Courtesy of the author.

Morgan Parker’s 'Magical Negro' and the Multiplicity of Blackness

“I was thinking about ‘Black Girl Magic,’ which is cool, but I’m also a real person, so I wanted to explore what is magical about us according to us.”

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Feb 21 2019, 3:43pm

Courtesy of the author.

“Every book feels like the hardest one that I’ve written,” Morgan Parker confesses.

On an unusually warm afternoon in February, the LA-based literary powerhouse is leaning against the back of a red vinyl booth in a sun-drenched Brooklyn café. It’s the publication day of her latest collection, Magical Negro, and despite a constant flood of congratulatory text messages, tweets, and DMs from friends, family, and fans, she sits with her iPhone face down against the table as if it were non-existent. “It feels like there’s naked pictures of me on the internet,” she says before pausing. “It’s weird.” She looks at the ceiling for a moment, then lets out a laugh. Her joy, much like her poetry, is contagious.

Magical Negro, published earlier this month by Tin House, is actually Parker’s third collection of poetry, following Other People’s Comforts Keep Me Up At Night and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. It continues a dialogue started by those predecessors—one about selfhood in the wake of a harsh history. Parker’s poetry seamlessly intertwines moments of intimate introspection, euphoria, desire, and sorrow with reflections on the psychological and spiritual legacy of Black America: the displacement caused by the transatlantic slave trade, the harm of racial discrimination, the systemic erasure of Black narratives, and the resilience of a people who—despite everything—continue to survive. And she does so unapologetically; as she grapples with the history of a culture and a people so often tethered to white supremacy’s narrow definitions of embodiment, her poetics defiantly buck against the violent heels of racism, colonialism, and respectability politics.

Magical Negro takes its title from the cinematic trope first identified and named by director Spike Lee, referring to the familiar Black stock character in movies who has one, sole narrative purpose: to aid the white protagonist with their mystical or extraordinary abilities. (Think Oda Mae in Ghost or John Coffey in The Green Mile.) Parker’s collection redefines the age-old archetype by imbuing it with new interpretations of magic in relationship to Blackness. “I’ve always thought of it as this straw man for white people,” Parker explains. “I was playing with that idea and that viewpoint, but also thinking about ‘Black Girl Magic,’ which is cool, but I’m also a real person, so I wanted to explore what is magical about us according to us.”

“I wanted folks to feel a kind of constant haunting, for them to grapple with our death in a real way, to know what it feels like when people think that you're magical but you could disappear at any moment."

That fetishization of Blackness extends to the publishing industry as well, where, amidst diversity and inclusion efforts and a heightened interest in Black literature, tokenizing commodification of Blackness and Black narratives is still rampant. For Parker, poetry became a way to subvert this exploitation and the harmful misconceptions it can create about the Black experience. “I was thinking about how we define ourselves for ourselves, of not being defined by the magic of appearing at just the right time to explain things to white people, but being defined by the magic of our history,” she says. “I wanted to think about myth-making and creating your own lineage.”

Parker’s version of that myth-making and self-definition involves embracing the multiplicity of Blackness both in terms of personhood and history. Throughout Magical Negro, she explores double-consciousness as a singular part of a whole, giving new meaning to what Zora Neale Hurston called “a fragment of the Great Soul” in her iconic essay from 1928. And with passion and protest, she positions herself at the center of her nation’s history, utilizing the voice of the poem to confront the fraught history of being Black in America: “I background my country. / My country sharp in my throat.” Using visceral imagery, historical allusions, and gripping metaphor to illustrate the nuances of lived Black experience and the interior of the Black psyche, she gradually reorients the reader, reminding them that tropes, stereotypes, and textbook histories are mere abstractions of more complex realities and personal truths.

Aside from situating herself within history, Parker also meditates on magic by situating herself within pop culture alongside Black artistic icons that, to her, feel magical. While paying poetic homage to figures like Diana Ross, Eartha Kitt, Nikki Giovanni, Charlie Parker, Angela Bassett, James Baldwin, and Sidney Poitier circa Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she also pays homage to herself, placing the ordinary everyday experience of being Black within that canon of Black artistry. “It’s one thing to talk about the performance of the Black body and public performance, but what are the performances that we do for ourselves in the day-to-day and amongst each other,” Parker explains as “My Girl” by The Temptations bleeds into Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” in the nearly empty café. “It’s about hiding and distancing oneself from really being known.”

That existential vulnerability permeates throughout Parker’s stanzas: the image of a single Black woman crying into a glass of rosé, a woman who talks to herself for her own pleasure, and a child who wonders where Harriet Tubman slept and how she kissed. The many selves that live in her poems aren’t just a meditation on being, but reminders of our mortality as well. Both death and life linger between each word, turning poems like, “If you are over staying woke” and “Ode to Fried Chicken’s Appearance on Scandal” into millennial memento mori infused with the spirit of 70s soul, the defiance of The Black Panther Party, and the glory of Black glamour.

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“I wanted folks to feel a kind of constant haunting, for them to grapple with our death in a real way, to know what it feels like when people think that you're magical but you could disappear at any moment,” Parker says. “And what does magic mean when we talk about how we inhabit, leave, and feel afraid inside of our bodies?”

An undeniable act of reclamation and redefinition, Magical Negro might make some readers uneasy—but that’s the point. “I want [us] to get a little bit more uncomfortable with how we’re used to not only talking about ourselves, but seeing ourselves talked about,” Parker admits. “I want more ways of saying and seeing and more honesty. I want less performativity in terms of how we dress up our feelings to fit a character. I want less fear.”

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