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What Is the Magic Negro?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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The “magic negro” is a racist archetype which appears in literature and film, primarily in the United States, where many people struggle with racial issues and the legacy of slavery. “Negro” is in and of itself a rather dated and offensive term used to refer to people with African ancestry, highlighting the fact that the magic or magical negro is a dated stereotype. Critics of film, literature, and other media started examining and questioning this archetype in the late 20th century, but it continues to appear as a plot device in a variety of settings.

Classically, the magic negro is a character of low social caste, such as a janitor or bus driver. This character is usually male, and no back story or history is provided, with the typical magical negro being relatively benign, although the character may embody other racial stereotypes, such as a lazy attitude or an inability to speak standardized English. The character usually has no friends and family, appearing as a standalone individual in the story who has been stripped of sexuality and personality.

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The key feature of the character is that he or she has mystical abilities and an air of sage wisdom. These abilities are used to help the almost always white protagonist get out of trouble, with the magic negro guiding the white hero to a greater understanding of the world, and swooping in to save the day whenever necessary. This stereotypical character will make any sacrifice necessary to save the white character, making the magic negro rather paradoxical, as he or she has supernatural powers, but is still servile to a white character.

This character appears again and again in American literature and film, from Uncle Remus to Morpheus in The Matrix. As with many other racial archetypes, the character has such a long history that many people are unaware of how prevalent this character is until they start to examine the roles of black characters in books and films. People may not also be fully aware of how racist this archetype is, an issue which has been brought up by many cultural critics and sociologists.

Although some people might assume that the magic negro archetype is on the wane, they might be surprised. In 2008, a leading Republican official attracted a great deal of commentary when he circulated a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” a parody of the first black President of the United States. He claimed that the song was meant as a harmless satire, but many of his opponents felt differently.

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ddljohn
Post 3

@fify-- If that's true, doesn't this make the use of this phrase tricky? If we consider it to be inoffensive, then people could use it in a sort of double meaning way and insult people without getting in trouble.

I respect your opinion and of course, things were a little different in 1950s America. But this doesn't change the fact that magic negro is a racist reference.

I completely agree with what the article said. The magic negro character in films is so contradictory. On one side, you're saying that African Americans are good, holy and have amazing capabilities. On the other hand, you're implying that whatever qualities they may have, they are still inferior to the white man.

Like in the movie Ghost, I hated how Whoopi Goldberg was portrayed this way.

fify
Post 2

@alisha-- I don't deny that this phrase is sometimes used in a bad way. But the original idea behind the "magic negro" character was not to make fun of African Americans. It was actually an attempt to show society that African Americans (and other minorities) are good people. I think in order to understand what magic negro means, we also have to understand this context.

In those years, I think there was a general dislike of minorities among whites. And for the most part, minorities weren't really cast in movies. And if they were, they were given "bad characters" and usually made villains. The magic negro character was a first in that not only were African Americans cast in

films, but they were also cast as good people.

When we look a the magic negro character within today's context, it may appear to be racist. But within the context of when it first appeared, it definitely did not intend to be racist. I agree that the literal phrase could have been chosen more carefully, but this phrase was probably attached to the character by the viewers, not the film makers.

So I personally don't see as much harm in the use of this phrase as you do.

discographer
Post 1

I was also offended by "Barack the Magic Negro" mp3 when I heard it. Many people found it funny, but I didn't. I don't think that racist phrases can be used for fun. If you do, you are bound to offend people.

I'm not sure who came up with this phrase in the first place. I realize that it is a common character in films even now. But the fact that this phrase was founded during a period where racism against African Americans were rampant, it's no longer appropriate to use it.

I'm against the use of "magic negro" regardless of whether it is used in a discriminating way or not. Why do we have to hold on to such phrases that remind African Americans about slavery? I think it's time to move on and such phrases have no place in present day America in my opinion.

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