Essay

Midnight at the Greatest Party of All Time

Morgan Parker’s new poems roam through Black joy and grief.
Black and White Portrait of Morgan Parker

There’s a famous black-and-white photograph, by Ruven Afanador, of Diana Ross walking down a street in Bessemer, Alabama, sometime in the 1990s. The singer is wearing a rumpled silk slip and a fur-cuffed shrug that’s askew on her shoulders. She holds the bone of a spare rib in one hand and has the thumb of her other hand in her mouth. The image playfully subverts Ross’s own glamour. In her latest collection, Magical Negro (2019), the poet Morgan Parker recasts the subtext of this image as one of cannibalism:

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

When I read this poem, “Magical Negro #217: Diana Ross Finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s,” I reimagine Ross altogether. What if the juice she’s sucking from her thumb is men’s blood instead of barbecue sauce? What if her Afro is tousled from sex and not the heat or the wind? This isn’t a poem about satisfaction but about exhaustion with people taking something from a woman yet again.

Such exploitation is also a hallmark of the magical Negro. Defined as a Black person who is alchemically gifted and exists to set others—usually white people—on the road to self-improvement or good fortune, magical Negroes have long been a Hollywood trope. There’s Scatman Crothers in The Shining (1980), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Will Smith in Hitch (2005)—the list goes on. But the figures in Parker’s poems aren’t interested in guiding white people to the promised land. Her figures are ravenous and shape-shifting and eager to wrestle with time.

Ever since Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), her debut collection, Parker has engaged with contemporary pop culture, Black celebrity, and how Black excellence comes at a cost. Her sophomore collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (2017), is rife with intertextual reminders that beauty exists beyond the frame of fame and power. In Magical Negro, Parker fuses her pop cultural sensibility to a more fluid timeline of Black history, culture, and autobiography. She plays the role of a griot—a West African term for a class of traveling storytellers—as she conjures both the present and the future.

“And Cold Sunset” demonstrates how Parker disrupts temporality while remaining grounded in immediacy and intimacy. The poem ends with

My body is an argument I did not start.
In a way I am not aware who made me.
I bow down to a deep plea.
When strangers call my name I feel like a white girl.
Skin in reverse and a quiet pussy.
Nothing helps me not think about universes.
I’m funny because I know nothing matters.

The speaker addresses a former lover here, but her vulnerability accounts for so much more than a man in absentia. This is a woman in conflict with her own corporeality. She senses a lineage that goes far beyond her parents (“I am not aware who made me”) and that hints at other universes in which her body isn’t a target.  

Nancy Meyers, the multi-hyphenate Hollywood player who directed The Parent Trap (1998), The Holiday (2006), and It’s Complicated (2009), inspires a later poem, “Nancy Meyers and My Dream of Whiteness.” None of these films have Black protagonists. Unlike in the Diana Ross poem, it’s not time that comes under Parker’s scrutiny here but the inevitable trajectories of Black and white characters. As Parker sees it, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin eat goat cheese and smoke a joint respectively in It’s Complicated, while elsewhere in Hollywood Octavia Spencer and Denzel Washington play characters who are servile or fearful or both. Parker writes

I can’t be sorry
enough. I have learned
everything is urgent.
Road closings, animal lungs.
I am working hard to be
as many people as possible
before I can’t.
I know my long, dark movie
is fistfuls
of gravel in a brown bottle.

As in the Diana Ross poem, the prevailing mood here is once again exhaustion. Black women in particular face constant pressure to serve others and possess nearly superhuman strength. This is true both in life and in movies. Parker interjects herself as an active participant in these poems as she grapples with history and the politics of her own Black female body (“My stupid body stiffening on a dark road / My stupid body and my stupid memory”).

Most of the aforementioned poems belong to the first section of the book, titled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes” in sarcastic homage to James Agee’s 1941 book about impoverished tenant farmers. The second section is titled “Field Negro Field Notes.” Field Negroes, in contrast to often lighter-skinned house Negroes, worked plantations in the blistering heat. But the term house nigga is now a vitriolic swipe that denotes those who assimilate and take the side of the oppressor for the sake of self-interest. Although Parker now lives in her native Los Angeles, in “The History of Black People,” she writes evocatively of the red clay of the South:

If our legend was allowed, it would sing
alligator’s scales. It would be written in red clay.

She writes of the many popular iterations of Black history, whether Whitney Houston as Cinderella’s fairy godmother in the Disney TV movie or Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2. And in the second half of the poem, she turns more personal: “Single black female cries into a glass of rosé / on a Friday in April at 10:54 PM, is once again / an unpleasant movie date, makes every little thing / political …” The poem’s speaker imagines Black icons at her party: “If you cut open my heart, it would be midnight / at the greatest party of all time: a miniature / Shawn Carter and Audre Lorde, feasting on difference.” A recurrent theme of Parker’s collection is the common root of Black history and culture, and in her book’s second section, she becomes an autoethnographer to excavate and dramatize that root.

The beginning of “Field Negro Field Notes” examines the cycles of appropriation and neglect that mark Black life. Parker writes about white women going into African braid shops in Brooklyn, one of the most blatant examples of gentrification, and of how many white Americans now seem awakened to racial injustice after President Trump’s election. The culture shock comes as a crush of annoying questions, as in “Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton”:

Can I ask is that a weave. Why do you feel comfortable. Is the neighborhood treating you well. Do you read the news. Where’s your real hair. Do you like America. Are you filming this. How much. Dollars. Did you hear about the trial. Where are we going after this. […]

This ignorance is also an indoctrination, one to which even Parker isn’t immune. In “Who Were Frederick Douglass’s Cousins, and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School,” she writes,

I have a body. It sits in a desk.
Every day is bitten with new guilt.
My teacher can see right
through me, all the way
to Black History Month.
It is my fortune to be
ashamed, and from nowhere.
How can I concentrate
on photosynthesis when
there is a thing called Africa?
When my teacher talks about slaves,
I become a slave. I know too much.
I raise my hand. American flag
and family tree.

The poem illustrates just how much African American history isn’t taught to African Americans. In my own experience, what I learned in school about African Americans was that we were slaves. I heard few, if any, mentions of slave revolts or Black history prior to the transatlantic slave trade. The Harlem Renaissance was covered in two or three paragraphs (if that) in my high school textbook before we went on to study the Great Depression in depth. The poems in this section of Parker’s book confront the present and the not-so-distant past as they assess all the gaps and missing pieces that one may not consider in Black history and culture. For example, some of these poems flip the coin of the magical Negro conceit. What happens when Black people indulge and have fun? What does society miss when it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Black joy? In “Magical Negro #80: Brooklyn,” a poem from the book’s first section, Parker shows the possibility of play:

Here is the bright, young food co-op.
Here is the steeple. Here are the royals
not yet dead. Here are the Niggas With
Amethyst crystals. Shea butter
halos orbit half-shaved heads bowed
for vindication. Our mother patchouli
who art in the apothecary on Flatbush
hallowed be your Dutch wax dress.

The tone stands in contrast to that of “A Brief History of the Present”:

[…] Darren Wilson cannot
find a job, twelve months after the shooting, which left
his round cheeks pink with adrenaline. He lives a quiet
life. His blue eyes sparkle. He is a man who shot a boy.
No—a suspect. Boy. Rodney King became nationally
known after he was beaten. Journalists consider flimsy
words: ironic and alternative, fault and intention. Even
angels want L.A. fame. On the phone I ask Jericho how
the South is treating him. He says today he wasn’t shot
to death, and we laugh. There’s no way a black woman
killed herself, because everyone knows we can withstand
inhuman amounts of pain.

The latter poem serves almost like a call-and-response to “The History of Black People,” only this time, the tone isn’t celebratory but eviscerating. There are no imagined parties with Audre Lorde and Shawn Carter. Black death is ever present while white life goes on in the foreground. Black death pervades ordinary, informal conversation with friends. This isn’t the realm of the magical Negro anymore; magical connotes a manipulation of the natural world. But neither is it the “distant” past in which the KKK terrorized Black people in the South or in which Black people were lynched in Mississippi and Georgia. This is now, today. Parker reveals just how much time has elapsed and how much racial progress still eludes America:

[…] My name
might be a list, or a hymn, or a body, an investigation,
a year, a lineage. I might become an autopsy, and
the reason won’t matter, only my understanding, my
swallowing of my rightful place, tectonic plates clicking
like a jaw, and—stubbornly, like history—my mouth
becoming their mouth speaking who I am.

As soon as Parker laments her calcified position as a Black woman, in another poem she acknowledges her ability to time-travel—perhaps not in body but in mind. In “Who Speaks for the Earth?” she writes

We are addicted to linear time/ Who did what
to whom when/ We use verb tenses

For example, “Chased into a white sheet” / “Is haunting”
or, “Wasn’t an angel” / “Isn’t breathing any longer”

We make a lot of trash but whatever / There is
a particular way in which we are always in awe

It is 2014 and still                 I always have bad dreams
I have been blowing in this breeze so many nights
 
I mourn my other selves
My stupid body in the dirt

This poem grapples with one peril of “wokeness”: an audience that’s enlightened but still chooses to remain passive. The succession of years from 2014—the year of demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere—to now was supposed to usher in some kind of personal or political change, but conditions remain the same. With this stagnation in mind, the lines between history and the present aren’t so distinct.

In the third and final section, “Popular Negro Punchlines,” Parker gestures toward future possibilities even as she reverently invokes her ancestors. In “Thirteenth Amendment: Toward a New Theory of Negro Propaganda,” she writes

Negro propaganda is born of the opportunity in blips, dead air, revision, imploding narratives, and space travel. Negro propaganda at its best should seek to play the Offense as opposed to the Defense, and really go out there and give one hundred and ten percent, as it were. Negro propaganda insists upon simultaneity, the incongruent and antithetical, continuity only by way of a freestyled repetition. The Negro is Nevertheless. Here go the Negro, hanging roses to dry in the archways.

The poem suggests that the future is not made of large, auspicious moments. The future lies in the sublimity of the mundane: Black people caring for flower placements, for example. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but Parker sees in that statute the ugly stamp of capitalism and the catalyst for the transatlantic slave trade. She traces the differences between Black and white America with lines such as “Where the Negro might see luck in a collard green, the White might see $7.99 per pound” and “Why should the Negro be good with money when the Negro is always getting sold?” In Parker’s work, history is forever in alignment with the present and the future:

The Negro imagines a flood, and another flood, and
endlessness, a limitless Negro Imagination.

Angela Bassett with a match & the gap between Malcolm X’s
teeth & Frederick Douglass’s side part & Dave Chappelle in
Africa & Lil Uzi Vert & the gap between James Baldwin’s teeth
& the gap between Angela Davis’s teeth & imagine possible
homelands & refusal is not inaction & protest is not palatable
& who got the keys to my Jeep & the church parking lot & the
measured size of our skulls & leave my body alone & only
Judge Joe Brown can judge me & back in the day & a joke
about my hair & Diana Ross eating a rib & Harriet Tubman’s
face & laugh track & laugh track

What’s most evident in Magical Negro is that there is nothing new under the sun. What has happened once will happen again. As a Black woman, this is a lesson that Parker has inherited and internalized. A history as muddied, as denied, and as multifarious as Black history inspires an artist such as Parker to take on many different personas and former lives. She embodies popular Black icons from photographs, music, and film, as in her poem about Diana Ross. She documents her own maturation as a Black woman, which includes meditations on, and resurrections of, the past and how she was conditioned. And, finally, she remains mindful of Black people, even those she’s never known but who bear a common heritage in their faces. Magical Negro is a reminder, finally, of the cycles of Black life, and Parker, moving fluidly through time and space, is a poet unafraid to immortalize them.

Originally Published: February 11th, 2019

Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing (Harper Perennial, 2018). Her short-form work has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Rolling Stone, among many others. She is based in New York City.