Prose from Poetry Magazine

On Black Girl Magic

A triumphant and explosive war cry.
Image of the poet Mahogany L. Browne.

My sister-in-law, who I call my Sister, is what most would like to call a “firecracker.” She married my youngest brother, born to a father who was married to my mother lifetimes before, and we’ve been kin ever since. Whatever she says, it’s usually with a snap of her eyes, a cut of her lips, or a finger wag. It is not a performance of blackness — she is a Black woman. And these movements are hers, just like they were her mother’s. Just like they were her grandmother’s. 
A tradition of survival. She’s learned how to get her point across 
neatly: a knife in a drawer full of spoons. She’s always accused of being too “rough” on people. Which is where our sisterhood thickens, molasses strong.

I too have lived on that block, in that house, first door to the right and you could find me: Angry Black Girl/Strong Black Girl/Black Girl You Call On When You Need to Get Things Done.

My Sister, T, is too this woman; unapologetically, listening to Beyoncé with her three Black daughters and her eldest Black son. Praying faithfully for forgiveness, because she’s begun to believe that she is hard to love. T, who snaps her eyes when pointing across the room, need not pray for forgiveness, I say. But it’s hard to believe someone like me, especially when the world is fixed on telling her how strong and loud and wrong she is. I introduce to her June Jordan’s mantra “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name” and we weep a little between laughter. There are these moments that I hold close to my chest. The phone glued to my ear as we cackle between shit talk and ferocious laughter.

Where in the world do they love a Black Girl for being herself? We are primed to bear witness to Kardashians and Jenners pretending to be Black women with their cornrows and Black boyfriends, their acrylics beaming under the hot light, the world their stage. No one asks them to settle down their finger snaps or tone down their hair color. No one judges them for their sexual partners or the sex tapes that leak. Their children are born, revered as beautiful, receive rightfully the world’s love. They are offered modeling contracts and makeup deals like candy, as we sit by idly, college tuition debt 
growing, as our children die from lead poisoning in Flint or with a handful of skittles in Florida or because of disobedience in Maryland or sleeping quietly on the family couch in Michigan.

Where in the world do they love a Black Girl for being herself? Where a twenty-seven-year-old activist can die after her second child is born due to cardiac arrest. Her weight and height and eating patterns are blamed for her health, never the stress it must’ve caused her heart to watch her father ripped from this earth, on repeat in hi-def display; a reminder that Black death is the only thing certain and ours. Her name, so closely linked to the ghost of her father, Erica; a chant no one will sing until she is gone. My sister, T, is not my blood sister. But she is mine. She is me. We are one and the same when we love how we love. Our teeth bared and gleaming because we’ve grown to understand “I love you” as a weapon held against our throats. We retreat into ourselves and fight others who are trying to kill us: family members, friends, neighbors, and supervisors. We understand the small deaths (TV shows where all you see are jokes about us; weaves overpriced and deemed out of style until a hashtag with Gigi, the newest trendsetter, mimics a Black girl from IG; or the men we love disposing of us with statements of “too much” falling from their open palms) can culminate into an ultimate death. A death where there is no room for the love of ourselves, beginning the journey of void-filling through addiction, dangerous surgeries, and loneliness. Though we oftentimes find ourselves unfolding to protect those same hands during vigils, protests, and rallies. This is what Black women have been taught to do. Love and show up for what love has survived. And so, we do. Let those that look like us take from us, until there is nothing left. We understand we are the backbone despite the backhand. And we love with the harshest tongues, believing that the survivors of such a spectacle are here to stay. We share intimacy this way, in hopes that if you see combat deserving of affection, maybe you too will swing in the protection of our names.

But this is not a fail-proof plan. This is not the blueprint for home. For many years, I believed it was our only heirloom. To speak as hard as you love. I spoke to T today. I told her about the importance of apologizing. She sighs and cuts me off: “I meant it, Sister, I’m not sorry.” And I hear me ten years before, angry and seething and righteous. I reply: “It’s not about being right. You are not apologizing for what you believe to be true, you are apologizing for your hand in hurting someone else.”

We hang up soon after and I am spinning because while I ask my Sister to do things I wasn’t capable of doing at her age, I wish someone had told me about the power of forgiving myself. I believe we have the right to be snarky and witty and throw shade, if we choose. We owe ourselves the right to speak through a world that’s tried to mute us all of our lives. But I know the difference between intention and impact. We’ve seen this before. And so we lash out, because we know our very lives are in danger. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Eleanor Bumpers, Korryn Gaines, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Malissa Williams, Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd: killed for standing up, sitting down, speaking back, protecting their children, or just being Black women.

I believe with my whole self: ain’t no room for a Black woman’s voice to be policed. Our worth is always up for debate. My Sister is one of the kindest women I know. I have witnessed her crumble to the ground in fear for her child and reach into her deepest pocket for grace when dealing with the gracelessness. Black women are often asked to lead (silently) and be the symbol of civility while everyone else plays from a different rulebook, mocking their existence the entire time. T is the woman I dreamed of becoming. The way she rides for my little brother — their marriage is a fortress of forgiveness and love, the way it stretches until there is room for all of their children and their dreams. T sends me a text about being hard to love and I want to cry. Such a folktale: being hard to love. What a fable we’ve grown to believe as the rule. T is so easy to love. We are so easy to love. Our resilience and expansion is proof that magic exists. We are magic. We are Black girls grown into women, growing people, and this collection of Black Girl Magicians are mantras, prayers, and promises of our survival. The anthology this portfolio comes from, The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, edited by myself, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods, is a literary but breathing example of our great-great-great-great grandmothers’ triumphant and explosive war cry.

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2018

Mahogany L. Browne is coeditor of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, 2018) and author of Black Girl Magic (Roaring Brook Press, 2018) and Redbone (Willow Books, 2015).

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