Book Review: Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker is the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books 2017), Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), and Magical Negro (Tin House, 2o19). Her debut young adult novel Who Put This Song On? will be published by Delacorte Press in late 2019, and her debut book of nonfiction is forthcoming from One World. Parker received her Bachelors in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in Poetry from NYU. Her poetry and essays have been published and anthologized in numerous publications, including The Paris Review, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Best American Poetry 2016, The New York Times, and The Nation. Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the creator and host of Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series, and with Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She is a Sagittarius, and she lives in Los Angeles.
A Review of Morgan Parker's Magical Negro
Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro is a testimony to the complex, yet unwaveringly stunning depths of black womanhood. Sectioned into three parts, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes,” “Field Negro Field Notes,” and Popular Negro Punchlines,” Parker’s text is an amalgamation of homages to historical black figures, deconstructions and redefinitions of stereotypes, and honest demystifications of the black experience. Uprooting the foundations of systemically oppressive constructs such as racism and patriarchy, Parker’s poetry is a text of both “baptism” and “hunt.” Magical Negro paints a naked portrait of America; a portrait the reader should not turn away from.
Magical Negro is a palimpsest of sharp political commentary and pop culture references, reinforcing that one cannot exist without the other. In “Magical Negro #217: Diana Ross finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s,” Parker creates a fine balance between the sensual and sexual, while maintaining the Motown superstar’s agency and dominance: “since I thought I’d be dead,/ by now everything/ I do is fucking perfect walking wreck/ reckless and men / I suck their bones until they’re perfect / I don’t sleep with accolades I don’t get touched/ in the night all men do it cry / and ask me to be their mama.” With wWhat can be interpreted as an allusion to the biblical narrative of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib, Parker upsets this myth by giving a black woman the authority to reshape, both literally and figuratively, the male species. And though Parker gives Ross this sense of dominance and an armored exterior, she undercuts that toughness by moments such as “I’m in the world I’m in the world / nobody cares where I came from,” connoting that people only love figures the most when they are caricaturized and all a façade.
Parker’s work brings attention to a plethora of misconceptions and problematic nuances associated with black womanhood. In her piece “Magical Negro #3: The Strong Black Woman,” Parker fleshes out this commonly used phrase that suggests that black women can handle anything. While this phrase is often used as a term of endearment, to uplift and encourage black women to persevere and stand tall against whatever obstacles they may face, this language is much more rhetorically harmful. “Strong Black Woman” strips black women of their vulnerability and prevents them from being cared for the way they care for those around them. Parker toys with this irony through lines that carry an air of sarcasm, reaffirming the negative consequence of this language:
She thinks she’s better. She think she cute. She’s holding out.
And while Parker plays into this trope of the strong black woman that is always confident and self-assured, her closing lines emphasizes that this idea merely rids black women of the qualities that make them human:
A lack of serotonin. A lack of vulnerability. No chill. Nothing
Parker’s poem ultimately brings forth the question: who is going to be strong for black women? Who will “deliver us from microaggressions” and “give us [the] day to soak our supremacy wounds?” And as Parker’s work proves, that at this moment in time, the answer is no one but us.
While bringing attention to the complexities of black womanhood, Parker is unafraid to comment on problematic social quips such as in her piece “Now More than Ever,” which is “a phrase used by whites to express their surprise and disapproval of social or political condition which, to the Negro, are devastatingly usual.” The poem probes how this expression phrase is often follows “an unsolicited touch on the forearm or shoulder” and is how the phrase is a “favorite among the most politically liberal but socially comfortable Whites.” Parker unfolds this scene that Black people endure when the “Good Whites” are hoping for some form of “absolution” they are “convinced they deserve.” Thus, they seek this forgiveness from Black people, without realizing that this remark his phrase, “ “now more than ever,” simply reinforces their ignorance of the present day current struggles of Black people. It is a failed realization that there has never been a moment in history when the racial waters between Blacks and Whites have been calm or stagnant. T; there is constantly consistently a ripple effect that Blacks experience, dating back 400 years ago when brought to this stolen land. Or as stated in the poem, “same shit, different day.” Parker further reinforces this perpetual cycle of oppression in the last 31 lines that repeat: “and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.” This dramatic repetition stresses that the lives of Black people have never been safe and secure.
In “Magical Negro #84: The Black Body,” Parker exemplifies her ability to craft poetic prose narratives that consume the reader, while also creating shorter pieces that contain a linguistic brilliance and are equally as biting and riveting:
Give it a new verb.
The opening three lines of the piece serve as a call to action: to abandon complicity and passiveness, and instead put in the work to make change, to save the lives being recklessly stolen on a daily basis. “Stop writing poetry,” is an arresting line because the same vehicle through which Parker is advocating for social issues, is the same method she denounces in this piece. However, through poetic devices, there is still this understanding of the power of language. The refrain “The body is person” reinforces the dangers that ensue when people are simply viewed as targets or vessels, the intricate workings of the living being disregarded.
Parker’s final poem, “IT WAS SUMMER NOW AND THE COLORED PEOPLE CAME OUT INTO THE SUNSHINE” pays homage to many famous black figures such as Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Condoleezza Rice, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelly, Frederick Douglas, Nikki Giovani, Whoopi Goldberg, and Will Smith. This piece commences with an allusion to Noah’s Arc as “they descend from the boat two by to.” All of the figures are conversing with one another except Condoleezza Rice whose “teeth [don’t] speak.” The end of the poem serves as a proclamation to the perseverance of black people as well as a warning to the forces that work against them that “it is time for war.”
Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro is cutting and raw, a true attestation that the written word can be utilized for both pleasure and social activism. Parker leaves no stone unturned as she confronts and debunks stereotypes, diminishes socially constructed tropes, and proves that art imitates life and reflects the cultural climate of a time period, of a generation. Magical Negro is book that pushes boundaries and forces the reader to encounter themselves and realize that they might actually be a part of the problem.
Zakiya Cowan is a senior at Lewis University studying English: Creative & Professional Writing, and Spanish Language and Culture. She currently works as Managing Editor for Jet Fuel Review and also works as a Tutor and EL Specialist for the Lewis University Writing Center. She has been published in Windows Fine Arts Magazine and Split Lip Magazine. She hopes to one day pursue a graduate degree in Creative Writing and a career in publishing.