#BlackGirlMagic. It might sound like a Disney film with young women of colour on broomsticks but, in reality, an idea about black female identity that began life on social media has become a cosmic rallying cry. Neo-soul singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae recently defined #BlackGirlMagic as “being fun and sparkly … and not having your life defined by your blackness and representation of what blackness is”. It’s been unpacked by Solange Knowles and critiqued in Elle magazine. Even Barack Obama is talking about it.
If you break it down, it’s a way of black women expressing our solidarity with each other. Its current incarnation may live mostly online, but it is an embodiment of something many black women have been doing for years in real life: forming communities of support based around our mutual disenfranchisement.
Black women use it in different ways – there are no rules. It might be used to caption Instagram pictures of graduations, on Pinterest boards of fabulous hair or on status updates proclaiming a love of black female role models such as Ava DuVernay, who, in 2014, became the first black female director to receive a Golden Globe nomination. We deem each other, or ourselves, “magical” as a way of expressing our strength, beauty and success. Knowles calls it part of the “secret language between black girls”.
Its origins are ambiguous, but CaShawn Thompson, a feminist writer from the US, claims to have been the first person to encourage others to use the term in 2013. Thompson says that its aim is to “counteract the negativity” that society places on black women, but the phrase goes beyond that.
It tackles the dangers of a culture that recognises few achievements by black women. It’s a collective stand against the stereotyping, colourism, misogynoir and outright racism that some face daily – the kinds of treatment that are causing such high rates of depression and anxiety among black women.
If you need further proof as to why the phrase is so important, look at mainstream magazines – black women are rarely represented or appreciated as being beautiful. The token exceptions, such as Lupita Nyong’o – who, as writer Rawiya Kameir puts it, is “an Ivy League graduate, [who] … comes from Kenya’s globally recognised political class” and therefore falls into the category of “acceptable blackness” – are not enough.
Lupita Nyong’o … an exception that proves the rule.
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Lupita Nyong’o … an exception that proves the rule. Photograph: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
In the UK, women such as Color Purple actor Cynthia Erivo and Britain’s Got Talent’s Alesha Dixon have spoken out about prejudice in TV and the music industry, and Bailey Rae puts it well when she says that Black Girl Magic is empowering in comparison with the images of black women often shown in the media, “being tough, with a cap on, with graffiti behind them”, “struggling”, or “being a nurse in a period drama”.
Of course, not all black women buy into it. “Black girls aren’t magic. We’re human,” argues Linda Chavers in Elle, saying that the superhuman connotations remind her of the “strong, independent woman” trope that black women are so tired of hearing.
But Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue in the Hunger Games and whose video about cultural appropriation, Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows, went viral in 2015, has been a big champion of the idea – even donning a sweatshirt with the term emblazoned on it. In a recent interview with Knowles in Teen Vogue, Stenberg compared it to “shine theory”, a phrase originally coined by New York magazine journalist Ann Friedman. “[It] basically says that when you become friends with other powerful, like-minded people, you all just shine brighter,” said Stenberg.
Black Girl Magic works as a virtual way of practising shine theory, connecting women through the use of three simple words and lifting them up to be respected and admired.