The Magical Negro is a trope as old as American literature. Originally, the Magical Negro was there to show white readers that African-Americans could be wise, intelligent, and loyal, just like all Americans. It served its purpose for many years and now it needs to be retired. In this article, I will try to explain why.
You’re writing a YA story about a teenaged pregnancy scare. Your protagonist is the white, male star of the football team. We’ll call the probable father Kevin. The fictional school is in a suburban, moderately affluent neighborhood. As a writer, you know diversity is a buzz word and having diverse characters might help you sell your book, so you want Kevin’s best friend to be black. His friend’s name is Richard.
So far, so good.
Richard has been the moral voice for Kevin throughout your book. He reminds Kevin that the female protagonist, we’ll call her Vivian, is having a harder time of this than he is; that Kevin had sex with the girl and he should be a stand-up guy, support her, emotionally, while protecting her from all of the vicious rumors. At a pivotal moment of the story, Kevin finally does the right thing by Vivian and supports her through the potential pregnancy and whatever final decision she decides to make. Kevin even thanks Richard profusely for his help in making him see the light.
You finish the book, go through edits, and come out the other side proud of your YA story. You are particularly proud of the Richard character. He was a moral young man who pushed Kevin into doing the right thing. His race was inconsequential to you. You feel proud.
You’ve also stepped into the trap of the “Magical Negro.”
Were there any other black characters in the story?
Have you thought out your black character's backstory?
If your protagonist is white, why is your black character so loyal? What do they get out of this?
Does your black character end up teaching your white protagonist a moral/virtuous lesson?
Does your black character act selflessly to help your white protagonist? Does he/she die?
These are the tropes of the magical Negro.
TVtropes.com defines the magical Negro;
In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a "normal" person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character's life.
With such deep spiritual wisdom (and sometimes — though not always — actual supernatural powers), you might wonder why the Magical Negro doesn't step up and save the day himself. This will never happen. So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance... which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people. In fact, the Magical Negro really seems to have no goal in life other than helping white people achieve their fullest potential; he may even be ditched or killed outright once he's served that purpose. If he does express any selfish desires, it will only be in the context of helping the white protagonists realize their own racism and thereby become better people.
The magical negro trope is as old as American literature and cinema. While the trope usually comes up in American cinema, I bring it up here so you can avoid it when you write the next great American novel. Here are some examples:
Oda Mae Brown, (Whoopi Goldberg,) in the movie Ghost.
Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mother Abagail in Stephen King’s 1978 novel, The Stand.
John Coffey in the 1984 novel, The Green Mile and the 1999 film.
The superhero Falcon, from the Marvel comic book Captain America, throughout the 1970s.
This trope can also exist for Asian characters, Native American, and Queer character too.
All of these characters fit the trope because they do not have agency. Their own motivation is never brought up. Their reasons for being loyal are never examined, and they are usually super skilled or have access to some sort of abilities our white protagonist doesn’t have. In many cases, they literally have magical powers!
OK, you’re probably asking the question, why is this bad?
First of all, the character is shallow. What are his motivations? What does he want? Where did he come from?
Second, the character isn’t authentic to the African-American experience. While some black readers may love Richard, most won’t because he has no (say it with me . . . ) agency. Do you know anybody who would give you moral lessons on multiple occasions? Neither do I.
Jason, I am NOT a RACIST. I made this character because I wanted to show the diversity in my story’s world. I wanted to have my main character grow and learn by listening and trusting a person of color!
I understand all of that. For the record, you had the best of intentions and NOBODY is saying you are a racist. But can we examine this a little closer? Let’s go back to Richard.
In the example I gave above, Richard plays football with Kevin and is his moral voice. That’s good. But, here are some questions, like . . .
- Why does Richard care, so much?
Do Richard and Kevin have a rich backstory together going back to grade school?
Does Richard have a relative who’s a single mother, so he knows how hard it’s going to be for Vivian?
- Why is Richard the moral voice?
Is he the son of a minister, rabbi or Imam?
Are there no other boys in the high school who think Kevin is a jerk? Why aren’t they talking?
High school boys are notoriously self-centered, so what does Richard get out of this?
- Does Richard have a life of his own?
Doesn’t Richard have class or something, too?
If these guys are such good friends, do they do anything other than preach to each other?
What about Richard’s love life? Has he experimented with sex, too?
- Where are the other black people?
Is Richard the only black student in the school? If he is, why? THAT would be an interesting story!
- Do we get to see any other black characters?
The way you avoid this trope is to give your black characters agency. That means your black characters must have their own motivations and their own character arc. They have to grow alongside your protagonist. When you do this, you create tension and conflict in your story.
Let’s revisit Richard, again.
Richard and Kevin have known each other since Peewee football. They have been best friends for years. Richard’s father and mother lived together until they got a divorce. Richard’s dad left to take a job out of state. While Richard still sees his father, it’s only in the summer or at Christmas. As Richard has grown older, he wants his father’s presences more and more.
Richard has two younger sisters, 10 and 11. He has such a strong moral center because he’s the man of the house and has to take care of them. This includes dropping his sisters off at school and picking them up, after football practice.
Other than football, Richard has time to study and take care of his sisters.
See, Richard wasn’t a racist character; he was a shallow one. A little bit of character building and he’s much more believable.
Now, I want to give you an example of a character who is not a magical negro. Michonne, from the Walking Dead Comic Book.
Michonne appears in the year 2005 of the comic book, The Walking Dead. The first time we see her she has two zombies chained to her. They are missing their jaws and their arms. She uses them as camouflage.
We also learn she is a bad-ass with a Katana, lopping off zombie heads left and right. She earns her place in Rick Grimes group of survivors and becomes a trusted advisor to Rick.
So far, so good, right?
- Rick’s group makes it to a walled town called Alexandria, Virginia. They try to integrate but are too violent for the survivors there, who have hidden there since the outbreak. Rick is particularly crazy about trying to get the other residents to know how bad it truly is.
Michonne constantly reminds Rick that they are guests. That it’s not their place to “Toughen” the other residents up. They have arguments over this stuff. Eventually, in a fit of rage, Rick screams in the street waving a gun at everyone. Michonne knocks him out and ties Rick – our white protagonist – up until he calms down and agrees to let it go.
We have tension, story conflict, and a moment of growth in both character arcs because the African-American side kick steps up and tells the protagonist he’s full of it. Great Story telling.
Flesh out your African-American by giving them a back story. Who were their parents? Are they college educated? Does this person have a family of their own?
What is the dynamic between your protagonist and your black character? Why are they friends? What brings them together? Is there a history between the two? Does one owe the other a favor?
Tension and conflict are central to all stories. What tension or conflict drives your white protagonist and your black supporting character apart?
Are they romantic rivals? Professional rivals? Is there respect, but no affection? Or affection, but little respect?
Write your black characters back story.
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