There’s this Elle.com piece, “I Have a Problem With #BlackGirlMagic,” running up and down my Facebook timeline, working nerves and manipulating busy Black women into writing 600-word posts about something they resent having to discuss.
The thesis of this piece by a Black writer named Linda Chavers is that the expression and hashtag “Black girl magic” doesn’t “smell right” because it robs us of the vulnerability and humanity we are so often denied. The subhead, which Chavers may or may not have written, sums it up: ”Black girls aren’t magic. We’re human.”
Although that’s quite a succinct line, Chavers’ first problem with the expression (and an Essence magazine coverline and docu-series) is more complex. A heartbreaking excerpt:
As someone who has lived with the chronic, incurable illness MS for almost ten years, I know that illness and disability can make the person who has it feel like a failure. No matter what doctors, friends and family members say–no matter what the scientific establishment says, she can carry around a sense that she did something wrong. She might think that if she’d just done something different, something better, something magical, then maybe things would not be as they are. […]
I’ve made sure to feel grateful for lightness and laughter. But one attitude I’ll never take on is the idea that I can be a “magical black woman.” That somewhere within me is some black girl magic. Because there isn’t. Everything inside and outside of me is flesh and bone and a nervous system (with bad signaling). Nothing magical.
Chavers’ second point is where I exit. Black girl magic,” she declares, is just a sneaky new way of reinforcing the odious Strong Black Woman trope. Read:
When I see [“Black girl magic”] I smile and feel warm inside because I will always find delight in the sight of happy black girls and women. But then I pause, and my smile gets a little stale. It freezes in that way you notice in photos, when you can tell everyone’s pleased but getting a little bit tired of feigning enthusiasm. My face hardens and I start to feel plastic, and it’s because I’m thinking to myself: “I’ve heard this one before.”
And, reader, so have you.
The “strong, black woman” archetype, which also includes the mourning black woman who suffers in silence, is the idea that we can survive it all, that we can withstand it. That we are, in fact, superhuman. Black girl magic sounds to me like just another way of saying the same thing, and it is smothering and stunting. It is, above all, constricting rather than freeing.
To be honest, I get annoyed with the term. I like the spirit of it—it’s sweet and substantial like Margaret Walker’s “For My People.“ But I’ve seen too many of my sisters slapping #Blackgirlmagic on things that are decidedly non-magical, like the seven-ingredient omelette and radish garnish they made, those three pencil lines their toddler made on some scrap paper, and their ability to find a good parking space near the movies.
But even though I think some of us are overusing “Black girl magic,” I strongly disagree with Chavers’ literal interpretation of it.”Black girl magic” isn’t some Johnetta Henry bag of bricks we’re dragging around the Internet. It’s fun, efficient and intimate.
“Black girl magic,” when used properly, is a way for Black women to celebrate the special sauce we put on just about anything. It’s our way of loving each other up while we’re going about the business of staying sane, creative, fly and faithful. It’s a salve for the thousands of puncture wounds that sloppy, resentful and racist police keep making in our collective skin. It’s our way of comforting one another when we lose a job, a partner, a child.
Black girl magic is also convenient shorthand for the following common statements:
“No, you can’t send us back now that you can’t make us work for free.”“No, you can’t shame us with stupid memes that accuse us of tricking Black men with shiny weaves and heavy contouring along our noses.” ”No, you will not out-boss, out-joke, out-shade, out-petty, out-pray or out-love us. Plus, Serena Williams, so there.”
Also, an essential part of “Black girl magic” is “girl.” The expression reconnects (or connects) us to the babygirls many of us are not allowed to be because some sick individual is sexualizing us and then blaming us for ”acting grown.” That girl can come out and play, talk s**t without penalty, and relish in all of the clever, subversive and ingenious stuff we create to protect ourselves against a society that tells us again and again that we are not wanted.
That Elle.com—a site predominantly for White women—would run a takedown of “Black girl magic” is why Black women won’t stop saying “Black girl magic.” This expression is not about us being saddled with martyrdom. It’s us making our own light and love. You can’t tell me that’s not magic.