Special Negro Powers accorded to me, simply by virtue of my skin. I’m a lot older and a little smarter now, so I know this is not true. Ohhh, but yesterday I desperately wished it was!
There is an enduring persona in American folklore and entertainment called the Magical Negro. Dave Chappelle spoofed this sorcerous being on his show in a skit called Migger, the Magical N*gger. This character usually materializes at the exact moment that the lead in a film or book needs their wit, encouragement or advice to set them on their destined course. It should be noted that ‘Negro Magic’ only works when the interaction is between him/her and a white protagonist. Negros are never magical towards one another. In American cinema, we only shoot each other.
Some of the most famous Magical Negros are Will Smith as Bagger Vance, Michael Clark Duncan as the dude in The Green Mile, Roc Dutton in Rudy, and Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan. The Magical Negro does not only manifest in human form, mind you. They often also take the form of jocular critters, such as Rafiki and Sebastian in The Lion King and The Little Mermaid respectively. These beloved characters are just as important as the lead in any story: They make our hero possible.
But what does any of this have to do with this book club meeting? Just hold your horses and I’ll tell you!
There are certain topics that I do not discuss (in depth) outside of my very closest and most private circles. These include – in no particular order – the following:
- Black people in the GOP
- Anything to do with gay anything
- Fraternities and sororities
These are hot button issues and usually cannot be discussed dispassionately or objectively in the public arena. Imagine my surprise therefore, when this group of women brought up three of these four items as topics of discussion! I didn’t know the group well, so I sat back and observed mostly, or asked for clarification only when I needed to get a sense of what they were really trying to say. By the time they got to sororities, a petite blonde named Bethany* was beet red and her nostrils were as tight as a local school board’s budget.
The other women were deriding sororities, calling them controlling institutions that demanded unrequited fealty from their members. Having gone to an HBCU, I know the hold that sororities and fraternities have on their members. There are AKA’s that would sooner shank you than allow you to speak with anything less than awe and respect about their organization.
I have always believed that this grip – this fierce, relentless devotion – to one’s fraternity or sorority was a Black thing. You don’t often see successful, middle aged white women decked in their sorority colors on a random Friday or with a sorority decal screwed to the back of their car. As one of the members pointed out “White people do sororities in college, Black people do it until the grave.” (This comment came from Erica, who was African American and had come to the meeting later on.)
Not so fast! Bethany had something to say about that.
“I have to say I’m deeply offended by all the negative things that are being said about sororities here,” she said. Her vocal chords were straining for control.
Was she serious? Heck yes, she was.
She went on to point out that she was a member of Alpha Omicron Chi (or something), that she was a member of the Pan Hellenic council, that she also worked 40 hours a week and that her sorority made her the success she is today! The table was silent as she went on her tirade…well, except for Fran* who is approaching 69 and has allowed herself the right to say anything she pleases, however she pleases. Fran was talking, but only adding more gasoline to the fire.
This was it. This was my moment! As one of the two Black women at the table, it was time to come to Bethany’s aid and say something Negroid and Magical! I looked at Erica who was silently observing the entire scene behind her wide-rimmed sunglasses and Falcon’s pageboy cap. She was having no part in this. As the uncomfortable silence continued to weigh heavily on our table, I twisted my brow and pinched my lips, attempting to force an enchantment from my loins. What would Guinan say in this case??
I had nothing.
Bethany looked stricken. There was no Magical Negro to come to her rescue that day. I felt like a failure. I did the next best thing and signed her book with a note telling her that I thought she was an exemplary human being and gave her a big, bosomy GG-cup sized hug and sent her home to her lakeside home that was being remodeled, still feeling guilty.
Ah, ah. How did this become my burden??? Darn you, Black Magic. Darn you Hollywood!