The idea of black girl magic has been in the ether (and Twittershpere) for a while now, and while it is not without controversy, I choose to recognize its good intentions. Black girl magic is a rallying cry. It is a spotlight on what often gets marginalized. It is a reminder of the wealth of beauty and ability that black women possess but often don’t get credit for. It is a way to offer recognition and praise. To me, black girl magic is a matter of admiration and inspiration. And when I think of examples, the following five women come to mind.
Serena has to be first on my list. I have admired her throughout her career. She is not just a phenomenal athlete. She has dominated for years. She has worked hard to give her career on the court longevity. Since Serena and her sister Venus first hit the tennis scene, they have seen waves of competitors come and retire, and yet they still stand.
In addition to sports greatness, I also see in Serena an example of what it means to embrace who you are and what you look like even when there are those who are looking to knock you down.
As a woman who was once a girl embarrassed by her veiny and muscular arms, I look up to Serena (even though I’m older than her). She is not afraid to call out the misogyny, racism, and ignorance behind the words of her critics. She embraces both her strength and her femininity with harmony. She does not present them as contradictory. And she silences us all by simply being amazing. And even more impressive, she doesn’t always make it look easy.
There is no question in my mind that Serena Williams is an all-time great. However, I’ve seen her struggle. I’ve seen her face what appeared to be certain defeat and find something more within herself to turn the tables on her opponent and win. She was working hard and that was clear. I respect her as a champion, but I am in awe of how hard she’s worked to be and remain great.
Adding to the magic of who Serena Williams is, she is generous. She gives back. She has put her money and her hands into building schools and funding scholarships. It is one thing to be great. It is another to share that greatness in a way that elevates others.
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Again, I’m not just impressed by what she’s accomplished, I’m in awe of what’s she’s overcome. Misty suffered an injury that could have ended her career, but she fought through it and returned to the stage after surgery. She is a magnificent dancer, and while she makes it look easy on stage, she is open about the struggles she’s faced behind the scenes, whether it’s external pressures, racism, or disordered eating. I respect that.
Just as she’s open about the parts of her journey that have been hard, Misty doesn’t hide behind false humility. She is not afraid to own up to the fact that she’s a trailblazer—an example for little girls of color who now have someone who looks like them to look up to.
She fully owns and celebrates her achievements. What she has accomplished—the barriers she’s broken and the history she’s made in doing so—is a big deal, and she knows it.
Misty readily wears the title of role model. She embraces that she is an example. She is proud of what she has done while also acknowledging how much the world of ballet still needs to grow in order to be more welcoming and accessible to dancers of color. I admire her efforts to give young ballerinas an easier path to the stage because she’s paved so much of the way.
I love anyone who proves the critics wrong. When Precious first came out, I remember people having a lot of nice things to say about Gabourey. But they also suggested (or flat out stated) that she wouldn’t have a prolific acting career because of her size. Flash forward half a decade, and she’s still acting—in movies and on television. In fact, she’s part of one of the most popular shows currently on the air, Empire.
It is a shame that television shows and movies don’t cast a more representatively diverse sample of humanity without making the differences the punch line. Appearances should be secondary to talent, because no one’s appearance is good or bad or wrong or right. It is simply what he or she looks like.
Too often casts are created not by employing who is best able to represent a character but because of how someone looks. Think about it. Cinderella doesn’t have to be petite and Batman doesn’t have to be white. All too often we get stuck in convention, inadvertent homogeny, or flat out discrimination when it comes to who plays a part in a film or television show.
Gabourey is defying stereotypes and reminding us that talent should be the first criterion for casting. She has played characters rather than caricatures. Her size isn’t the joke or the punch line, it is simply her size.
One of my favorite authors is Toni Morrison. She is a prolific writer who has received tremendous recognition for her work. She has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (to name a few—there are more). However, despite all of her grand accomplishments and deserved praise, there is one humble fact about her that I find most inspiring. She was thirty-nine years old when she published her first book—the first book of hers that I read and loved, The Bluest Eye.
That might not seem like a noteworthy fact to everyone, but I find it incredible. Morrison’s gift wasn’t bestowed upon her on her thirty-ninth birthday. It was there throughout her life, being nourished, developed, tested, and perhaps sometimes doubted for nearly four decades. It is a reminder that age is not a liability. There are people who won’t discover their life’s purpose or the pinnacle of their success in their twenties. Some of us need more time to develop into who we’re meant to be or to find our voice. Whether it’s finding a career or a cause, pursuing a dream or even realizing what our dreams are, some of us are still figuring things out. Some of us are works in progress.
This is not a defense of procrastination. Morrison wasn’t sitting on her laurels for thirty-nine years. She worked hard. However, her breakthrough into the literary world came at a more mature age. That is what I find inspirational. It reminds me that just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it will never happen. Just because your friends or family members seem to be ahead of you in life doesn’t mean your journey isn’t incredibly important. Everyone has to live at his or her own pace. Some of us will succeed young. Some of us will come into our own when we’re older. There is no right time. That’s the loudest message I take away from Toni Morrison’s incredible life.
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I hate zombies, but I watch the Walking Dead, and one of the biggest reasons I do is Danai’s character Michonne. She is not a stereotype. Her character is a fighter as well as a survivor. She is strong and smart. She is capable of independence, but she is also a loyal team player. Her strength is not seen as a contradiction to her being a woman, and her femininity is neither presented as a liability or a weapon.
Danai is a trailblazer. Her play Eclipsed made history when it hit Broadway. The cast, director, and writer are all women—and not just women, but women of color. What’s more, the play’s plot tells a story that doesn’t often get told on the stage or the screen. It’s the tale of civil war in Liberia as told through the eyes and experiences of five women. The show is more than compelling art; it is an act of activism and a means for raising awareness. Performances of Eclipsed are being dedicated to specific girls from around the world who have been abducted and are still missing. A recent performance honored the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria two years ago.
In addition to using her own voice through her work as an actor, activist, and playwright, Danai also uses her position to help others tell their stories. She is the co-founder of Almasi Arts Alliance, a non-profit organization that offers fellowships, grants, and exchange programs to dramatic artists from Africa and American in order to facilitate cultural exchange and professional development.
There are a lot of other women I could add to this list. Some of them are famous, but many are women you’ve never heard of. They are the women who are part of my everyday life and inspire me on a regular basis—friends, colleagues, and family members. I imagine you have a black girl magic list too. I encourage you to use the comments section to share the name and/or story of someone whose “magic” inspires you.