The Truth about Black Girl Magic

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Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

“No one loves a black girl, not even harself.” This statement by Delores, one of the main characters in my debut novel, HERE COMES THE SUN, resonated with listeners at the Kweli Literary Journal Reading Series last year, which was held in the New York Times building.  There was a hush in the room—the kind of weighted silence that braced with all the emotions, and reels of memories that gave way to a soul stirring guttural hum. The statement comes from Delores’s experience and understanding of the world, which she has instilled in her daughters. And by the reaction of the women of color in the audience at the Kweli Reading Series, it speaks truthfully to those who have felt this way.

However, there are some of us who have made it our personal mission to defy this notion of internalized hatred; to love ourselves more fiercely as an act of defiance. The growing popularity of the hashtag, “Black Girl Magic” is one such example.  It has been used to describe the likes of first lady, Michelle Obama; producer, writer and director, Shonda Rhimes; director, Ava DuVernay; actresses Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and Taraji P Henson; and the growing number of black women doing amazing things on the world’s stage. But Black Girl Magic is rooted in something bigger than a trending hashtag on social media. The use has nothing to do with invincibility per se, but a deep yearning to conjure up confidence and self-affirmation in a world that still deems black women as under-dogs—something we have internalized for centuries, dimming our shine; having gotten used to being in the background, unseen and unheard, yet functional nonetheless as helpers, cheerleaders, witty side-kicks, background singers in a chorus where we’re camouflaged as one monolithic body in the shadows. Some of us take to retail therapy, others take to food, and a significant amount of us take to religion to fill our empty self-worth. The argument of whether or not the term Black Girl Magic is appropriate, incontestably reveals the need for discussion in how we perceive ourselves as black women versus how the world perceives us.

Dr. Linda Chavers highlighted the disadvantage of the term “Black Girl Magic” in a recent Elle Magazine article, describing it as “constricting, rather than freeing”. Dr. Chavers drew a parallel to the “strong black woman” archetype, which has proven detrimental to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of women of color. Of course, having gotten my master’s in Public Health with a concentration in women’s health, I am fully aware of the research and totally agree with Dr. Chavers.   However, I also believe that black women, more so the younger generation, have evolved a term in order to control their reality—a reality that has negated black women or rendered them invisible for decades; a reality where black women could be arrested, thrown in prison and murdered without a fair investigation and trial; a reality where black girls could be wrestled to the ground inside a classroom or while in handcuffs at a pool party by grown men who were supposed to protect them, their cries of pain and innocence falling on deaf ears. In order to survive in a world that treats them as less than human, many black women yearn to find that thread of light within themselves—that secret power to cast this thread in gold so that it can be resilient to the razor’s cut.

Contrary to Dr. Chavar’s statement, Black Girl Magic does not imply that we are different than any other human being. Neither is it restrictive in the sense of deeming black women as sub-human. Black Girl Magic is a term coined to outwit negativity that has plagued us for generations; a necessity to confront the odds against us.  In her essay, Tongues of Fire, bell hooks, discusses the history of critical affirmation, the need for black women to “tell it like it is” to protect ourselves against “the critical white world”.  According to hooks, self-critiquing became important in the eyes of many black women, especially mothers who feared if they did not punish their children accordingly, then their children would be susceptible to abuse and more intense punishment or criticisms from white people.  hooks reasons that while most of our energies went into the protection of ourselves and our off-springs by using harsh criticisms that might enable us to grow a thick skin, we lost the ability to affirm ourselves and others that look like us.  Black Girl Magic has turned this history on its head, giving more black women the audacity to tell the world that we are brilliant, beautiful, talented, ambitious, and competent; that we matter.

Therefore, Black Girl Magic is a proof of power. It is crucial to the development of the identity of the younger generation of black women.  Many young girls learn their culture’s social definitions of race at the same time they learn what gender behaviors are appropriate for them.  Black girls gradually come to understand the meaning of intersectionality, though they cannot articulate this or may never articulate this until college years or beyond.  As they develop as individuals, they do so while observing themselves as reflected in the eyes of others.  They begin to understand how others see them.  The most popular experiment conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clarke proves this to be true when over half the black children sampled chose white dolls as nicer than black dolls. This phenomena resonated with me. Not only has it rung true to my experience growing up as a black girl in Jamaica—a place still infused by post-colonial hierarchies of class and shade—but in my stories.

The summer when I finished my novel, HERE COMES THE SUN, I did a final read through, realizing the similar thread in the novel.  One of the main characters, Thandi, bleaches her skin, thinking it will increase her worth in Jamaican society—a society that has long given prestige to the lighter citizens of the ruling class. Thandi’s narrative is a testament of how culture informs how we see ourselves. It’s no coincidence also that my main protagonists are women. I wanted visibility of working class black women in our culture.   Most feel invisible, pushed to the margins of society and silenced. While rape, incest, and violence against women remain prevalent in Jamaica, like any other country, the focus tend to be on other issues that exclude them. Issues such as homosexuality, for example, takes precedence over the victimization of young girls in our country by older men. In the book, Verdene is the most reviled among the River Bank community as a gay woman while a known rapist and pedophile walks around town freely.  The notion “No one loves a black girl, not even harself” rings true. Very little has been done in society as a whole to make black women feel like we are women; like we are deserving of rights and empathy.  It was Sojourner Truth’s lament in “Ain’t I a woman”.  We have been there for black men, but rarely does this loyalty gets reciprocated. It was a group of black women who came up with black lives matter after a series of publicized police brutality, which led to the killings of black men. But while the black lives matter movement picked up velocity, black women who have been victimized by rape or domestic violence continued to be overlooked.  Who advocates for them? Thankfully, the “Say Her Name” hashtag took effect after the news of Sandra Bland’s arrest.

It was no surprise that Dr. Linda Chavers’s argument against Black Girl Magic garnered criticism on social media. Black women all over the internet reamed the author, saying “If we don’t have [Black Girl Magic], then what do we have?” I thought about this rebuttal some more and analyzed the very meaning behind it: What do we have if we don’t have the ability to believe in our own magic? As simple as this question seems, it transcends history, generations. For years we have struggled and have somehow managed, in our own way, to exist.  Surely, our mental health has come into question given that it is impossible to exude strength at all times. The strong black woman archetype is definitely a myth.  Like any other human being, we need help. We need to be cared for, listened to, affirmed. And since society has not yet embraced us as women much less as human beings, we embrace ourselves and call it magic.  For it takes a sort of supernatural power—a potent witch’s brew—to love ourselves when the whole world tells us otherwise.

Nicole Dennis-Benn

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Excellence and the Bastard Child who calls herself a Writer

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(Art by Andrea Chung)

Only the fittest will survive. This Darwinian statement was the only thing I remembered from high school biology class, which was held in a room that had fetuses of different developmental stage—(“unwanted bastard children”, one friend jokingly called them)—floating in large jars of vinegar inside glass shelves in the back of the classroom. I remember looking at those jars—at the refracted light, the dust motes dancing in the sun rays coming in from the glass windows of the old Victorian building, the grainy reflection of myself, barely eleven years old—and thinking I would never make it. Not here.  In this jar. Not in Jamaica.

I knew instinctively that if I were to graduate and live in my country, I would wither faster than the rose bushes choked by the vines of Running Mary’s outside my classroom.  Back then I had developed anxiety that condensed in sweaty palms that I often rubbed in the front part of my uniform skirt. It probably looked like I was continuously pressing my pleats as if the iron and starch hadn’t done their share of the work. It was especially embarrassing in dance classes where the teacher—a woman who use to beat us with a wooden stick if we lacked coordination—would attempt to adjust my flexed or pointed toes and find them moist; or when I would slip on the polished floors because my feet produced its very own puddle.  I also had knots in my stomach every morning that teas and crackers made worse; and took lots of deep breaths, for I would always feel like I was drowning. These spells were like vapors, appearing then disappearing, though often.

I would come to find out that such anxiety was a part of being raised in a British common-wealth country.  The rules, the regulations, the staunch expectation of propriety, respectability, excellence.  You were made to feel like you were competing for something; made to feel like you would never be good enough. I was beaten by teachers at my primary school who thought eighty-five percent wasn’t good enough on a test; beaten whenever I was late; beaten if I wore the wrong earrings; beaten if I misspelled a word; beaten if I got an equation wrong (hence my lifelong hatred for Math); beaten if I dared let our dialect—Jamaican Patois—slip from my mouth; beaten if I had my hair braided—a style deemed too African for the British ideal.  One time I was exempted from beatings for a whole month because my father visited from America and slipped my teacher a hundred US dollars.

Sometimes I thought primary school children were just beaten for the black of our skin, for our working class status, and for our broad features that some of us had come to hate, wishing they were straight and fine and light like that of the invisible people in Britain dictating to us how to wear our hair and our uniforms with not a rumple in sight; and even how to stand and walk—as erect as the Buckingham Palace guards. The headmistress of my primary school, a Chinese woman by the name of Sister Shirley Chung, made us stand in the sun for hours after devotion as a form of punishment. To her, we were a group of rowdy black children deserving of such torture. In high school I had begun to imagine—after viewing an award ceremony at Jamaica House where a government official was getting knighted by the Queen—that Jamaicans were like the Queen’s horses, gritting our teeth, jumping over hurdles, and galloping over hills and across valleys, trampling each other for her approval—that British Honor of distinction and excellence.

Excellence was a word I’d come to hate, though innately I strove for it, subjecting my mind and body to torture reminiscent of the beatings I used to get.  There were times, for example, when I refused to eat until assignments were complete; times when I ripped out pages or deleted works that hadn’t gotten approval from others.  Deep inside, the ten year old girl was holding on to the fear of not being good enough; the fear of being lashed, if not with a switch, then with failure. In high school I was never awarded any certificates of excellence—an award given to exceptional students at my high school every November. I wasn’t tapped to be a part of School Challenge Quiz or things like that, which was the pride and joy of Jamaican children bent on being the perfect examples the elders wanted them to be. Pressured them to be.  I was an average student who never really sought leadership roles. The thought of Head Girl for the whole school was too reminiscent of Uncle Toms on a plantation. I just wanted to get by and get out.

The one thing I had going for me was my writing. I wrote for comfort. The words flowed as easily as my breathing that eventually slowed the calmer I became. I wrote in exercise books and hid them. There was something liberating in dictating the direction of a story, the fate of a character. I felt like God—though not the judgmental and prejudiced god from my understanding back then, based on the acts committed by people like Sister Shirley or my dance teacher who abused us in his name.  I was more inclined to mercy, because mercy was what I wanted, needed for myself. I didn’t know this then, but when I read my journals that my mother now keeps on her bookshelves as though they are published novels, I see them for what they were—elaborate fantasies of salvation.

Unlike most writers, English was not my favorite subject.  Not while living in Jamaica. In a country where true excellence is evaluated with practical subjects like Math and Science, English, like Art, was a guilty pleasure if taken seriously. It’s only use was to learn the tools to speak and write well—especially the latter since Jamaicans are expected to be ambassadors of our country wherever we go. God forbid we open our mouths elsewhere and Jamaican Patois spew out like vomit. For that reason, patois has always been forbidden in schools. However, since language is a huge part of culture, such regulation limits the speaker.  Moreover, I was never assigned books by Jamaican authors. To this day I cannot tell you who the influential Jamaican writers were at that time. I was reading Shakespeare, some of which I can still recite in my sleep, and dissecting themes in novels such as SHANE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, CATCHER IN THE RYE, and a random book about a swamp and a lighthouse.  It was no surprise then that my characters were all white with no hint of our dialect when I first started writing stories. When I did attempt to write something true to my experience in a personal statement for my college application, I was told by my English teacher who also doubled as a college advisor that my writing would not get me anywhere.  “It won’t get you through the door. Write something more relevant.” She said, handing me back my essay with red ink all over it, and slamming that proverbial door in my face.  Of all the times I had been beaten in primary school for the sake of improvement so that I could be an exemplary citizen and student, I never cried. Not until that day when the one thing I found solace in was wrenched out of my hands and mangled with red ink.

I put down my pen and focused on the sciences. I wanted to defy those who never thought excellence could come out of the working class by getting into a good university. “But neither of your parents went to college,” I was told by the man in charge of helping Jamaican students apply for colleges overseas. “Your parents’ education determine where you’ll end up. And Cornell?” He laughed. “That’s not for you.”

I was as alone and lost as those floating fetuses—the unwanted bastard children—inside the jars in the biology lab. My mother had a habit of encouraging me to watch Profile with Ian Boyne and by pasting newspaper clippings around the house of successful doctors, business people, engineers, and lawyers who had gone off to England to study, returning to Jamaica as successful professionals—the epitome of excellence. I felt pressured to make my family proud. I never told them about the beatings in primary school or that I was discouraged to apply to the college I wanted to get into because of them. That year I pushed hard academically but was still not awarded a certificate of excellence.  It wasn’t the work itself that was hard, it was the competitive, classist environment that was stifling.

The lure of America began with a chill. I had gotten so overwhelmed that I took sick. It was then that I learned that there’s such a thing as psychosomatic illness.  My mother, desperate for answers, called my father and asked if he could do something.  And he did. I moved to America to live with him.  I could finally breathe properly, no longer having to take deep breaths to submerge myself under immense pressure. I was given time to acclimate to my new environment, before applying to the one school I wanted to get into. I submitted the same essay I was told wouldn’t get me through the door and was accepted early.  Someone must have liked it.  Furthermore, someone must have not cared that my parents didn’t go to college.  I encountered more acceptance of my work there than when I was back home. Ironically, Cornell University is known for its competitiveness and suicides due to the high standards set in place for its students; and yet, it was there that I thrived—on that hill surrounded by gray clouds with no sun.

One may argue that being a student in Jamaica with its demand for excellence and high standards had prepared me for my new environment; but I ended up losing a lot by erasing the bad memories. Grace Jones said it best in her memoir when she wrote, “Once I left Jamaica I had to wash all [the bad memories] away, brainwashing myself in a way…that viciousness took Jamaica away with it.”  I lived in exile for a while—a coping mechanism. It took many years to rid myself of the insecurities I developed being raised in a country that made me feel unwelcome, undervalued. When I finally came into myself as a writer, I found freedom in expressing myself.  My priorities finally shifted. No longer did I pledge allegiance to my country, but to the stories that I was called to write.  The sad part is I had to leave Jamaica to be reborn.

Nicole Dennis-Benn