As we close out the semester, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have engaged the material that we touched on. Each of the authors brought a new and different understanding of what “white identity” really means. Some of the material was centered around capitalism (Roediger) other pieces were around religion (Perkinson). Others had a more foundational sense of engaging social location (Frankenberg.) My personal favorite was the Lipsitz reading that I will continue to use as a reference point mostly because it intersects so handily with my own exploration of white identity and liberal religion. Also the authors who were speaking from a non-white perspective brought tremendous insight. It is from that work that I want to offer a final reflection on the overall study that we’ve engaged in through this semester.
Each of the authors (Baldwin, Fanon, West, Morrison, Dubois, Leonardo, etc.) who were not approaching the question of whiteness from a personal perspective seemed to have something else at play in the question of deconstructing white identity. Some of what I’m talking about came about in the exploration of Ragedy Ann in the Robin Bernstein piece Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. She touches on the Uncle Tom’s Cabin story and Topsy and all of the various reflections of ignorance/innocence that blackness was used to portray. But what I’m talking about is one step further. What consistently emerges throughout the exploration of whiteness in a post Civil Rights era, in a time where whites are looking for ways to be “post racial” or “color blind” as a way of healing the wounds of oppression…what emerges is the power of the “magic negro.”
This character is one that has his roots in Uncle Remus and his ability to weave stories and also roots in “Jim” from Huckleberry Finn. These are blacks who have been ordained by whites to be oracles of insight and wisdom. They have earned trust by showing their blackness to be benign. Yet, they do not transcend their blackness, on the contrary, they must be black in order to be sage. Their blackness keeps them mysterious and remote. And this image has continued to evolve. Just as “mammy’s” bosom was the safest place for a Scarlett O’Hara or other southern belle, so today, white gay men flock to the “bosom” of the “black diva” enjoying her song and adopting her language. It is through her that they are able to let go of the constraints of uptight white maleness and find salvation in soul.
Yes, this character has continued to evolve and today is present not just in the black “diva” but in the form of Morgan Freeman literally playing God and having every sage word ever spoken attributed to him in a “meme.” The magic negro undergirds Oprah who gave away cars and homes and vacations and cried with people as they bared their souls for 20+ years. The magic negro is in every black artist who is brought in to be featured in a Taylor Swift, or Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears song, to give it a touch of earthy reality. And as the mainstream has caught on to the 30+ year old tradition of “spoken word” poetry, young black and brown poets who speak in cadenced rhythm gesturing for emphasis are being hailed as “prophets” and “wise beyond their years”…young magic negr-i. Yes, the magic negro is alive and well.
Even in my own personal experience, I have had to frequently take on the role of the magic negro, where my presence in a community meeting or on a panel or in a discussion or even one on one, becomes that of the “savior” who somehow sees farther and feels deeper, while at the same time, there is no one there, least of all white people, to see and feel for me. This is the major problem: the magic negro is perceived as impermeable to pain or loss or grieving, unless they are doing so on behalf of the white sinner who is seeking salvation. The magic negro is not seen as a whole human being. They are not related to in real terms. The relationship is imbalanced. Despite what it looks like to have black sports heroes and pop superstars and hip hop activists, there is very little that is set out to sustain the magic negro him/herself. I have reflected on this with my black and brown colleagues and they agree that with some education, articulate speech or just a half way decent message, you will be hailed among white liberals as the second coming; and most of us don’t have a shoulder to cry on.
The magic negro is just as bad as Jim Crow; just as bad as lynching; just as bad as any of the ills that found their origins in “otherness.” My hope is that as Critical Whiteness studies continues to evolve, there will be more interplay between it and African American studies and that both will be applied to offer real solutions to the starkly standoffish way black and white regard each other. Black and brown people cannot be the only ones asked to offers salvation to the white sinner. In fact, we need to stop being concerned with salvation altogether and start actually speaking and listening to one another, honestly as whole and fully invested human beings with real hearts and minds and souls. We all must hold responsibility to communicate. Communication and the tough work of real relationship are the only opportunities we have to learn and live our respect for one another despite our differences.