Commentary Race

Just Say No Thanks to #ThanksAlabama and ‘Magical Negro’ Narratives

Cynthia Greenlee

Black women are not the wet nurses for wanna-be woke whiteness. Our politics are not new, magical, or here to serve white people.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family saw the wretchedly bad movie-in-search-of-a-plot Roman J. Israel, Esq.

In the film, Denzel Washington plays a lawyer savant whose supercomputer brain allows him to recite obscure bits of legal code on demand. But his 1960s ideals and maroon business suits are supremely out of date, and his severe inability to fit in socially puts him at odds with those who want to help him survive.

Roman J. Israel the character is what filmmaker Spike Lee once called a cinematic “magical Negro,” a Black person who arrives on the scene from out of nowhere and has some inexplicable knowledge, wisdom, or a superpower. But most importantly, this trope—invented by white artists and seen in work such as The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile—requires this Black person be willing to do anything, including die, to transform white people.

In Roman J. Israel, the character is on to something big—a once-in-a-lifetime case that could spark game-changing criminal justice reform. Except, well, he’s murdered before he can do it. In the end, it’s a white, slick corporate lawyer type (who is part of the system, but REALLY wants to do good deep down in his heart) who files the case. And that ultimately-do-gooder lawyer, played by Colin Farrell, is healed, redeemed by the weird cocktail of superficial progressivism and evangelism that too often substitutes for the real, long-term work needed to promote justice.

Days after Alabama’s special election for its vacant U.S. Senate seat, there is a new magical Negro or several variations thereof: Black Alabamians, Black Women, Black Women Voters, and Black Southerners. In the blink of one race, Black Southern women have been elevated to the position of national saviors. According to exit polls98 percent of Black women who voted in the contest that pitted state Supreme Court Supremacist Roy Moore against Democrat Doug Jones cast their ballot for the ultimate victor Jones, while some 93 percent of Black male voters did likewise.

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Suffice it to say that white voters did not make a similar showing. To quote lyrics from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, that’s a “tale as old as time.” And so, too, really is the response of non-Black Americans coming out of the hashtag woodwork and chiming in at #ThanksAlabama and just #BlackWomen.

The jubilant response of Americans to Moore’s loss is predicated on the assumption that all Southerners are married to Roy Moore’s vision of a country with Ten Commandment courtrooms. Moore’s defeat was a welcome shock, though not entirely without precedent. In a race that Moore tried to make about abortion and not his own morality (or lack thereof), people forgot that the State of Mississippi defeated a “personhood” amendment in 2011, a fight that national pundits and reproductive rights organizations predicted would be a losing battle (and in which reproductive justice advocates raised questions about the price of ignoring the embattled voting rights of Black Southerners).

More to the point, the surprise and awe of Americans over the Alabama outcome reinforces the ludicrous notion that Black Southerners have been out here twiddling our thumbs and waiting for the liberation bus to stop in Dixie. But we been here. Or that Black Alabamians have been ground into passive dust by the potent and public racism for which their home state has long been known—and were going to be MIA at the polls. Or that, given their presumed ignorance, they just wouldn’t realize how important this election is to the nation (much less their own interests) and wouldn’t bother to vote. Although Becky from Alabama and white men overwhelmingly voted for the possible pedophile (as did a pitifully small group of Black Alabamians), this potent electoral version of #BlackGirlMagic made the prospect of U.S. Sen. Roy Moore disappear. If only he would disappear from politics altogether.  

I hesitate to even use the term #BlackGirlMagic. Black women’s politics are not new, magical, or here to serve white people. Neither was Roy Moore’s defeat magic, and I hate to see the ways in which white Twitter users have tried to appropriate the #BlackGirlMagic mantle or the spirit of #TrustBlackWomen without using the actual word “trust.” #BlackGirlMagic salutes Black female ingenuity and survival amid the stress of quotidian anti-Blackness. Doug Jones’ victory was wrought by Black people’s affirmative decisions to give Roy Moore the middle finger at the polls, to protect and invest in themselves, and to reimagine the political possibilities in their home state. And in a state where voting rights are still contested, that is no small decision.

Black women are not the wet nurses for wanna-be woke whiteness. We are not here to deliver the United States from its own shit or absolve this country of its failures—or yours.

And neither are we so thirsty for white validation that a tweet—even millions of them—will be enough. Thanks won’t feed hungry families. Thanks don’t build infrastructure or change policy. Thanks won’t stop Alabama sheriffs from prosecuting women on suspicion of drug use during pregnancy. Thanks do not erase the disparities that Black women in Alabama experience precisely because they are Black, female, poorer than the average American, and live in a state that many “coastal” Americans mock.

On the surface, the #Thanks hashtags recognize Black Alabamians’ heavy lifting, and perhaps that’s progress for some white Americans. But the flip side is that the #Thanks hashtags also expect Black people to do more than their share to rehabilitate white people’s reputations and morality. #Thanks expects Black people, women particularly, to do this unpaid, continual public service to rescue white people from themselves. And it’s performative at heart. But don’t ask your run-of-the-mill white person (or other non-Black people of color) to take a knee or a stand over the holiday ham or tamales with their loved ones in private. Say thanks by giving something—or giving up something—that it may hurt to give or do without.

How to thank Black people? Advocate for living wages. Organize for Medicaid expansion. Don’t move into all-white neighborhoods or formerly majority Black-brown neighborhoods because you can get a brownstone there for pennies on the white dollar you earned, compared with a Black woman’s 63 cents. Support Black-woman-owned businesses and nonprofits, which are a key engine of American entrepreneurship. Ask yourself if your social network looks like pre-Aisha Tyler Friends. Don’t praise Black voters for trying to effect change “the right way” but lose your tongue when Black activists get labeled “Black Identity Extremists” by the FBI for exercising their constitutionally protected right of free expression. Don’t think because you read this article that you should go around saying “magical Negro” or that just because you want to give money to Deep South causes, that you know what’s best for people in those communities (or that Black people didn’t have innovative ideas before you got there).

But most of all, work on something that may require an auspicious alignment of the planets and the hardest labor of all: dismantling white supremacy in our institutions and the institutions you hold dear, like your family.

The election results are in (if not entirely safe from a recount), but the verdict is still out on what white people can and will do to rescue themselves.

So #NoThanks. Y’all can miss me with these hashtags. And if you don’t understand the phrase “miss me with that,” the Urban Dictionary makes clear it’s a response when “somebody says something stupid, if someone ugly asks you out, or if you almost get hit by something.” All of these apply. In this case, the ugliness is coming from most of this country, rotten stereotypes that suggest Black Southerners haven’t been doing it themselves without white concern for a long time, and tragically late white gratitude.

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