What Does It Mean To Be Magic?
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence.”
The words Black people use to make tangible and share in awe at, our collective experience, struggle, and resilience, are not often afforded the time needed to truly process their significance. Black power, Black is beautiful, Black boy joy, and Black girl magic—they’re glossed over like hollow slogans, superficial affirmations, or worse, something America can commercialize—but those few words encapsulate much more than their brevity suggests, and I often think about what it means to be magic.
It started as more of a personal inquiry, when I ended a relationship with a man I cared about rather abruptly after I realized that I couldn’t go on that emotional rollercoaster and be the advocate I’m supposed to be.
The bane of my existence is being constantly aware of the magnitude of systemic racism and oppression weighing down on Black people, and knowing I have no real power to change that. But I can talk. Everyone has their own tiny role they can play in a movement, and as Martin Lawrence put it in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, I have the gift of gab. I figure, if I was going to spend my life running my mouth anyway, the least I can do is run it in service of the liberation of Black people and hope that one day something I say might reach the minds of someone with power to do something. It's not the most significant thing one can do but it’s all I can do so I’m going to do it as much as humanly possible. Otherwise, I couldn’t live with myself.
So, when one morning, I sat down to get ready to talk about Rikers on the news after having a conversation with my partner that illuminated the relationship would become rocky, and I felt the sadness wash over me and the intrusive thought to cancel my appearance creep in, I thought to myself: this is how it starts. I fall down a rabbit hole of sadness for this man so I can’t do the work, and someone stays in jail because I’m in my feelings. So, instead, I broke up with him and did the news.
I texted my friends that I was devastated and would need a while to wallow and do nothing, and I must’ve forgotten those were my charging orders moments after hitting send on the texts because I remember how annoyed I was with myself when I realized that despite how convinced I was that I needed (deserved) to fall apart and be in my feelings, I was so incapable of doing so when I have work to do, that I hadn’t even noticed myself continue business as usual. That’s when I found myself feeling for Black girl magic what I feel for the strong Black woman, so I started interrogating why I felt that way.
It wasn’t because it wasn’t true. The evidence of its truthfulness is so overwhelming even white liberal America often recognizes it in the only way it matters to them, by noting that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic party(even if they don’t appreciate it).
In fact, I thought, if magic is the word we use to describe things so unexplainable they seem supernatural, magic is the only word capable of describing the resilience and survival of not just Black women, but Black people as a whole. How else could a people survive slavery, colonialism, global anti-Blackness, medical apartheid, environmental racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, state-sanctioned violence, poverty. In a world intent on snuffing out our light, we find it in us not only to survive, but we choose to find joy. We laugh from the pits of our stomachs, we smile from ear to ear, we love deeply. That’s Black joy.
And then it really clicked. I was bothered by Black girl magic for the same reasons the strong Black woman bothers me—not because it’s not true—my ire was grounded in choice. So, I began to explore the question: is it still magic if we don’t have a choice?
Huey Newton defined Black power as our right to control our own destinies. A natural human right that America, and the world at large, refuses to actualize.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved tells the true story of Margaret Garner Ghana. In 1856, Margaret Garner Ghana managed to do what few could—she escaped slavery—but she wasn’t free. She escaped with her children and made it all the way to a free territory, but under The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave masters were free to hunt you, enter free territory, and with the mandated help of citizens of the free state, enslave you once more. After about a month in the free territory, the man who’d once enslaved her, appeared, poised to do it once more. The instant Margaret saw the man, she ran into the backyard to kill her children that she loved, because she could not bear them to live life as slaves, and if given the choice, she wouldn’t have her children endure slavery. She wounded two children, slit the throat of the third, and before she could kill the fourth, she was captured and imprisoned.
In 1989, James Baldwin decried “What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to? I was born here, almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’, and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
Baldwin’s question “how much time do you want for your progress?” is rhetorical because he knows that he, like his father, like his mother, like his uncle, like his brother, like his sister, like you and I, will give all the time that we have on this earth because we have no choice. James Baldwin was speaking to what Audre Lorde put simply, “there are no new pains.” There are no new pains because the predicament we find ourselves in as a people, has remained the same.
Think of the unimaginable strength and grief it must’ve taken for Emmett Till’s mother to bury her 14-year-old son in 1955…then think of Clifford Grover’s mom burying his 10-year-old body in 1973…then Trayvon Martin’s mom doing the same in 2012 with his 17-year-old body…then Tamir Rice’s mother doing the same for her 12-year-old son in 2014… then 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant’s grandmother doing the same in 2021, and it goes on and on and on and on.
Yet, we persist, because we must. And that certainly feels like magic to me.