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Re: Magic Negro

Posted by Smokey Stover on December 31, 2008 at 02:09

In Reply to: Magic Negro posted by ESC on December 29, 2008 at 15:33:

: This phrase is in the news here in the United States. See archives:

ESC is doubtless correct in saying that the phrase is in the news these days, at least here in the U.S. Both the phrase and the meaning ascribed to it date back to the 1950s, and especially to Hollywood. The election of Barack Obama as President of the U.S. has given the phrase new currency, although the application to Obama does not seem compelling to me.

Even so, I had never heard the phrase before ESC brought it up, probably because I rarely read film criticism. The terms seems very closely tied to a certain type of figure found in movies, namely an unassuming black man (or Negro, the accepted term when the phrase seems to have been coined) who acts significantly but more or less invisibly as a catalyst for the redemption or moral enhancement of a white man whose story is being told, bringing out his better nature by indirect or invisible means.

The author of the column quoted by ESC, like many others who use the phrase, adopts it to make a point which is not entirely germane to the meaning of the phrase. For instance, Southern racism, and the particular selection of the word "Negro," seem to me to be extraneous to the nature of the phrase. Moreover, I don't think that the "stereotype of the Southern racist" is sufficiently defined in most people's minds to be considered stereotypical.

One can find numerous discussions of the phrase by typing "magical Negro" into an Internet seach engine. Two of the discussions that I thought particularly helpful and interesting can be reached by these links:

Incidentally, in this post, as elsewhere, you will see both Negro (with capital N) and negro (without). I wss brought up to believe that Negro was a proper noun, while black was not. Inconsistent? For sure. But we live in an age in which capitalization runs up against the ubiquitous lower case of Net addresses and cyber-jargon generally.