Why you should care
Black women use hard work, not supernatural powers, to combat racism, sexism and poverty.
Coined by Cashawn Thompson in 2013, “Black girls are magic” has been used as a unifying celebration of Black women. Shortened to “Black Girl Magic” or “#blackgirlmagic,” the phrase connotes a love and celebration for the unique experiences of Black women. As a rallying cry, it celebrates the lived experiences of Black women as magical because of the ways they face a multiplicity of oppression, such as racism and misogyny. Over the past five years, the term has gained traction in social media circles; like “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” #blackgirlmagic challenges cultural and political views that minimize Black women’s labor, beauty and talent.
Despite the term’s broad usage, critics argue that it reinforces stereotypes of Black women, with “magic” implying they’re somehow superhuman. Linda Chavers, for example, said Black women being described as magical disregards the oppression and hard work required of Black women in a world that constantly shows them hatred — not to mention the violent experiences of queer and trans Black women within Black communities.
In the realm of politics, Black women were praised following the 2017 special election of Doug Jones (D-Ala.), when 98 percent turned out and voted. Black women voters are consistently celebrated for their high levels of turnout for Democratic candidates like Jones. However, there has been an 11 percent drop in Black women’s support of the Democratic party between 2016 and 2017. “Power of the Sister Vote,” a 2017 poll conducted by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence magazine, found that Black women more than ever believe that neither political party supports them. The 2016 presidential election witnessed a decline of Black voter turnout for the first time in 20 years — and a 6 percent drop in Black women voters’ turnout compared to 2012.
[The term] also obscures the lived realities that Black women face by seeking to believe that we have mystical supernatural powers to combat racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, poverty and xenophobia.
Voting statistics aside, the number of Black women in leadership positions is growing. For example, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate; Ilhan Omar was elected to the Minnesota legislature (the first Somali-American female to hold this distinction); and Stacey Abrams won a historical primary this year to become the first-ever Black, female, major-party nominee for Georgia’s governorship. Black women were elected as mayors in two of the 100 most populous cities (Catherine Pugh in Baltimore and Sharon Weston Broome in Baton Rouge). Black women now make up 3.7 percent of all state legislators.
These electoral gains happened at a point in time when Black women were making, on average, $34,000 a year, compared to $53,000 for White men. Black women make up 25 percent of the poor, compared to 10 percent of White women and 18 percent of Black men. Levels of inequality are paramount, and Black women often face significant challenges in securing political representation and advocates who will champion their concerns. These disparities reflect that Black women are not “magical negroes” saving America from itself. Instead, Black women are highly politically involved and are often fighting in the trenches alone.
Remember, it was Tarana Burke who started the #MeToo movement 10 years before White feminists discussed it, and Anita Hill first exposed the sexual misconduct of powerful political men in the early 1990s. Remember it was Ida B. Wells who exposed the horrific lynching of Black people by White mobs in the South, and it was Black women marching for suffrage in 1913 (behind White women) who called for the full inclusion of all women. This is the puzzle of Black women’s existence in the U.S.: While performing “magic” at every turn, Black women are willfully ignored, underestimated and only acknowledged in transactional measures for their participation in American politics and culture.
As millennial Black women ourselves, we struggle to fully embrace the term Black Girl Magic. It is a placeholder for a celebration for Black womanhood, but using “girl” to talk about actresses Cicely Tyson or Viola Davis and Quevanzhane Wallis erases the distinct experiences of Black girls. Our society already pushes Black girls to grow up too soon. Therefore, we must be more particular in our language to help create the space where Black girls can experience the fullness of girlhood and Black women can flourish into adulthood unencumbered by childhood.
While Black Girl Magic is a powerful term that celebrates the beauty, resilience and triumphs of Black women, it also obscures the lived realities that Black women face by seeking to believe that we have mystical supernatural powers to combat racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, poverty and xenophobia.
Nadia Brown is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University; Aria Halliday is an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire. Read more about Black Girl Magic by the authors in “The Power of Black Girl Magic Anthems: Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, & ‘Feeling Myself’ as Political Empowerment” (Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society 2019).