On Wednesday, Elle published an essay by Linda Chavers lamenting the use of the popular phrase “Black Girl Magic.” Chavers’ essay was prompted by Essence magazine’s use of the catchphrase for female black excellence on its February-issue covers.
“There’s something else that rubs me the wrong way about the phrase ‘black girl magic,’" writes Chavers. “The ‘strong, black woman’ archetype, which also includes the mourning black woman who suffers in silence, is the idea that we can survive it all, that we can withstand it. That we are, in fact, superhuman. Black girl magic sounds to me like just another way of saying the same thing, and it is smothering and stunting. It is, above all, constricting rather than freeing.”
Chavers surmises, “Black girl magic suggests we are, again, something other than human.”
Now, in fairness, there is no universal definition of “Black Girl Magic.” The phrase cannot be found in Webster’s Dictionary or even the Urban Dictionary. And Chavers is beyond entitled to her opinion.
But black girls and women, the most frequent users of the term, have almost universally agreed on the same meaning. And it’s nothing at all like what Chavers suggests.
Huffington Post editor Julee Wilson deems Black Girl Magic “a term used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of black women. It’s about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring or mind-blowing about ourselves.” Image activist and cultural critic Michaela angela Davis, who used the term on a season 3 episode of BET’s Being Mary Jane, defines it, saying, “Black Girl Magic means we are shape-shifters, superheroes, styles-layers, soul scholars, truth seekers, sisters, healers, Holy Rollers, hotties, listeners, lovers, dreamers, divas, daredevils, doers of the damn thing … all at the same damn time.”
With less alliteration, this is how I’ve always interpreted and also used the term. Loretta Lynch (finally) gets confirmed as attorney general? Black Girl Magic! Sports Illustrated names Serena Williams sportsperson of the year (and she shows up on the cover with a “But can you handle it?” expression)? Black Girl Magic! FLOTUS Michelle Obama appears at the first black president’s last State of the Union looking like a bag of money? Black Girl Magic!
CaShawn Thompson, who says she is the creator of the term “Black Girl Magic” (the trademark for the term is owned by Beverly Bond of Black Girls Rock!), agrees with the way her phrase is commonly understood. “So many people have been able to feel confident around it and through it, and feel uplifted,” says Thompson, who has sold 3,000 T-shirts with the phrase plastered in loopy cursive. “That can never be a bad thing.”
Thompson is also not all that surprised by Chavers’ assessment of her phrase. She’s heard that complaint before. “It’s not for everybody,” Thompson says, taking the diplomatic road. “I still think all black girls are magic, even if everybody doesn’t see it for themselves.”
I’m not as diplomatic as Thompson. I read Chavers’ essay and was baffled as to how she reached her conclusion on the implications of the phrase. Like, she really thought black girls were out here being delusional, like they were David Copperfield or Houdini on the low? I mean, there are black girls aplenty who can tell you a little something about Voodoo or Santeria, but we weren’t talking about that here.
Let me clear this up: No one ever used the term “Black Girl Magic” while thinking of wands and pulling chubby rabbits out of hats—though black women have been known to stretch a dollar or make one out of 15 cents. But that’s more hustling skill than mystical know-how. The way our natural hair stands out and the way so many of our asses sit high might look otherworldly, but that’s genetics. Black don’t crack, but that’s not magic. That’s melanin.
“Black Girl Magic” is just another way of saying, “I see you, boo!” It’s acknowledging a woman in her moment, knowing the twice-as-hard work it took for her to get to wherever she is. It’s a far-less-annoying version of “Yassssss!,” the black woman’s equivalent of the head nod that black men give to acknowledge one another. I’d take it back to the ’80s and guess, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” but apparently some black people don’t get it. So. I’ll just say plainly that the phrase is celebratory. It’s positive. It’s communal.
And it’s necessary.
Chavers’ essay in Elle is an example of why. I mean, she’s dissing an affirming phrase used by black women in a nonblack publication. Um. Who thought that was going to go over well?
That no one caught that or no one cared is precisely why black women say, “Black Girl Magic.” When we’re not being overlooked and ignored, we’re often bombarded with messages from the mainstream (and other black people) that tell us we are wrong or we are not good enough. And so often—but not always—even when folks try to be all-inclusive and diverse, they end up doing just what Elle has done in trying to reach us, and yet are so completely out of touch that they offend us. If we don’t affirm one another—which some people clearly find problematic—then who will?
“Black Girl Magic” is the shoutout we give—and will continue to give—to one another because sometimes we are hard-pressed to hear a kind word from anywhere else. It’s not about black women being exclusive or being superhuman; it’s about black women recognizing the humanity in one another that so many others often fail to see.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.