The myth of the magical black woman

Op-ed: Black women have a remarkable ability to persevere, but we are real people with real limits.

Jesse Williams packed a lot into his inspiring, political acceptance speech upon receiving the BET Humanitarian Award last week. Addressing black people and the racial oppression we live under, he referenced historical inequality, whiteness, the lives lost to police violence and cultural appropriation. He dedicated the award to others who fight against racism, and he gave a special mention to black women, "who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you." He ended his speech with, "Just because we're magic, doesn't mean we're not real."

"Black girl magic" describes that awesome ability black women have to hold our heads high in a world that wants us to hang them low. We use it to support one other and explain how we manage to endure the daily struggle and accomplish as much as we do. But my concern is that the magical black woman can function more like a myth similar to the myth of the "strong black woman," and may not do us much good at all unless we are careful to remind ourselves and others that we are indeed real.

University of Maryland Sociology Professor Patricia Hill Collins identifies strength as a defining characteristic in at least one of the negative, persistent, stereotypical and controlling images of black women dating back to slavery that were meant to normalize black women's oppression. Some black women have embraced the notion of the strong black woman, but our "strength" has led us to refuse access to social services when we need it and help from family and friends when offered, and generally to insist on shouldering burdens on our own. Embracing the myth of superhuman strength negatively impacts our physical and psychological health.

Fairly recently, scientists have come to understand that racism lives in the body. Every instance of racism black people have experienced, will experience and expect to experience potentially elevates cortisol — the fight-or-flight hormone. Prolonged elevated cortisol levels can bring on a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. The evidence leads to the conclusion that for black women, racism has a unique, cascading effect that can be passed on through generations as unborn fetuses exposed to high cortisol in vitro can result in low birth weight babies entering the world with their own health challenges.

In her research, Melissa Harris-Perry found that black women who positively identified with the notion of the strong black woman were less likely to work for the structural, institutional changes necessary to lessen our extraordinary burden. The trope of the superhuman black woman can leave us less likely to seek help in the areas of our lives where we need it and demand change where change is necessary. Internalizing the myth of the superhuman black woman does not benefit our health or our politics. I worry that embracing magic may crowd the precious space in our arms that we should reserve for embracing our humanity.

Our ability to persevere is remarkable and should be recognized. But let us not attribute our ability to overcome oppression and discrimination to a superhuman strength we do not possess or a mystical quality that, in defying explanation, may obscure real pain. When a black woman expresses fatigue at oppression that can feel unrelenting, telling her she is strong may feel less like a compliment and more like something else she must live up to. When she manages to make it through another day and wake up ready to resume the battle, attributing it to magic may feel more diminishing of her struggle than inspiring. These labels do not begin a conversation, they impede it. Instead, ask her if she wants to talk. And then listen. Ask her what she needs. And then give it to her. These actions will go farther than proclaiming her strong when she feels weak and magical when she feels less than enchanting.

We are women who have withstood inhumane treatment and persevered, but we cannot only attribute it to some otherworldly, sleight of hand, mystical quality we have. We must also recognize the reality of the toll it takes on our blood and flesh and mind. If we do not, we may be less likely to talk when we need to and hand off burdens to others when we can. Let us only couple magic to our tenacity if we also couple it with what's real. Mr. Williams reminded us of this, and we must not forget it.

Desiree Melton is an associate professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University; her email is dmelton@ndm.edu.

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