The magical negro no more: On Black women and giving credit where credit’s due
Black Girl Magic isn’t just a phrase—it’s a movement inspired by the hundreds of thousands of black women who are at the very top of their professions, notably the most impactful social influencers, and the most educated group of people on the planet.
It goes without saying that black women are making shit happen. Yet, Black women are 243 times more likely to die from complications of childbirth than our white counterparts; have less access to health and reproductive care; have less access to wealth; etc. Black women even had to start our own hashtag, #SayHerName, because people knew about the police brutality plaguing black men, but no one knew the names of Renisha McBribe, Tyisha Miller, Rekia Boyd or Ayanna Stanley Jones. And no one talks about the accelerated number of black women now incarcerated in U.S. prisons. As Malcolm X bluntly put it: Black women are the “most disrespected,” “most unprotected” and “most neglected person in America.”
The paradox of being a black woman in America is unnerving. We have the greatest social influence and impact on pop culture, are the most educated group, give more money to charitable causes than our white peers, start and lead revolutionary civil and political movements, but we never get the credit for it.
Take for instance the conversation on sexual harassment and the #TimesUp and #MeToo movement. Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano, and others helped get a renewed conversation on sexual assault and harassment going, but what about Tarana Burke who started the #MeToo movement in 2007 and wasn’t even featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for the silence breakers? Or better yet, why didn’t the conversation start every time Gabrielle Union talked about the rape committed against her at gunpoint when she was 19? Where were the conversations about Anita Hill and her bravery to expose predatory men on Capitol Hill and sit before a Senate confirmation panel and tell the world about now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Or how about the Maya Angelous, Alice Walkers, Toni Morrisons, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovannis, and Assata Shakurs? Hell, what about Recy Thomas and Sojourner Truth? Or all of the unknown black women who fight for justice everyday?
When a woman in the closed Pantsuit Nation group suggested that women across the U.S. take to the streets to protest the Trump Administration, they originally co-opted two names for the march that were led by black people —the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963 and the Million Woman March of 1997. Later the leaders of the march were accused of lacking diversity (rightfully so), and brought on the brilliant Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, but to claim that solved the intersectional issues we face would be a lie. I spoke at the Women’s Rally in Miami where over 20,000 people attended in the amphitheater and on the streets of downtown Miami and I was exhilarated to see what we could do. Flash forward to September 2017 where only a couple of hundred showed up for the March for Black Women in Miami and it’s not easy to rectify the fact that thousands showed up only months before, and mere hundreds later for the same “groups” people claimed to fight for.
We know, according to a report by Nielsen released in 2017, that black women “are the most independently-minded demographic with the greatest influence on consumer-driven power in the nation.” Totaling 24.3 million in the U.S., our consumer preferences will create a total Black spending power toward a record $1.5 trillion by 2021. “African-American mainstream influence cuts across virtually every walk of life and many Black females are making an impact,” the report states.
It goes without saying that not only are our consumer preferences a top influencer, but our values are top of mind for marketers, agencies, and corporations because of our level of impact on society and culture. The better question is: are black women profiting from, have higher access to resources, and given credit for the fact that it’s super popular to be “black” without the sexism, racism, and gender marginalization that comes with it?
The answer is no.
Like Julia Craven wrote in her essay for HuffPost, “In Hollywood, as in politics, the Magical Negro is a virtuous black character who serves to better the lives of white people via seemingly supernatural means and asks nothing for herself. She is frequently praised for what she has done for white folks, praised for her saintly equanimity and selflessness, and too little acknowledged for all the things — the wiles, the grit, the grinding, thankless work — that went into securing the happy outcome.”
By being the magical negro, black women can be virtually unseen and our work can be ignored and uncredited because of the “selfless” narrative that benefits white people.
More recently, people have begun to recognize that black women are a political force to reckon with, but we still don’t occupy the highest levels of government or power that we work hard to give to others. We helped to defeat Roy Moore and Ed Gillespie, but the work of the Black activists and organizers who took to the streets in Alabama and Virginia for GOTV efforts has been largely ignored and misrepresented in the media. This same erasure happened to the hundreds of undocumented black folks who have been pivotal to the fight for DACA and immigrants’ rights in the U.S.. The same for the Stonewall Riots, which was originally led and organized by Marsha Johnson for LGBTQ+ rights. The same for the feminist movement of the 1970’s and the lack of acknowledgement of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance and Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem in 1971.
There are so many stories like this. So many untold stories of black women activists who are working everyday to create a world that is not only influenced by us, but values, credits, and acknowledges our work and sacrifices, while providing space for us to be safe and opportunities for us to thrive.
Every day when an unknown black woman speaks up in a classroom or a meeting, or competes in a sport where she may be the only black athlete, or takes to the streets to demand racial and economic justice, or works on GOTV efforts, or lobbies for environmental safety for her community, she is doing all of us a favor. It’s time our society recognizes we’re not magical negros, or just a group of well-known celebrities, but millions of unknown black women who are working in our communities everyday to get shit done.