Browse By

In ‘Magical Negro,’ Morgan Parker’s Poems Challenge White Ideas of Blackness

By Morgan Parker

How wide is the gulf between the realities of black lives and their representation in American popular culture, which overwhelmingly emphasizes white narratives? “Privilege is asking other people / to look at you,” Morgan Parker writes in her third poetry collection, “Magical Negro,” a work that explores the gap between black experience and the white imagination’s version of it. In the popular canon the trope of the “magical Negro” is a black character who turns up exclusively to aid, often through uncanny wisdom, a white character. To say that Parker seeks to reclaim these characters oversimplifies the book’s tense negotiations of pop culture, systemic racism and black womanhood. Rather, “Magical Negro” highlights the white imagination’s more subtle violences, especially those that wear a smile and extend a hand in the name of charity or diversity, all to depict white people as a tolerant majority.

Parker confronts this display of inclusionary rhetoric in a poem called “‘Now More Than Ever,’” defining the title phrase as something whites say “to express their surprise / and disapproval of social or political conditions which, / to the Negro, are devastatingly usual.” The poem suggests that the phrase is used patronizingly, “accompanied by a solicitation for unpaid / labor from the Negro”:

often in the form of time, art,

or an intimate and lengthy explanation of the Negro’s

life experiences, likely not dissimilar to a narrative the

Negro has relayed before to dead ears.

Parker carries forward this concern about free labor and the commodification of minority experience from her previous collection, “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” in which she wrote that “art is nice but the question is how are you / making money are you for sale.” Her audience here is not the white reader who seeks to experience — and therefore tokenize, exoticize and commodify — “the other.” That’s not to say white readers shouldn’t read this collection; in fact, I’d argue they should seek it out, if only to push whiteness to the edges of their reading lives. It’s imperative, however, that we acknowledge the line between readership (who reads) and audience (for whom the text was written). While some of Parker’s poems ironically posit themselves as “guides” to black culture, the collection, by and large, provides a space to celebrate black excellence and black joy as well as to commiserate about injustice.

“My body is an argument I did not start,” Parker writes, centering her particular experiences as a black woman in a way that calls to mind June Jordan or Robin Coste Lewis. Throughout Parker’s collection, we see the paradoxical invisibility and hypervisibility of black women, as with “Magical Negro #3: The Strong Black Woman,” whose title character is sexualized to the point that the speaker suggests assaulting her, then says, “She / won’t feel nothing.” The Strong Black Woman is hypervisible in her sexuality but invisible when someone abuses her.

“I worry sometimes / I will only be allowed a death story,” Parker confides later. This fear is charged by the accounts of racist violence and police brutality in other poems. Parker challenges us to be careful with our language, especially regarding the deaths of black people. In “Magical Negro #84: The Black Body,” she writes:

The body is a person.

The body is a person.

The body is a person.

The body is a person.

The body is a person.

So often “the black body” is used in shorthand to talk about the direct object of violence, but the phrase distorts, even erases the humanity of the victims and survivors. Through repetition, Parker rejects this erasure. (Elsewhere, she uses repetition to reflect unchanging history: “‘Now More Than Ever’” ends with “it would appear that the Negro must / live the life of the Negro, ever, now and ever” before repeating “and ever” over 180 times.)

Source link

Positive SSL
%d bloggers like this: