Black Girl Magic, Interrupted

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Black women deserve to feel magical.

Because we are. We’re beautiful, intelligent, resilient, and boundless. We’re also no strangers to hatred— for centuries, the world has been built around anti-Blackness, which befalls Black women in unique ways because of patriarchal oppression. The resistance to this intersectional subjugation has resulted in cultural moments like the Black Girl Magic movement; coined by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, the slogan is a way to celebrate the power and beauty that Black women possess. In 2016 the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic took the world by storm, becoming the focus of entire issues of magazines like Essence or Teen Vogue and ending up on t-shirts, mugs, and all kinds of merchandise. #BlackGirlMagic is a reminder of the things that make Black women special. 

But with time, all cultural phenomena must be re-evaluated. Just like the word “woke” was popping in 2016 and has faded away as the years passed and our political analysis has matured, revisiting #BlackGirlMagic doesn’t mean questioning whether or not Black women are magical—that will never change. But does the hashtag force us to celebrate all Black women despite the ways they may participate in harmful systems? Are Black women allowed to critique each other without being accused of betraying the #BlackGirlMagic movement? 

When we say #BlackGirlMagic, which black girls are part of the conversation and which ones get left behind? 

These are questions that don’t get answered often because of the suggestion that even asking them is divisive. But pointing out our differences and varying experiences doesn’t divide us; ignoring these differences for the sake of perceived unity pushes us further apart. 

Here’s an example: In 2020, Kamala Harris historically became the first Black woman elected to be vice president of the United States. This is an accomplishment that many Black women fought for and are proud of. Given the events of the past four years, it is understandable that Black people would want to get rid of the Trump administration. However, we also know that the material conditions of Black people in the U.S. do not change just because a Democrat is in the White House, because racism is systemic. No sitting president can do their job without contributing to this system, because their job relies on white supremacy and capitalism. 

So how do we come to terms with congratulating a Black woman for her accomplishment and maintaining our resistance? On the day that Joe Biden was (finally) declared the winner of the election and the 46th president, there were screams of joy and celebratory parades in major cities. Black people who expressed their disdain were told to “let people enjoy things.” And, of course, there is nothing wrong with being happy that Donald Trump will be out of office. His loss is certainly cause for celebration. 

But when some Black folks ask us to be intentional about not celebrating the win of Kamala Harris given her history as a prosecutor and her new position, are they insulting #BlackGirlMagic? The problem with “let people enjoy things” is that it glosses over the fact that some things simply shouldn’t be enjoyed. Black joy is sacred, but we should be specific about who or what we’re enjoying and why. 

Another instance from this year is when rapper and book club founder Noname critiqued Beyonce’s Black is King film for its capitalist perspective of African culture. Whether or not you agree with Noname isn’t the issue, but the way she was attacked for days by Beyonce stans and regular Twitter users alike was unwarranted and problematic. It was clear from her effort to make detailed explanations of her point both when she first said it and after the backlash that Noname’s comments were in good faith and grounded in valid theoretical concepts rather than baseless contempt.

So why was she harassed and accused of attacking a fellow Black woman? Does the act of Black women critiquing each other equate to them reducing each other’s black girl magic? Systems like capitalism are harmful toward Black women’s wellbeing. So if we can’t respectfully critique Black women who play into the hands of these systems, where does that leave us? It shouldn’t be about calling people out, but rather the right to call them in, with care. 

The Combahee River Collective states that “Black women are inherently valuable, that [Black women’s] liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because our need as human persons for autonomy.” If we prioritize perceived joy over our own liberation, we have lost our autonomy. 

This also leads to the question of how liberation is achieved. None of us can be liberated until Black trans women and our gender non-conforming family are liberated. None of us can be liberated until dark-skinned Black women are liberated. None of us can be liberated until fat Black women are liberated. Calling out the way that colorism, transphobia and fatphobia permeate our communities is not divisive, and we will in fact remain divided until these forms of oppression are eradicated. How many times have you seen a conversation on the internet where a Black woman was called a “hater” for questioning why a light-skinned, or cisgender, or slim-bodied (or all 3) Black woman was receiving a certain level of attention? 

It happened when Black women questioned why there weren’t plus sizes in Beyonce’s Ivy Park line. It happens every time Black trans women demand that conversations around the protection of Black women include and prioritize their experiences. It happens when dark-skinned Black women question the overrepresentation of light-skinned women in media, politics, etc. Every time valid conversations about the varying degrees of privilege that some Black women experience are started, the ones who don’t benefit from said privileges are often called jealous, bitter, or simply not supportive. 

The truth is, if Black girls are magic, all Black girls have to be magic. Fat black girls, dark-skinned Black girls, trans Black girls, black girls with disabilities, poor black girls, “hood” black girls, the list goes on. The desire to uplift Black women is earnest and valid, but we can’t let this desire lead us into silencing the Black women who don’t fit neatly into the boxes of approval we’ve set out for them.

#BlackGirlMagic is a feminist statement. Black feminism is about liberation. Our liberation can be achieved only through breaking down systems of oppression, and asking the Black women who may benefit from some of these systems to confront and address their privilege shouldn’t be dismissed for the sake of maintaining joy.

 Rapper Mulatto even said that after receiving criticism, she is in the process of changing her stage name due to its colorist connotations. This came after months of dialogue with Black people, mostly women, who informed her why the name is harmful. If they had ignored it and believed that the only important thing was to simply root for a Black girl experiencing success, nothing would have changed. 

We only grow when we push each other. In the end, “pushing” is really pulling inward—into our community, into our Black womanhood, into our love. 

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