#blackgirlmagic is a favorite saying of mine. It’s the x factor of my melanin accompanied by the defiant use of what is supposed to constrict me. You don’t understand how my hair changed overnight? Magic. You want me to be quiet? Sorry. Magic vocal range. Want me to be the fun dance floor initiator at your cousin’s wedding (ahem, token), you have to do the proper incantations (ahem, good whiskey).
But the x factor of black girl magic thankfully is not so simple and sadly is not always in the practitioner’s control. Like any reader can tell you, all magic is tricky and it comes with a price. Too often it is coopted or becomes a trap that others use to define you rather than a tool through which you define yourself. Like any aspect of identity, navigating the wind tunnel of black womanhood can be exhausting. Respectability politics, intersectional feminism, and the weight of history come in to play when you choose earrings let alone obviously monumental life decisions.
That is why it is a thing of beauty and just plain encouraging when a woman at the top of her game overcomes to slay doubt, hate, and expectations through flawless wielding of #blackgirlmagic. Anyone who has seen Lemonade knows that, if there was any doubt, Beyonce has achieved mage level magic. But beyond having authority over said magic, Lemonade offers a mirror to black womanhood that is a desperately needed reflection at this pivotal moment in American culture. Far from being enough, Lemonade is that piece of art that wets your whistle for more. Whether you are in the struggle or an ally, the incredible film/music project hopefully got you thinking. So here is my reading list for further investigating #blackgirlmagic and blackwomanhood in America. Read these and feel the magic.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you somehow have escaped this novel than congratulations! You get to read it for the first time. Adichie had long been a favorite of book nerds, but she shot into the general spotlight with her incredible TED talk on Feminism, which was sampled in a Beyonce song (side note, how was “Flawless” 2 years ago?). What makes Americanah the one to read is its incredible balance between humor and heaviness. Whether delving into hair politics or international politics, the differences between types of black folks, love in and between races, Adichie is in complete control of her story. It discusses so much of our international yet shockingly small world within its pages, but it never looses sight of its characters. As Ifemelu navigates Nigerian and American culture through the wit of her blog, her punches at her self, her home, and her adopted culture hit their mark.
Black comes in many shades and its not easy to navigate, let alone explain, biracial existence. Using bits from across media, Sloan explores representation and her own journey to understanding herself and her culture. Looking at black cool, art, and history throughout the book is a refreshingly grounded way of exploring a deeply personal topic of identity. Its original, beautifully written, and eye opening.
There are few more boldly obvious and well honed meditations on black womanhood than any book my Morrison, Child offers the wonderful character of Bride whose incredibly dark skin is ultimately used by her as a tool in a world that used to shun her for it. But she still struggles by being owned by those who devour her with their eyes, and as she digs into her childhood the repercussions of her early rejection come to call. Morrison is the woman I want at the helm of discussing the power and pain of being defined by your skin.
Florence “Flo” Kennedy by Sherie M. Randolph
Any black woman rocking a cowboy hat and a middle finger that frequently through the 20th century is worth knowing more about. Flo is not only a biography of a woman that should be a household name, but a biography almost as savvy as its subject. Kenny spent her days navigating white and black feminism, media, civil rights, law school, Black Power, and friendships with the greatest movers and shakers of her age. She worked tireless for several causes, but its how she came to define herself as a bridge building whilst giving the world the finger that impressed me most.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry
If you want to read what an autobiography on fire is like, read Gifted and Black. While a lot of people read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings they often miss a contemporary and profound work in Hansberry’s unique memoir. Famous first for for her play A Raisin in the Sun and secondly for her tragically young death, this passionate work holds nothing back about her live and the world she lived in. Being the lauded “black woman voice” in mid century America was a tap dance in a mine field that Hansberry had no interest in dancing. Filled with rage, delight, humor, pride, and shame all in turns its the writing of a master craftsman with everything on the line.
And finally, for best cover and most essential memoir, piece of cultural criticism, and best way of understanding the damage and success of respectability politics, look no further than Margo Jefferson’s Negroland.
Blessedly, this is just scratching the surface. While so often it seems like there is only room in publishing for one minority voice at a time, the truth, my dear practitioners, is that rich delights from Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Tracey K Smith, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Jesmyn Ward and so many more await you across genres and forms. Enjoy your #blackgirlmagic in bulk if you can.