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'Magical Negro' Carries The Weight Of History

Feb 11, 2019
Originally published on February 12, 2019 1:07 am

The Magical Negro: That's the trope in literature and movies where a black character appears in a plot solely to help a white character — and then vanishes.

Think Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance or Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. In her new book of poems, called Magical Negro, Morgan Parker strives to reclaim the term.

"I really wanted to rethink that trope because you never get to know those characters and their interior lives or anything like that. They're there to serve a purpose," she says. "And I wanted to reimagine the black experience as having much more agency than that."

Parker's last collection was called There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. And she told me that the idea of performance weaves its way through this collection as well.

"I'm talking about performance as in, you know, Beyoncé on a stage or Diana Ross in a photo shoot," she says. "But also the performance of everyday life — the ways that we perform for one another, for ourselves, the ways that our actions are analyzed or experienced as a performance — and really just play with that idea."


Interview Highlights

On the line "My body is an argument I did not start"

What privilege it is to be able to forget that you live in a particular body. That's a heavy way to walk through the world. - Morgan Parker

I think a lot about how we're born into an experience, into a stereotype. How there is already all these things written into one's body, and it makes it really superchallenging to then build an identity on top of that. I often say that we're not starting at zero. We're starting at -100. When we're born, our experience is half the time spent undoing these ideas that were placed onto our body since birth and then building a personal identity on top of that.

What privilege it is to be able to forget that you live in a particular body. That's a heavy way to walk through the world.

On talking about dating white men, in "Matt"

Matt is one man and also several men. ... I'm pointing at the similarities between them, and really the Matt character is one that doesn't seem dangerous, means well, but often that's not enough, to mean well. This kind of oblivious but sweet but almost too casual — and even, I've said this to white men, there's no way that I won't be thinking about the history of white men and black women. Even if that is not our particular relationship, that will always be in the back of my mind. The book, really, the whole of the book was an opportunity to really privilege the black female experience and not in terms of explaining it or, you know, teaching a lesson, but really just privileging our day-to-day feelings and experiences. What does that even look like, for me to consider only myself and the women who are like me?

On the revelations about Virginia politicians wearing blackface

You can't process every single harmful image. It's just impossible. And there's a way that you do have to sit with it and kind of let it roll off your shoulders, as it were. But for me, a lot of the writing process of this was exploring the repetition of that and how that piles on. And so I wanted to speak about what it feels like to continually turn on the TV and see yourself being killed. You know, really, that is the underlying feeling. And there's an impulse that folks have to say, "Well, this is just, obviously this is crazy, and this is just a bad guy." ... It's easy for folks to say, "Well, you weren't living in the '50s," but there is a way that we carry that. And it just feels so inevitable and inescapable. And I really wanted to point at that, the kind of way that we carry all of those experiences throughout history.

This piece was produced for radio by Jolie Myers and Kat Lonsdorf and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Magical Negro - that's the trope in books or movies where a black character appears in a plot solely to help a white character and then finishes. The Magical Negro is one-dimensional. The Magical Negro is cheery - think Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," or Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile." Well, "Magical Negro" is also the title of Morgan Parker's new collection of poetry.

MORGAN PARKER: I really wanted to rethink that trope because you never get to know those characters and their, like, interior lives or anything like that. They're there to serve a purpose. And I wanted to reimagine the black experience as having much more agency than that.

KELLY: Parker's last collection was called, "There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce." And she told me that performance weaves its way through this collection as well.

PARKER: So much of pop culture is wound into our lives these days. And so I'm talking about performance as in, you know, Beyonce on a stage or Diana Ross in a photo shoot, but also the performance of everyday life, the ways that we perform for one another, for ourselves, the ways that our actions are analyzed or experienced as a performance.

KELLY: I felt, as a white woman reading these poems, that I could hear your voice saying, hey - hey, look at these black women, these black bodies, how they move. Don't look away. Stay with me and just...

PARKER: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Like, see us.

PARKER: Absolutely. And I think some of the poems are really difficult, even for me because we're never really given that opportunity to look and keep looking in this way. And I think I wanted to be slightly aggressive about that - about, you know, you're not able to look away.

KELLY: Speaking of trying to be aggressive...

PARKER: (Laughter).

KELLY: You're making me think of one of the poems in here. This is part two of "The History Of Black People" (ph). Why don't you read that? Because that seems to get right at what you're talking about.

PARKER: (Reading) The history of black people, an allegory for Denzel Washington's continuous battle with various forms of transportation. The history of black people, a black feminist reading of "Cinderella" starring Whitney Houston and Brandy. The history of black people, or that feeling when Lauryn Hill is in your school choir but drops out right before the statewide competition. The history of black people, a new series coming to BET 20 years ago. The history of black people, an investigation. The history of black people, a tragicomic horror film. The history of black people, or joy stinging pink lips. The history of black people, says me. The history of black people goes blank. The history of black people, adapted from white people.

KELLY: You're using humor there, but it's a very sharp sword.

PARKER: Yeah, that's my favorite mode of hurting people's feelings. (Laughter). Yeah, I think, again, that's the performance, right? It's the figure, how we view black American life through characters, really.

KELLY: Some of these poems are super-personal. You write about your own body and how you live inside it. There's - there's a line - this is from the poem, "And Cold Sunset," that struck me. And the line is, my body is an argument I did not start.

PARKER: Absolutely.

KELLY: What do you mean?

PARKER: I think a lot about how we're born into an experience, into a stereotype, how there is already all these things written into one's body. And it makes it really super-challenging to then build an identity on top of that. I often say that, you know, we're not starting at zero. We're starting at negative 100. When we're born, our experience is half the time spent undoing these ideas that were placed onto our body since birth and then building a personal identity on top of that.

KELLY: And it sounds like - and tell me if I'm reading this right. But it sounds like there's a part of you that would love to be able just to let that go and not think about it all the time.

PARKER: Absolutely. And what privilege it is to be able to forget that you live in a particular body. You know, that's - that's a heavy way to walk through the world.

KELLY: You talk in a bunch of the poems about dating white guys and how complicated that feels. Why was that something you wanted to explore here?

PARKER: So in the "Matt" poem, for example I...

KELLY: The "Matt" poem, just explain.

PARKER: So "Matt" is one man and also several men.

KELLY: "Matt" is stand-in for all the other Matts.

PARKER: Absolutely. And I'm pointing out the similarities between them. And really, the "Matt" character is one that means well. But often, that's not enough, to mean well - this kind of oblivious but sweet but almost too casual - and even - you know, I've said this to white men. Like, there's no way that I won't be thinking about the history of white men and black women. Even if that is not our particular relationship, that will always be in the back of my mind.

The book, really - the whole of the book was an opportunity to really privilege the black female experience and not in terms of explaining it or, you know, teaching a lesson but really just privileging our day-to-day feelings and experiences. What does that even look like for me to consider only myself and the women who are like me?

KELLY: And tell Matt, you need to just be quiet and listen...

PARKER: Absolutely, you know, and, like...

KELLY: ...For a hundred pages or so.

PARKER: And, like, it doesn't matter if you didn't mean it that way. That doesn't matter. Just pay attention to what our experience is.

KELLY: Your poems, as everybody listening has probably gathered, exist right in what can be a really uncomfortable space where current events and race intersect. So I have to ask you about what's going on right now in Virginia with that racist yearbook photo and the blackface revelations. And I wonder, as you follow news like that, is that something you try to process through your poetry? Or do you just have to sit with it for a while?

PARKER: I mean, it's a little bit of both, right? You can't process every single harmful image. It's just impossible. For me, a lot of the writing process of this was exploring the repetition of that and how that piles on.

And so I wanted to speak about what it feels like to continually to turn on the TV and see yourself being killed. You know, really, that's - that is the underlying feeling. And there is an impulse folks have to say, like, well, this is just - obviously this is crazy. And this is just a bad guy.

KELLY: It almost sounds like you're saying these are - these are poems that you could sub out the name that's in the news today and sub in the name that was there, you know, a decade ago...

PARKER: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...And a decade from now sub in the next name.

PARKER: And what does that...

KELLY: And the story goes on. Yeah.

PARKER: Totally. And, you know, I think it's easy for folks to say, well, you weren't living in the '50s. But there is a way that we carry that, you know? And it just feels so inevitable and inescapable. And I really wanted to point at that, that - the kind of way that we carry all of those experiences throughout history.

KELLY: Morgan Parker, this was a pleasure. Thank you.

PARKER: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Morgan Parker talking about her new book of poems, "Magical Negro." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.