THE MAGICAL NEGRO—It’s easy to believe that this trope came from a good place or at least rose out of benign neglect. After all, a white writer is “writing what they know” or appealing to their target demographic, which is typically people like them, but they want a more diverse world. So the easy solution is to put an “other” at a critical place in their hero’s journey to help them along. The Magical Negro is one such other (see also: Magical Native American, Magical Asian, etc). One sees The Magical Negro in such movies as Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, and Bruce Almighty. Or in an unusual amount of Stephen King novels/movie adaptations such as The Stand, The Talisman (written with Peter Straub), The Shining, and the ultimate ode to The Magical Negro, The Green Mile.
The Magical Negro has several hallmarks. They have no history. They exist outside of any community of their own. Much like, if not fulfilling the role of, a fairy godmother, they arrive from somewhere that’s vague and otherworldly and returns in some manner. At their introduction, The Magical Negro has either a threatening or benign aspect: 1) appearing with an initial sense of danger, such as a Big Black Man, drug dealer, thief, or prisoner, in which case they must be quickly identified as helping and compassionate; or 2) showing up in some powerless capacity, like a janitor, homeless, or a musician, so that the hero can be approached or approach them without risk (or even demonstrate compassion by interacting with them). It doesn’t matter how great their wisdom or the extent of their magical powers, The Magical Negro’s sole purpose is to selflessly use their powers to help the white hero in their journey. Depicted as an agent of change/the one who makes amazing things happen, their role is meant to be an exalted position, though their role boils down to fitting a black person into a white person’s narrative.
Sometimes I’m grateful just to see a reflection of me included in the story. Other times I don’t think that my story is being respected and I get all stabby.
# # #
Topher Blanderson stared at his computer screen, knowing something wasn’t quite right but unable to put his finger on it. The account numbers scrolled past, a series of figures moving so quickly, they were almost hypnotic. His head ached. It hadn’t pained him this much since his accident at the ski lodge so many years before. Topher felt his mind drift, not quite going to sleep, but relaxing. Expanding. Touching something deep and otherly. Suddenly everything seemed perfectly clear.
Topher touched the computer screen. His fingers danced across the monitor, the data spinning past in a blur of ones and zeroes, fragments of information coalescing into folders. He pressed his hand flat against the surface, the warmth sinking into him. He shut his eyes for a moment and briefly there was darkness as…
…his manager, Ana Pedestal, waited at a restaurant at the hotel of the conference she attended. With him. Not him. He was there, but it was in someone else’s body. The CEO. Her shoe dangled from the tip of her foot. She touched his arm…they were in his (not his) hotel room. She poured champagne into a flute which had Gummi Bears in it. Ana threw her head back in laughter. They kissed. She…wore dark sunglasses. She was lost, a stranger walking about the corridors of the Cayman Islands National Bank, not wanting to be seen. Not wanting to be noticed. More numbers. Account names. Money transferred to…sand. So much sand at the beach, with its ocean view. So blue. So blue. Cobalt blue. Cobalt Coast. Her body brown in the sun. She held her empty glass out. A young man quickly refilled it for her. She allowed her gaze to linger on him for a heartbeat longer as she…broke off her kiss with him and dismissed him from her room. A knock came a minute later. She opened it expecting the attendant, but the CEO barged through. His (not his) face a sneer of anger. Ana pulled away from him. His desperate fingers searched for any purchase. He tore the thin cloth of her sundress. He slammed his hand over her mouth. She bit into the fleshy side of his palm. He pulled away, then backhanded her. She licked the warm trickle of blood from her lip. She grabbed the phone from the nightstand and swung it in a large arc connecting with his head with a loud thunk. Her eyes bulged. Her face went pink to red as she slammed the base of the phone into his head again and again. He tried to scream…
“…don’t put the Gummi Bears in the champagne glass,” Topher yelled.
“What did you say?” Ana said from his doorway. And then he was back. He wiped the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead. She squinted at his computer monitor. “Is everything all right, Mr. Blanderson? I hope you aren’t using company resources for anything…inappropriate.”
“Yes, yes. Everything’s fine. I just…dozed off.”
“Might as well go home then. You’re the last one here. We aren’t paying you to sleep on the job.”
“I’m fine. I just wanted to check a few things.”
“That’s the thing, Mr. Blanderson, you’re not fine. I’ve been keeping my eye on your call metrics. They’ve dipped precipitously in the last weeks. Yet even as your work began to slide, you’re staying later and later, running through files and reports that are out of your purview.”
“I just wanted to go over a few reports. I thought I found a few anomalies.”
“We don’t pay you to ferret out anomalies. We pay you to balance the accounts in front of you.”
“Yes, but in order to reconcile…”
“…the only thing you need to reconcile is your job and your place in this company. Do you like your job, Mr. Blanderson?”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
“Good. We’ve had our eye on you for a long time. We want you to be a part of our family for a long time.”
“Me, too. Didn’t you just get back from a conference?”
“Yes, with the entire management team.”
“Including the CEO?”
“We’re getting off-track. The path you’re on can go two ways, but only one involves having a future at this company. Do I make myself clear?”
Ana turned and walked out of his area, leaving him alone on the sales floor. Topher leaned back in his chair. He didn’t know what his vision meant. Only that it wasn’t just a dream.
The sales floor took on a whole different aspect when he was the only one there. The cubicle farm had more of an echo, like the vast belly of a corporate beast which had long ago swallowed him but hadn’t finished its digestion of him. The vent sighed the way old buildings did. The tell-tale click of a door opening sent a shiver of apprehension through him. He hated knowing he was alone. The realization that should anything go wrong, no one would be around to help him slowly crept up on him. The same sense of dread filled him when he walked through the garage, all shadows and silence. A low squeak neared, increasing his vague panic. A figure appeared down the hall. All that registered with him was that the man was black and they had no black people working at their firm. They tried that once. Ruling out the idea of attempting to defend himself with his cell phone, Topher reached for his stapler.
“That you, Mr. Blanderson?” the man asked.
The familiar strains of Bagger Hallorann filled Topher with relief. He relaxed his grip on his stapler. Bagger was just so safe. He even wore glasses. Black people with glasses always seemed less threatening.
“Yeah, it’s me, Bags.” Topher called him Bags. He gave the man the nickname because it made him feel more connected to the janitor. Obviously Topher cared. He’d wager no one else in the company even bothered to learn his name. “Another late one.”
“It’s never too late to be what you were meant to be.”
“When was the last time you made time for your family?” Bags nodded toward the framed picture on Topher’s desk. “You have to be careful not to neglect them.”
“It’s just that I have all this money and opportunity and education, but I can’t seem to figure out life.”
“The love of family is much more important that wealth and privilege.”
“You always know the right thing to say,” Topher said. “How come you’re always there when I need you even though I barely know you?”
“I’m the wise janitor. I come to impart wisdom and assuage fears.” Bags emptied the trashcan. “It looked like you needed some friendly, black, optimistic advice.”
“You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still sleeping?”
“The hardest thing to do is wake up and not sleep through your life. You’re looking for the answer to a question you haven’t yet thought to ask.”
“You tell me. Has anything unusual happened lately? Anything at all?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Try me.” Bags leaned against his trash bin. “You’d be surprised.”
“I had a dream. Not a dream exactly, more like a vision. I think it was both of the past and of the future.”
“I think there’s something terribly wrong with the company.”
“It’s like the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore but you’re the only one who has noticed.”
“Maybe you’re ready after all.” Bags straightened.
“Ready for what?”
“First tell me, were you ever hit in the head? As a child? In an accident?”
“Yes. When we were skiing a few years back. How did you know?”
“I think your employers have underestimated just how important you are.”
“I am?” Topher rested his chin on his hand and leaned forward.
“I have plenty of things to show you, but I don’t know if we have enough time.”
“What kind of things?”
“You have potential. A power within you. You may be one of…the Chosen.”
“Sh! We don’t have much time.” Bags fished around in his pocket. “In my right hand is a red Skittle. In my left hand there’s a green Skittle.”
“Who doesn’t like Skittles? You eat the red and life goes on as normal. You eat the green one and life as you know it changes.”
“But they were in your pocket.”
“They’ll be coming for you soon. I can guide you or you can worry about pocket lint. You need to choose.”
Topher eyed each piece of candy carefully. He reached for the red one and almost took it before pulling back. Then he snatched the green one. He glanced at it, then at Bags. The janitor watched him with a cool, level gaze. Topher popped the green one in his mouth.
“Good, good. Now you just sit here for a minute while I prepare a few things.”
“All right,” Topher said. “What do I do in the mean time?”
“Finish your Skittle.” Bags wheeled his trash bin back down the hallway. When he rounded the corner, he swung by Ana Pedestal’s office. She was about to switch off her light when she caught sight of him. She jumped with a start before recognition filled her eyes.
“Getting a late start?” she said.
“As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late.”
“Sorry. Wisdom reflex,” Bags said. “I don’t know if this is any of my business, but Mr. Blanderson’s down at his desk going on and on about affairs and embezzlement.”
“Sounded mighty peculiar. Thought you ought to know.”
“Thanks for telling me.” Ana punched in the extension for security.
“If you can’t trust a white woman, who’s left to trust?”
Bags wheeled his trash bin down the long hallway as security came around the corner. The hallway stretched on and on. The lights flickered until they finally gave out. Bags kept walking even though the trash bin he held onto faded into the shadows. In the distance, light outlined a door. He took the handle and pushed it in.
“Welcome to your judgment, Bagger Hallorann,” a voice said.
Five columns of light broke the chamber of shadows. Within each beam stood a figure. An old man stepped awkwardly forward as if peeling himself from a box of rice. He shuffled toward Bagger with an easy grace. Two large hummingbirds, their colors too bright to be natural, materialized out of nowhere and flitted about the man.
“The Tom. It’s been…not long enough.” Though Bagger met him with his gaze, the old man’s eyes remained downcast.
“Bagger Hallorann? Seriously? Boy, you don’t think that name’s a little too on point for The Magical Negro?”
“It is a little dated. I figured no one would notice.”
“The Magical Negro is not bound by the rules of space and time. It is a sacred responsibility.” Another man stepped from his light. Over six and a half feet tall, weighing over two bills, he strutted toward the two, all swagger without consequence. He held his arms out, either for an embrace or waiting for a white woman to swoon and fall into them. “You had one job. One.”
“What was that, The Buck?” The Magical Negro asked.
“You help the white hero on his journey.”
“The Chosen? I can barely say that with a straight face. I wasn’t even the point of view character in that scene.”
“That’s not your job, child.” A large, buxom woman sashayed toward them. She wore a checkered apron and a handkerchief around her hair. “Your job is to get them out of trouble. Help them recognize their own faults and help them overcome. Transform them into competent, successful, and content people.”
“The Mammy? Is that you?” The Magical Negro asked. “I thought you got a perm?”
“In their hearts, I’ll always have a handkerchief.”
“What was he ‘chosen’ to do?”
“We’ll never know now. He may have gone on to become a super hero,” The Tom said.
“Or he may have saved a whole village of us. You know how they love to rescue us from the mess of their own making,” The Buck said.
“Careful now. That almost had the bite of critique,” The Magical Negro said.
“Well, it’s just us here now. We can speak plain.”
“Your job, your one job, was to help him finish his story,” The Tom said.
“I don’t get a backstory?”
“No one cares about your backstory!”
“I…I think you may be right about that. If I had a story, they wouldn’t read it. But if they have a story and I can help them through it or Lawd Jesus,” The Magical Negro turned toward The Mammy, “they can save not just me but my whole people, then now we have something they want to see.”
“The story served The Market,” The Mammy said.
“The Market,” The Tom and The Buck whispered in unison.
“They want us around to remind them of how diverse a life they have but not in an inconvenient way. You know, having to get to know us. We’re here strictly to keep them safe, tuck them in at night.”
“You cannot thwart the journey.” A light-skinned woman glided toward him. She stared at him with her tragedy-filled eyes. With her high cheekbones, thin nose, and straight black hair—she had some good hair; probably had some Indian in her—she could’ve passed for Greek or Italian. Something exotic.
“Even you, The Mulatto? You are nothing but backstory.”
“You’d have probably told the boy with the ring to just stay on his giant bird and fly his ass to the mountain to drop the ring in it,” The Tom said.
“Hand me a tall glass of white man’s tears. With two ice cubes.” The Magical Negro looked around the room. “So say you all? Even you, The Coon?”
A minstrel in an ill-fitting tuxedo, grinned broadly. Clutching his plate of fried chicken and watermelon, he bugged his eyes out in alarm as if busted by his white boss.
“You know we don’t let him say much,” The Mammy said.
“For all the good it did us. He’s got another sitcom deal on BET,” The Buck said.
“Now things could’ve been worse: you could’ve let the dog die,” The Mammy said.
“Yeah, you definitely don’t want to be the black guy who let dogs die,” The Buck said.
“We may have to downgrade you to helping out a black guy,” The Tom said.
“Can a black guy have a Magical Negro?” The Buck asked.
“I don’t right know. I guess,” The Mammy said. “First he’d have to go on the hero’s journey.”
“We’re going to give you one more chance. Know your place,” The Tom said. “Fulfill your role. If we listen and are polite, we can succeed.”
“That’s what we’ve always been told. It’s our hope. Our legacy,” The Mulatto agreed.
With that, The Tom, The Mammy, and The Mulatto retreated to their places, preserved like relics in a museum. The Buck glanced over his shoulder at them, then turned back to The Magical Negro.
“Hold on, Negro godmother. Let me holler at you for a second.”
“Now what?” The Magical Negro asked.
“You should know, they’re afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Me? What did I do?”
“The Tom is going to resent you no matter what you do. The Magical Negro already works his side of the street, if you know what I’m saying. But there’s a legend we all speak about. Well, not them. The Council of Negro Stereotypes don’t exist for our benefit. But among us, the true us, there’s this hope that one day we’ll be able to tell our own stories. Fulfill the role of griots the way our most ancient story keepers once did. That maybe there will come one with a sense of agency. One of us who has a complex interior life. Who has real desires, real history, and a real journey.”
“You think that might be me?”
“I don’t know. They fear it. It might mean the end for them if someone like that comes around.”
“But not you?”
“Not as long as a white man needs a sidekick or a white woman has a fantasy. You don’t know how close I came to making it to hero status. Perhaps one day. But for now, you have a job to do.”
The two men rattled back and forth in the cab of the old Farmall truck. The engine grumbled all along the winding dirt road, sputtering and coughing with every turn and incline. J.C. tilted his head back, lost in his thoughts. He no longer cared. He took in the scenery with a blank resignation which worried the prison guard.
“We’re almost there, Joe,” the prison guard said.
“Okay, boss.” J.C. said the words as if they left a bad taste in his mouth. He shifted in his seat, his large frame taking up most of the space as it was.
“We’ve come a long way, you and I.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was terrified of you when I first saw you. Never met a colored like you before. You were the size of three grown men and the cuffs and chains barely seemed to hold you. It was like you wore them as a courtesy. I think that was what first fascinated me about you. When we get back to the prison, I hope you’ll do me that same courtesy when I have to put you back in chains. But for now…”
“…for now I’m free.” J.C. smiled his unassuming, sweet smile. But something was different about him. Just a little off. It was a big night for him. One last adventure to heal the prison guard’s daughter with his gift. Then after that, he had a date with Old Sparky. Gentle and self-sacrificing or not, he had been found guilty of the crime everyone knew the son of the governor committed. But someone had to die for those sins and J.C. fit the bill as good as any.
“Can I tell you something, Joe?” the prison guard said.
“I never had any colored friends before.”
“A good ol’ bullgoose like yourself? All them years as a block superintendent, all those cells occupied by so many black candidates, powerless against your authority and privilege, and you chose me. Because of my gift. Now we’re out breathing this here fine country air. I’d say that this certainly beats getting to know one.”
“What privilege? I’m struggling to get by same as the next man. And for all my power, I’m here, pinning my hopes on you.”
“Yes, yes. I have all sorts of power, while you’re not even living up to your potential. Yet I’m still here to serve you.” J.C. turned toward him, his tone almost unreadable.
“This is so…touching.” The prison guard wiped away some tears. “That’s so…what you’re doing is so beautiful. It’s teaching me so much. I’m all choked up.”
“Yeah, someone should be choked.”
The trees whirred past, dark, sharp shadows against the darker, moonless night sky. Nothing felt familiar and all the usual landmarks seemed strange. The prison guard kept his eyes on the road when he wasn’t checking the rearview mirror to make sure no one followed them. Innocent or not, J.C. was technically an escaped felon. If they were caught before the guard could return him, he’d be in nearly as much trouble as his prisoner.
They swung into the guard’s gravel driveway and parked the ratty truck. The guard closed his eyes as if reflecting on whether he’d made the right choice and if it were too late to turn the vehicle around and get J.C. back to his cell without anyone being the wiser.
“We have to go if we’re going to do this, boss.” J.C. wrapped one of his massive hands around the guard’s entire wrist.
“Yeah, might as well see this through.”
The guard led them up to his porch. He turned the key in the lock and slowly opened the door. When he flicked on the light, a little girl stirred on the couch. She rubbed her eyes. A blue-eyed little moppet of a girl with long pigtails. She ran to hug her dad.
“I knew you’d come,” she said.
“I promised you, didn’t I?”
“Is he the one with the gift? The Whining?”
The guard turned with embarrassment to J.C. before returning to his little girl. “Not every black person has The Whining. You know how some people get,” the prison guard says. “Complaining that they aren’t in enough things then when they do show up, in an important role at that, they complain.”
“No, honey. I’m here to heal you,” J.C. said.
“You’re saving my life,” she said to him with a grateful smile to her voice. “The spring formal is next week.”
“And you want to live long enough to have your first dance?” J.C. dropped town to one knee to meet her almost eye-to-eye
“I’d say. If I go right now, I’d just die.”
“What do you have?”
“Can’t you see it? It’s huge.” The little girl stepped closer. She turned her face to the side. That was when J.C. saw it.
“It’s a zit.” He wobbled, suddenly off balance. The girl covered her face at his reaction.
“You let me out of jail so that I could take her sickness upon myself right before you string me up for a crime I didn’t commit.”
“Do you know how long a wait we have to find a good dermatologist?” the prison guard asked. “Besides, my deductible is huge.”
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“If you want me to touch a little white girl, I’d think you’d be expected to wash up first.”
J.C. pushed past the guard and strode down the hallway toward the living room and beyond the kitchen to the last door on the left. The light buzzed to life above him. He ran the cold water and splashed some on his face. He looked into the mirror. His face was wet as if from a day’s labor sweating in a field; his arms exhausted and heavy. Turning to his left, he spied a small window. The thought leapt to his mind by the time he was halfway through it. With a bit of contortion, he twisted his bulky frame through the opening. He scrabbled along the roof and hopped onto the landing before running off into the night.
A disembodied head faded into view alongside him as he ran.
“Where are you going?” The Tom asked.
“Home,” J.C. said. “If I can heal people, I’m going to open up a free clinic.”
“What about the girl?” The Mammy appeared beside them.
“They got good health insurance.”
“I think he’s gone insane,” The Tom said to The Mammy.
“No, he may be…The One,” The Buck materialized beside them.
“The One?” The Tom turned to him. “Surely not.”
“Who’s The One?” The Mammy asked.
“If he’s really arrived, maybe now, he’ll have his own story to tell. The One who actually saves the day himself. He’s the hero.”