Magical Negro in Chief


By now we've become familiar with the Negro Spirit Guide in pop culture. Think Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Sister Act and The Long Walk Home. Laurence Fishburne in Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Matrix.

The Matrix was a twofer: Fishburne leads Keanu Reeves' character to another black guide, Gloria Foster. Sidney Poitier made a career of showing white characters the way. In the 1950 film No Way Out, Poitier plays a black physician who cares for a bigot. Cuba Gooding Jr. provided the spiritual inner voice in What Dreams May Come, Jerry Maguire and Radio.


Now, some commentators, most notably Tina Brown of The Daily Beast, seem to believe we've elected a magical Negro Spirit Guide as president. "This has been an election full of magic. White Magic that only the black man from everywhere and nowhere could perform," Brown declared after Obama's win.  President-elect Barack Obama's biracial birth, fatherless childhood outside the contiguous United States and meteoric rise is indeed the stuff of mythology.

But there is something dizzying about the heights of Obama's other-worldly pedestal. And—if he continues to follow another narrative arc laid out in popular culture—the depths to which he will inevitably fall. Will this character rescue the world in the end? Or will he become consumed by an unseen, dark inner soul?

In the coming years, we will know soon enough. Until then, we can only look at the clues laid out in popular culture.

Negro Spirit Guides, magical helpers who have little interior life of their own, says E. Ethelbert Miller, literary archivist and director of the African-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University. "Their duty is to serve (whites) and to serve well. The hero of the movie often 'embraces' their blackness and comes to grips with the unknown."

Miller continued, blacks "are often mediums—which means we are nothing more than the 'punctuation' in the lives of others—connecting with other people but never with one's self."

African Americans have long symbolized inner spirit, which is reflected by terms such as "Negro spiritual," "soul music" and "soul food." Despite stereotypes that black slaves and their descendants were immoral, irreverent and, in some feral sense, lacking a soul, the symbolic Negro Spirit Guide is centuries old. Huckleberry Finn's Jim was a classic example. The guides possess a childlike nature and help the main character gain perspective.


Hollywood screenwriters are still taught that the classic story arc features a protagonist on a journey leading to a revelation or victory. Often an angel presence shepherds them along this route. The angels on your Sunday School-book pages or stained glass windows may have been white cherubs, but the angels on the big and small screen are black.

On television's long-running Touched by an Angel, the lead actress, Roma Downey, played a spirit guide with her own spirit guide, Della Reese. Suspense author Stephen King has used the archetype in his novels and short stories The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, The Stand and The Green Mile.


Prior to his role as a inveigling inmate in The Shawshank Redemption,Morgan Freeman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1989 for playing Jessica Tandy's magic helper in Driving Miss Daisy. In Stephen King's The Stand, (1978) the characters' common dream about a 108-year-old black woman named Abigail Freemantle unites them on their pilgrimage to escape the apocalypse.

Certain guides have been integral, realistic characters, such as those portrayed by Poitier in No Way Out, Fishburne in Searching for Bobby Fischer, while others, such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, have taken on a spectral quality. Smith exists to help Matt Damon release his inhibitions and become one with his golf swing.


Novelist Steven Pressfield's book version of Bagger Vance was influenced by the Bhagavad-Gita—a connection explored in the book Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance by Hinduism scholar Steven J. Rosen. This is why we see the spectacle of Eastern aphorisms being voiced by a vagabond black caddy in segregated Savannah.

There is a colonial tinge to this Negro Spirit Guide phenomena, according to Regina Longo, a University of California Santa Barbara film and media studies professor. Starting in the 19th century Romantic era, the spirit guide became "a way for white colonists to acknowledge a certain type of black power that is safe for the whites, that still keeps the blacks as something other than wholly human even if they are divine," Longo said. "The religion of that era said that we are all God's creatures, no matter our rung on the evolutionary ladder. That helps the whites to assuage their guilt over the institutions of slavery and racism, but rather than letting go of them, they institutionalize them through culture."


So why do writers keep tapping into this same theme? Do they see a youthful innocence in the African-American heart and respect the moral compass of black America? Or is the meme a backhanded compliment, still defining and confining the guide as fantastic (read: unreal) and the white follower as the true lead traveler?

With President-elect Obama now both starring in and writing his own narrative, one that shatters all hackneyed precedence, we can only hope white travelers follow his lead.


Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic based in Washington, D.C.