Moreover, it is difficult to separate the media’s coverage of Booker’s heroic rescue from a well-meaning but insidious tendency in American popular culture to go overboard in lionizing certain types of black people. Scholars have identified the archetype of the “magical Negro,” the mysterious individual who ends up rescuing or enriching the life of the protagonist. (The trope has been used in movies such as The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.)
Critics such as Paul Gilroy argue that the magical Negro is just as sinister a stereotype as the more common negative stereotypes about black people because it robs blacks of an opportunity to be fully human. They cannot be complex or nuanced. They can only be superheroes or super villains.
Magical blackness infiltrated our political discourse in a powerful way in 2008. Barack Obama’s nomination and election to the presidency was a watershed in American history, one that merited the attention it received. The discourse, however, often framed Obama as larger than life.
Rush Limbaugh literally dubbed Obama a “magic Negro” when he aired a spoof of the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” to malign the Rev. Al Sharpton. Obama’s supporters spoke of him in messianic terms. Since then, whenever President Obama has struggled politically, he has faced bitter criticism on the left and the right for not meeting the absurd standard set by the hype of the 2008 campaign.
In the days after the fire rescue, Mayor Booker demurred when asked about being a hero. Many will no doubt infer an appropriate sense of modesty in his comments. And good home training no doubt explains much of his demonstrated humility. It’s also likely, however, that Booker’s reluctance to fully embrace his newfound incandescence is a smart attempt to rescue himself from an American public that all too easily burns through its black leaders.
Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.