December 29, 2008

Magical negroes and Indians

A Republican politician has demonstrated his party's ineptitude by distributing the "Barack the Magic Negro" parody song on CD. With that in mind, it's worth considering exactly what a "magical negro" is.

Magical negroThe magical negro (sometimes called the mystical negro or magic negro) is a supporting, often mystical stock character in fiction who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist get out of trouble. The word negro, now considered by many as archaic and offensive, is used intentionally to suggest that the archetype is a racist throwback, an update of the "Sambo" and "savage other" stereotypes. Spike Lee popularized the term, deriding the archetype of the "super-duper magical negro" in 2001 while discussing films with students at Washington State University and at Yale University.

The magical negro in fiction

The magical negro is typically but not always "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint," often a janitor or prisoner. He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He sometimes fits the black stereotype, "prone to criminality and laziness." To counterbalance this, he has some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters." He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth."

The magical negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his "magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character." It is this feature of the magical negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing African-Americans in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to European-Americans. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to "like individual black people but not black culture."

To save the white protagonist, however, he would do anything, including sacrificing himself, as Sidney Poitier portrays in The Defiant Ones, the prototypical magical Negro movie.
Comment: Needless to say, this applies almost word for word to Euro-American portrayals of Indians. All you have to is change "janitor or prisoner" to something like "half-breed or military veteran" (or both).

The Native equivalent of the "magic negro" is the wise elder or shaman or faithful Indian companion. This includes Tonto, the Quileute werewolves in Twilight, and countless comic-book Indians. It also includes characters played in movies and on TV by Chief Dan George, Ned Romero, Floyd Westerman, Russell Means, Graham Greene, Gordon Tootoosis, August Schellenberg, et al.

About the only difference is this: While "magical negroes" appear occasionally in the media, many fictional African Americans are fully developed protagonists in their own right. For instance, the characters played by Will Smith or Denzel Washington. But most fictional Indians exist to rub their mystical wisdom and might onto the nearby white protagonists. Few can stand on their own as characters.

Magical Indian mascots

This point about fictional Indians applies to Indian mascots also. They're supposed to transfer their bravery and ferocity (i.e., their savagery) to mascot-worshiping athletes. In fact, we might compare Chief Illiniwek's dance to a Satanic, black magic, or voodoo ritual.

Odd that so many God-fearing Christians believe in the dark power of their pseudo-Indian talismans. Have they read what the Bible says about bowing down to and worshiping idols? These people love their mascots as if they were prophets or deities.

Below:  "Great Spirit, I implore you! Succor my friends and smite my enemies!"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post, Rob. As a negro who works for Indians, I've had experience with both forms of what you've described here. Cultural subjugation is far-reaching.

Anonymous said...


I think the "Magical Negro" refers to all non-whites who are used in a similar capacity. For instance, Mr. Miyagi from the "Karate Kid" films.

In general, it's all about the non-white person empowering and enriching the life of the white person. The non-white person is just there to please.

The relationship between Neo and Morpheus from the "Matrix" is a subtle and twisted example of this. I say twisted because both actors, Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne are mixed-race. But, of course, Reeves is coded as white in the film, with pictures of unambiguously white children depicting him in his younger years. Somehow, Reeves' Asianess just pops up onto his face magically.

Anonymous said...

That thing about idolatry...Christians have been appropriating aspects of pagan religions even before Columbus' time. Exhibit A: Christmas trees. Exhibit B: Jesus as literal son of God (like Hercules, Helen of Troy, and Perseus were).