It’s a sticky August morning and I’m just a few yards away from finishing up a grueling long run. My clothes are so drenched with sweat that I look and feel like I’ve hopped out of a pool fully clothed. Just as I’m coming to a stop, a van slows down next to me. Oh, here we go, I think, bracing myself for the inevitable vehicular variation of street harassment. Instead, a black woman wearing a red moving company T-shirt leans out of her little window and says, “Come on, black girl magic!”
Because I’m a Texan, I yell back, “Thank you! Y’all have a good day!”
That moment has branded itself in my memory because I’m deeply conflicted about it. Was she moved by my running clothes, my form, my natural hair? I’ll never know for sure, but sweating under that unforgiving sun, plagued by a host of different life stresses, something about “Come on, black girl magic!” felt dismissive of the objectively tough circumstances that had lead me to run in the first place.
#Blackgirlmagic — the hashtag and consequent movement — was created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 as a way to “celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women.” It’s been solidified in the modern lexicon ever since. When a stack of coveted September issues rolled out with notable black women like Beyoncé and Tiffany Haddish gracing their covers, publications like USA Today and Refinery29 called this collective accomplishment “black girl magic.” Simone Biles and her US gymnastics championships and Ashanti in her metallic panelled dress at the VMAs are #blackgirlmagic. Recently deceased Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, has been posthumously anointed the more senior version: Black Woman Magic.
The use of #BlackGirlMagic is often used in step with its close cousin, “black excellence.” One of my favorite podcasts, The Read, features a segment called “Black Excellence,” which highlights black people who’ve gone above and beyond, like Mikaila Ulmer, the girl who’s not yet old enough to see a PG-13 movie by herself but has a lemonade line sold on Whole Foods shelves across the country.
For a group of people that has been brutalized and robbed of respect for generations, I understand how impactful it is to see black women excel. But as a black woman who is trying her hardest to defy her own odds, the expectation of magic and excellence slowly suffocates. What about the black women, like myself, who don’t get a perfect GRE score but pay our bills on time, eat our vegetables, or say no to dysfunctional exes vying for attention they don’t deserve? These seemingly insignificant accomplishments are monumental when the frame zooms out to include the oppression black women face every day.
However unintentional, each extraordinary accomplishment tagged as #BlackGirlMagic makes my everyday accomplishments feel insignificant. At a time when our country is slowly beginning to have meaningful conversations about equality, I wonder if #BlackGirlMagic— and its echoes of tokenism— can inadvertently create a get-out-of-jail-free pass for a system built to maximize the amount of oppression black women must sustain just to survive in this society. Black women are already wrongfully believed to be superhumanly resilient, unaffected by disappointment or even physical pain, and #BlackGirlMagic could further perpetuate these myths. We’re also beginning to understand the impact of the “strong black woman” stereotype on our mental and physical health.
Believing that we’re strong is something that black women have had to internalize for survival, and I love the part of #BlackGirlMagic’s ethos that celebrates all of our accomplishments when the world isn’t willing to do so. But I worry the maturation of the hashtag has reduced that conversation in favor of one about snatched waists, championship titles, corner offices and other outward expressions of success. We’re infatuated with Serena Williams’s hair styles, fashion choices and championships, but we shy away from talking about her terrifying pregnancy and its timely implications since we know black women are more likely to die from childbirth complications in this country. The belief that black women can overcome anything and look good while doing so prevails unchallenged.
#BlackGirlMagic is the on ramp to the black woman savior complex highway. Our current political moment is demanding a lot of black women— it’s asking that we overcome all the obstacles this country has laid down in our paths so that we can save it from itself. We saw this very clearly in the U.S. Senate election in Alabama where black women prevented the state from electing a known child predator to office. We saw it when Oprah displayed her famous passion and charisma in an awards show speech and white liberal America practically begged her to toss her hat into the presidential race. We’re even seeing little remnants of the black women savior complex with Omarosa. Will Omarosa be the black savior to take down the president? We’re expected to save the country, but we can’t emote anything besides happiness for fear of being labeled “angry black women” in the process.
Magic is great, excellence is aspirational, but what if being appreciated as fully formed humans is all I really want? Black women have so many labels affixed to their lapels. We can’t disagree with the direction of an initiative at work without appearing angry. People would believe we were advertising our sexuality if we wore a paper bag, let alone anything form-fitting. And anything above a whisper warrants a call to the police. What if the ultimate counter-label to all the racist stereotypes wasn’t surrealism, but realism? What if we weren’t magical, but simply human?
That muggy morning when I was finishing my run, I didn’t want to be magical or excellent. I needed to talk to someone about the crushing anxieties I was literally trying to outrun. Perhaps the ultimate celebration of black women is taking back the freedom to be humans with physical, mental and emotional limits. In addition to celebrating our beauty, power and resilience, I’d love to see black women celebrating our freedom to feel. To be happy, sad, excited and disappointed.
Black women are human, worthy of love and respect, sentient beings with a variety of emotions that matter just as much as those of our white female counterparts — and our male counterparts, too. This might be a tall order in a society that only recently allowed black women to wear natural hairstyles in the military, but black women are more than deserving.
Photo via Getty Images.