Liberating the Magical Negro: A Mission Statement

Uncle Remus was my first encounter with a Magical Negro. I saw him in the (now banned) Disney movie, Song of the South when I was a child. I remember seeing an elderly black man walking through the fields, so gloriously happy that animated bluebirds swirled around him as he sang. I remember thinking that he was some sort of sorcerer, like Merlin. Like Dr. Doolittle, he could speak to animals, and knew their tales. I barely remember the frame story, which was some treacly affair about a runaway tow-headed tyke who was (rightfully) enchanted by Remus and his store of animal tales. For some reason the (white) adults didn’t care for Remus and forbade little whatshisname from seeing him. (Didn’t they know that he was a great magus?) The kid gets attacked by an angry (real-life) bull and Remus saves the day, which is what honorable wizards do. The frame story was a distraction from the vividly animated exploits of B’rers Rabbit and Fox, but I actually thought Remus was the more interesting character. I couldn’t grasp why he lived in poverty, when he was so obviously  a warlock or whatever. I began to devise adventures about him. Move over, Gandalf, Jeannie and Samantha. Remus is in town! He was the protagonist in my stories. Remus FTW! Years later, I recognized that Uncle Remus was a Magical Negro. That is, a stock figure in fiction (and other narrative media) meant to teach and/or accessorize white protagonists. They have no real life beyond being helpful wise people.

remus

The Magical Negro shows up in a variety of books and movies. The MN has no back story. They are allowed to be sassy comic relief, but primarily, they set up the white protagonist for victory over various odds. Certain black actors have long careers playing versions of the MN. Oda Mae Brown in Ghost is one massively popular example. Oda Mae somewhat subverts the paradigm. She does, for instance, have an extensive backstory (as a petty criminal) and much is made about her being a reluctant supporter of the titular ghost and his living lover. Oda Mae is much more a player in her story than Remus was in SOTS, and her portrayal by Goldberg steals the show. The actual plot of Ghost escapes me, but Oda Mae stays with me. I would watch the hell out of an Oda Mae-based sequel. (A tragically separated couple who make phallic clay vases and like ‘Unchained Melody’ a little too much—not interesting).

I guess what I’m saying is this: I have a complicated relationship with the MN trope. I recognize how its harmful and stereotypical. Can this narrative device be reclaimed, retooled, subverted? The untold stories of Remus: The Real Grand Wizard of the Old South and The Oda Mae Chronicles really ignite my imagination, perhaps more than is healthy.

My own fiction deals with race in one way or another; Otherness is a recurrent theme. I use fantasy tropes, both on the literal and allegorical level. After a while, I found that I had amassed a body of magical realist/urban fantasy/weird fiction where people of African descent were the main protagonists. The stories range from satire to horror to whimsy. These ‘magical negroes’ are in the spotlight. So, in a way, Skin Deep Magic is inspired by those ur-Magical Negroes. I’ve given them a voice. The characters are flawed, some of the stories are discomforting. But they have their own voices and histories to share.  I aim to be provocative as well as entertaining. Like Remus, I am a storyteller. But, I’m a liberated one, smashing stereotypes and remixing tropes.