"Magical Negro" is a term popularized by director Spike Lee in 2001 to describe a Black stock character whose function is to help the white protagonist in a film realize or achieve something with their quasi- mystical powers of Blackness. Think Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. Jennifer Hudson in Sex and the City.
Los Angeles–based poet Morgan Parker titling her new potent book of poetry Magical Negro is hilarious, because this book doesn't cater to white selfhood or knowledge at all. Instead what we get is a portrait of 21st-century Black womanhood: our complexities, our sadness, our everydayness, our shared ancestral trauma and the violence done against us, our splendor, our humor. My body is an argument I did not start. That's the pitch of Parker's language. It's hard not to feel completely undressed by every poem.
Parker takes us into classrooms, African hair salons, her apartment, therapy sessions, and the interior of her mind, introducing us to her personal pantheon of Black celebrity icons, including but not limited to Lil Uzi Vert, Eartha Kitt, and Frederick Douglass. Only Judge Joe Brown can judge me, she writes.
Parker gives a name to experiences that I've personally felt but have never discussed or seen discussed in the public sphere before. Perhaps we fear complicating our Blackness in a way that's unsavory.
Take, for example, "Matt," a prose poem that's a cumulative portrait of every white boy who's been in or fallen out of the poet's life up to that point. This boy is recognizable: "I can't tell if he's into me because I'm black or because I'm not that black and either way I feel bad. I feel it in my stomach's basement: Matt can't want me. I'm not forever." When I tell you this hurt my feelings, know that I mean that I laughed and then I cried.
In "Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton," Parker's use of repetition and questions come at you like quick, hammering thoughts, to the rhythm of the bracelets on the wrists of the woman braiding your hair: "Does it hurt. Why did you come here. What do you want. Are you filming this. Do you live in this neighborhood. Do you feel comfortable. Can I ask is that a weave / Why do you feel comfortable." The strain of a pinched scalp is practically palpable.
The titles of Parker's poems often reference songs, images, and people who are prevalent in Black culture vernacular. Like that photo of Diana Ross eating a rib. Or Solange's seat at the table. Michael Brown's angelhood. The lineage of gap teeth that connects Black intellectuals. Zora's then Glenn's then Morgan's sharp white background.
Parker reads at Hugo House on April 4. If the world suddenly became a reflection- less place, this book of poetry is what I'd look into to see myself. The poet's vision of Blackness is resplendent, multivalent, complicated, heavy, ever-changing. And beautiful. True, too.