FEBRUARY 25, 2019
MORGAN PARKER KNOWS how to give a book an attention-getting title. Her debut poetry collection’s name is an unapologetic confession: Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. Her second is a bold declaration — even a provocation: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Her forthcoming YA novel’s title is an insistent question: Who Put This Song On? And this, her third poetry collection, takes as its name a prickly lexical category: Magical Negro.
Moreover, Parker knows how to make the contents of each of her projects deliver on the promise of the words on their covers. In this case, “magical” is a term that is elevating but also objectifying, even dehumanizing, and the archaism of “Negro” gives the reader pause. The vexatious flatness and near-comedy of such a taxonomic title serves as the perfect frame for Parker’s vibrant, angry, and idiosyncratic exploration of politics, black history, black womanhood, hip-hop, popular culture, celebrity, and more.
Parker has said in interviews that she considers this book “more raw” than her previous collections, and that it draws upon her study of anthropology in college. Fittingly, the book operates in part as a quasi-ethnography, taking that tack of a scientific description of the customs of individual people and cultures and filtering it through the sensibility of a poet at the height of her powers of description and perception. Such poems as “Magical Negro #607: Gladys Knight on the 200th Episode of The Jeffersons” and “Who Were Frederick Douglass’s Cousins, and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School,” among many others, hold familiar figures up to new scrutiny, inviting readers to consider and then reconsider what they think they already know and what they might still have left to learn.
Learning seems to be a big concern of this book; Parker’s poems are well read and richly referential, unhesitant to make her readers reach. Don’t know who American conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper is? Look her up. Film director, producer, and screenwriter Nancy Meyers? Look her up. Protagonist of John Ball’s 1965 novel In the Heat of the Night, Virgil Tibbs? Same.
Parker puts herself squarely in conversation with other thinkers and writers, opening, for instance, with a Gertrude Stein epigraph, taken from Three Lives: “It was summer now and the colored people came out into the sunshine, full blown with flowers. And they shone in the streets and in the fields with their warm joy, and they glistened in their black heat, and they flung themselves free in their wide abandonment of shouting laughter.” This passage appears in that book’s Melanctha section, which focuses on that title character, the working-class daughter of a black father and a mixed-race mother navigating a fictionalized Baltimore.
Particularly when followed by the table of contents — which is itself organized into sections with such irreverently allusive titles as “Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes” and “Field Negro Field Notes” — the epigraph seems to double as a mission statement for Parker’s intention to engage with and reenvision race-based traumas and triumphs, and to revisit the questions of who, historically, has gotten to speak and for whom.
The trope of the “Magical Negro” arises, of course, from American cinema, and describes a supporting stock black character who is depicted as wise or exoticized, and who exists chiefly to assist the white protagonists in a film. This figure has its own origins in American literary fiction in which the archetype of the black character who possesses mystical powers or insights once again applies these almost exclusively in coming to the white characters’ aid.
Spike Lee began popularizing the term at a talk at Yale University in 2001 during a promotional tour of college campuses in support of his movie Bamboozled. Speaking of the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, which takes place in Depression-era Georgia, he observed, “Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing!” Lee pointed out that such characterizations, though presented as harmless or even admirable, are merely “recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.”
Not dissimilarly to other traditional black stereotypes — the mammy, the Uncle Tom, the Jezebel, and so forth — the Magical Negro celebrates a shallow, even saccharine version of interaction between characters of different races rather than allowing for complex relationships and the depiction of the messiness of efforts toward actual equality.
The Magical Negro elides and erases rather than illuminates, and this lack of transparency seems vital to Parker’s aim with this book, which she has said is “a project for me of getting at descriptions of the world in a really precise way and trying to make the reader see instead of convincing them of anything.”
In “Magical Negro #3: The Strong Black Woman,” for example, Parker displays how even putatively uplifting categories bear reexamination. The poem commences with an articulation of how calling a black woman strong can sometimes be an insidious act of effacement:
She likes it rough. When you open her up through the
mouth hole, the dumb
cunt hole. You could stomp around in there. It’s fine. She
won’t feel nothing.
Similarly, in “Now More Than Ever,” Parker pokes holes in soothing platitudes designed to make white people feel better, writing,
This is a phrase used by Whites to express their surprise and disapproval of social or political conditions which, to the Negro, are devastatingly usual. Often accompanied by an unsolicited touch on the forearm or shoulder, this expression is a favorite among the most politically liberal but socially comfortable of Whites. Its origins and implications are necessarily vague and undefined.
Rarely has seeing superficiality and ignorance skewered in poetry been so absorbing.
Parker cultivates an assertiveness and an intimacy through her masterful use of rhetorical questions as when, in “Toward a New Theory of Negro Propaganda,” she asks: “when Sylvia Plath wrote ‘nigger-eye,’ what do you think she meant? When she said Lazarus, was it a noun or a verb?”
Magical Negro will read differently to different readers; such a statement is obviously true for any book on the planet, but here the spectrum of possible reactions seems particularly worth contemplating. When asked who she sees this book as being “for,” Parker has answered “posterity,” but certainly the experience of encountering the text is going to yield different emotions and insights depending upon one’s own race, class, gender, and sexuality. This interplay with intersectionality and its subsequent evocation of varied responses stands as one of the book’s many considerable strengths.
It’s a cliché to call a work of art a conversation starter, but this book is. One could spend hours discussing not only the whole collection, but each individual poem. In “Magical Negro #84: The Black Body,” for example — which repeats for five lines in an eight-line poem: “The body is a person” — there’s a lot to talk about in terms of who is saying this and to whom, of who needs to hear this and who seems incapable of fully accepting it.
This endlessly discussable quality means that Magical Negro would be a marvelous book club pick and fantastic in the classroom. For Parker’s material itself is expansive and incisive, but so too is her versatility with form and language. She deploys anaphora to acrobatic and multifarious effect, as in the long poem “The History of Black People” in which she lists:
The history of black people, a new series coming to BET twenty years ago.
The history of black people, an investigation.
The history of black people, a tragicomic horror film.
The history of black people, or, joy stinging pink lips.
The history of black people says me.
The history of black people goes blank.
The history of black people, adapted from white people.
And her prose poem “Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton” presents a dense wall of text comprised of a relentless fusillade of short, sharp sentences all punctuated by periods, even when they’re questions:
Does it hurt. Why did you come here. What do you want. Are you filming this. Do you live in this neighborhood. Do you have a picture. Do you feel comfortable. Can I ask is that a weave. Why do you feel comfortable. Is the neighborhood treating you well. Do you read the news. Where’s your real hair. Do you like America. Are you filming this. How much. Dollars. Did you hear about the trial. Where are we going after this.
The dizzyingly interdisciplinary nature of Parker’s approach, as well as her adeptness in blending different registers, makes her poem “The High Priestess of Soul’s Sunday Morning Visit to the Wall of Respect” worth quoting here in its entirety as a representative example of how captivating Parker’s investigations can be:
The Impressionism wing strikes me as too
dainty for my mood, except for one oil painting
by Gustave Caillebotte, Calf ’s Head and Ox Tongue,
which is described in the wall text as
“visually unpleasant.” A bust of an African woman
bums me out. This year, I cried
at everyone’s kitchen table,
I spit on the street and was late on purpose and stepped
in glass and my dog died and I saw
minuses over and over. I’ll figure it out.
I let a man walk away and then
another one. It has taken me exactly this long
to realize I could have done something else.
I’m being repetitive now but do you ever
The poem moves quickly and bluntly from outward-facing to inward-looking, from externally critical to self-deprecating, from cuttingly funny to devastatingly sad. This agility — exhibited in virtually every poem — serves to create a book that delights and astonishes even as it interrogates.
Parker, it is worth noting, also hosts the Reparations, Live! show, co-curates the Poets with Attitude reading series with Tommy Pico, and with Angel Nafis comprises The Other Black Girl Collective. This astute application of revelatory labels to hard-to-talk-about things is a logical extension of the rage and thrill and enchantment of her poetry — her ability to urge the reader to consider the alternating fluidity and rigidity of categories, to see and to think about:
Shawn Carter and Audre Lorde, feasting on difference.
Uppity Negroes and Highfalutins and Tyrones,
Rick James appearing before Judge Joe Brown,
granddaddies eating fruit over the sink, Bernie Mac
growling America, let’s talk.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018).