Words by Kyah Parrott Photography by Kia Dyson
“Black women were created of brown sugar and warm honey.
The sweetest thing to bless the earth.
Be wary of anyone who tells you otherwise.”
A quote by Alex Elle that vividly captures the essence of black women. Photographs, scripture, poetry and love letters are the closest you will come to making ‘Black Girl Magic’ a tangible product. It cannot be dispersed among others, it cannot be grasped, or pinpointed. You can, however, feel it, see it and experience it, bringing your senses to life like a hot habanero or a sweet piece of fruit. Black Girl Magic, with its necessary capitals, has no set definition. The Oxford Dictionary cannot provide any insights into the phenomena turned hashtag, so for all those who are looking, I’ve found a few answers. I’ve come to learn that this newly-coined term is a movement above all else. The participants range from any and everybody on social media who hashtags #BlackGirlMagic, to the likes of Rihanna, Solange Knowles, the Williams sisters and Michelle Obama, who are all prime examples of some commanding BGM. On my quest, I sit with Mahogany Browne, poet, activist, author and educator. Miss Browne was on my radar due to the Magic that seeps from her soul into the eardrums of every person that she performs to. She provides insights into her thoughts and opinions on artistry, prevalent social issues, and shares with me a bit of her very own Black Girl Magic. The best place to begin is almost always at the beginning. So here they are, the answers that I’ve collected – like crystal palm stones on my journey – to answer a burning question: what exactly is Black Girl Magic?
In science, when we want to understand something, often we dissect it. To break it down, the term splits two ways. Firstly, ‘Black Girl’. Yes, they come as a package deal. My womanhood and my Blackness are divinely interwoven. It’s true that this Earth was inexplicably crafted for Black women. The sun that scolds only nourishes her skin and reflects light onto all those in her divine presence. She makes white look whiter, oranges, blues and greens look brighter, and fruit taste sweeter just by smiling when she hands it to you. Her soft brown skin parallels the Earth’s rich soil. The very soil that is our entire foundation for life, it fuels us, feeds us, heals us and literally holds us upright. Black women are the reason we’re alive today, as they literally populated the planet. Not only are they the backbone and strength of their community, they’re the brilliance behind sending the first aircraft into Space, and the genius behind the music genre ‘Rock and Roll’. Yet we’ve built this systematic, routine driven society that fails to recognise or appreciate her. Despite being the least protected, she is the most targeted for crimes of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and judicial injustice.
Our Blackness and our womanhood are like DNA strands that simply cannot break free of one another, because society places a woman’s value in her appearance. We, like all women, suffer from that. However, Black women are also caged by beauty standards that they cannot meet. Through the texture and aesthetic of their hair, the complexion of their varying skin tones, to the width of their noses and the colour of their eyes. These beauty standards that we use to subconsciously decide whether a woman has a role in our workplace, a voice when she speaks, and a right to her own humanity, were made to uphold a Eurocentric perspective of beauty where fair skin, blue eyes, and thin lips and hair are idolised.
Secondly, the term possesses the word ‘Magic’. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, magic is “the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces”. Much like a flower that rises through the cracks in cement to blossom so voluptuously, with petals so supple and a stem so strong, Black women influence the entire world by using mysterious and supernatural forces every day. In short, that is one part of Black Girl Magic. Our ability to rise, despite all the odds that are stacked against us. How we choose to show up and show out. Participating and contributing to a society that scarcely keeps us in the back of their minds. When we embody Michelle Obama to combat misogyny, racism, intersectionality and microaggressions, on top of the disproportionate opportunities allocated to us, we also lead family homes, communities and nations, and we do it all looking our very damn best.
My favourite part of Black Girl Magic is the commitment to one another to participate in each other’s magic, orchestrating a whole inconceivable reality that truly makes Hogwarts look lame. Celebrating and uplifting one another to reach higher, to laugh louder and to stay winning like Serena Williams. Sometimes, you need a visual to really grasp a concept, so God gave us Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé Knowles, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Elaine Thompson.
Seemingly endless adversity is almost a criterion for Black women who strive for success, whatever their arena. It’s a violent rhetoric that we’ve seen before. Serena Williams is no stranger to this rhetoric. She has had her photograph likened to that of a Chimpanzee on one of Australia’s most popular television shows. She has been ridiculed for her body features by tennis players that scarcely make it on the same rank as she does. Yet Serena Williams has defied all odds and kept herself a household name for over two decades. She was my idol when I was eleven years of age, and like true magic, she’s remained on the tips of tongues and on top of her arena since her professional debut in September 1995. She’s an Olympic Gold Medallist, she’s won twenty-two Grand Slam titles and her list of achievements places her on the ‘Arguably Best Athlete of All Time’ list. Her career resembles a kebab of skewered medals, trophies and cheques. Her career stands alone as a testament to her Black Girl Magic: from her seemingly unmatched talent, her unmatched grace upon defeat, to her jaw-dropping allure when she ditches the tennis skirt for a night out. Her love-life is peppered with some very well seasoned and equally delicious young bachelors, who I’m sure would attest to her divinity. The Hogwarts-shaming extravaganza was truly born when Beyoncé recruited Serena for a cameo appearance on her latest album LEMONADE, titled ‘Sorry’. Us mere mortals watched on in awe as two of the world’s most influential and endlessly talented young Black women explored themes of courage and strength. All the while looking their very damn best. Best of all, representing us.
Beyoncé herself is no stranger to the dangerously violent rhetoric. She’s attacked, mostly, for owning her own sexuality. The shock horror of a woman who is comfortable with her body, her femininity and her sexuality. She’s been labelled a racist for taking a stance against police brutality and using her platform to speak – artistically of course – through themes in her music and visuals, on some serious political and social issues. Yet, like Serena, Beyoncé has giggled politely at the shackles they’ve tried to bind her with. Her professional career debuted in 1997, just under two decades of being an artist and professional entertainer. Not only has her career survived this incredibly lengthy time span, she’s thrived throughout it. Remaining always at the forefront of culture and music selection, Beyoncé will be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. She’s mashed up the method and processes of the music industry, revolutionising the entire industry – specifically, in the way artists release and control the dissemination and marketing of their music. In 2013, Beyoncé dropped a self-titled album entirely by surprise. Despite skipping the expensive and lengthy behind-the-scenes PR jazz, the album was certified Platinum by the British Phonographic Industry and it broke the iTunes sales record. Apple announced that Beyoncé was the fastest selling album in the history of the iTunes Store that December. Her latest album, LEMONADE, was a visual album that explored themes of infidelity, love, healing, cyclical ailment and Blackness. It was an Earth shattering beckoning for artistry to simply be better.
In an era where we praise young, Black male artists for taking a stand against racism through messages that are wrapped in violently misogynistic lyrics in the name of ‘entertainment’, Beyoncé came through with her Black Girl Magic and provided art, entertainment and a far firmer stance on political issues, all the while inadvertently calling out these men on their hypocrisy for demanding justice for Black people, but not Black women.
She does it all with the utmost poise and grace. Beyoncé is, was and always will be a force to be reckoned with. It’s of no surprise that she has earnt the co-sign of our favourite ever FLOTUS, Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama has received some of the worst racial abuse that I have ever bared witness to in this so-called “modern day”. She has been likened to a gorilla, endured endless criticism of her physique, endless taunts, but the punchline is all the same. Basically, “you’re Black and that’s ugly”. Surprisingly, through the hell of hurtful words and blatant disregard for her achievements, Michelle Obama remains the most graceful, most influential and most beautiful First Lady of the United States that the world has yet to see. Outside of her family life, Michelle has her own achievements to revel in. She graduated with distinction from Princeton University, then went on to earn a degree from Harvard Law School. Her nickname is ‘the Closer’ for her ability to persuade voters over to her side of the fence, where the grass truly is greener. Michelle has wrestled with corporate moguls to make healthier foods more accessible to lower socio-economic neighbourhoods, to prioritise higher education, and has drawn focus to the importance of international adolescent girls’ education. Her speeches draw goosebumps, throat lumps and watery eyes. She’s an emblem of success for young, Black women. We wear her on our sleeves, opposite our hearts, everyday when we dress. She reminds us to be classy and graceful, even in the face of adversity. She makes us want to achieve far greater than what we had thought possible. We operate in a society that celebrates infidelity and the demeaning of women, yet her and her family are the epitome of Black love that operates as a unit in complete togetherness. She’s every little bit Black Girl Magic. Yes, God gave us these women, among many, many more, to act as representatives for all Black women, and attest to the undeniable Magic within us all. It isn’t solely exclusive to twenty-two-time Grand Slam Champions, or Princeton and Harvard graduates with the persuasive power to control your mind. Though sometimes it’s difficult for young, Black women to harness their own Magic. The feeling of bobbing up and down like a buoy in the ocean, scarcely keeping your head above water, is a vivid reality for a lot of us, a lot of the time. So how then does one truly harness their own Black Girl Magic?
I am sitting with Mahogany Browne, who is renowned for her poetry and is every bit as decadent as her soul-soothing name, to find some soul-soothing answers. Mahogany Browne grew up in California, where the sun is sweet, the sky is too, and the time is post-racial o’clock. Or, maybe not? Black President and dreamy FLOTUS Michelle Obama aside, nowhere on Earth is currently a ‘Post-Racial’ paradise. Regardless, through words sewn together that string us along with every visual she creates, through song-like rhythm, Mahogany dances over topics of Blackness and Black love, too. We feel her hurt when her long-time friend, LeLe, lets her boyfriend drive a divide between the two of them with the pointy end of Colourism. Her poem, ‘Pizzly Bears’, makes the mixed-race folk truly feel like “when love grows outside itself, and bursts into the world”. She leads you blindly back to your own pulse and heart beat with ‘This…This’. Well, ‘This…This’ is a demonstration of Black Girl Magic. The way she’s ever-present when you speak with her, and her presence that commands your fullest attention. I was attentive when I took the steering wheel to interview Mahogany, to discuss some of the themes present in her poetry and writing, and to learn the methods of Self Love that she uses to nurture her own Black Girl Magic. She says “Blackness holds so many shapes”. I like the mental imagery that her sentence paints, where the melanin in my skin was a canvas made of, well, magic. Where anything could come to fruition from such a sturdy foundation as my Black skin. Yes, Blackness truly does hold many shapes, and shades too. Looking for a place to put the hurt, we’ve let our differences become less of a celebration and exploration of all that we can be, and more of a reason as to why the other cannot be.
Countless times I’ve teetered on the fence of Whiteness and Blackness, because neither were prepared to embrace me wholly. Countless times we’ve watched Black women with dark skin left for the vultures, like Leslie Jones most recently. “No one comes to the defence of the dark skinned Black woman”, reiterates Browne, as we discuss the racial abusing of the comedian/actress and the lack of action or interest in defending her. Whether you’re bi-racial with skin like coffee mixed with cream, or melanised to the fullest like the Blackest of lush berries, Colourism plays on our psyche in what we think of ourselves and those around us.
Mahogany describes Colourism as “an everyday unlearning”, an unlearning that takes place by consciously controlling what you consume. If you approach the issue from a historical perspective, Colourism is as much planned as any gentrification. It is, in a way, a gentrification of the mind.
It most certainly fits an agenda. With Colourism we see “less kinship, more competitiveness”, says Mahogany, discussing the ramifications of the complex issue. “White Supremacy would love us to believe that there is only one or the other”, she says in regards to there being “one prototype of Blackness”. She hints at the correlation between our thoughts and our limited and sometimes biased media by asking you to “look at what we’re allowed to see”. If you look long enough, you come to realise you’re actually staring down the barrel of a weapon long used against us. You come to realise how minimal our differences truly are. You come to realise the power in all of us, with all of our different shapes and shades.
Mahogany discusses the Black Lives Matter movement and the power it hosts by being an umbrella that “utilise[s] those hashtags to unite forces”, drawing long standing organisations to seek alliances with one another. Mahogany took to her own platform, asking herself “what other means of organising can I do?”. ‘Black Poets Speak Out’ was born, an initiative detailed by Mahogany on its Tumblr page as “a collective outcry for our Black lives”. Any initiative that combines a healing ritual like poetry and bitter sweet justice is something I could wrap my hands around and hold on to. Art is free. To draw, paint, write love songs or children’s books. It’s all free. Your imagination doesn’t cost you a damn thing, but art is free in a sense that like Blackness, it cannot be contained. Free(dom). Beyoncé shattered entertainment paradigms with her art. She called for the end of men’s celebration in destroying women’s ability to do what we do so well, love – destroying our nurturing nature with the glorification of infidelity and violence. She whispered the words that rang true to so many souls: “ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks”. And when that dust settled? There stood men who have been falsely labelled as legends for their coy marketing tactics. Marketing tactics that see them utter a few words about justice for Black people, while they continue to demean and target Black women. The disparity in what is asked of Black men and Black women is obvious when you allow it to unfold on stage before you. According to Mahogany, “all of the male artists in the world are not required to think, do and be, the way you ask her”; she’s speaking specifically about Beyoncé, yet making a point that’s applicable for all of us. Though, for Mahogany “it is against [her] personal stance as an artist” to ask another to wear her agenda. She can state “this is how it makes me feel, this is what I think it will do” as the extent to which she has any say on somebody else’s art. Art, then, becomes even more free. The kind that comes with letting go, knowing it’s outside of your control – therefore, you must let it be free.
There is an art and most certainly a freedom to self love. Self love is a key core essential to Black Girl Magic. How on Earth could anybody be the very best version of themselves if they didn’t take the time to know, nurture and love themselves? How could anybody else revel in their Magic if they didn’t themselves? Mahogany feels wholesome. She leaves you feeling more comfortable to just be and more wholesome within that. I ask her for a must-read book list for young, Black people eager to look beyond what they’re allowed to see and perhaps de-gentrify their minds:
– ‘Assata’ by Assata Shakur
– ‘Salvage the Bones’ by Jesmyn Ward
– ‘Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison
– ‘Parable of the Sour’ by Octavia Butler
– ‘I should have been Jimmy Savannah’ or anything else by Patricia Smith
I asked her for her top five Survival Songs, and like pebbles leading back home to wholesome, she lists:
– ‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone
– ‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé
– Anything by Etta James
– Erykah Badu on loop
– ‘X-Factor’ by Lauryn Hill
The very last crystal palm stone that she leaves for me to share with you is how she actively engages in Self Love. Miss Mahogany Browne likes to splurge whenever she can on massages, claiming “you don’t realize how much tension is in the body”. I’ll most certainly attest to that. Lastly, she tells me to stick out my hands and I do. She spritzes a mist in my palms, tells me to rub it together then bring it to my nose and inhale it. Aromatherapy. For a moment all the nerves I had felt from conducting my very first interview disappear. I become ever-present. Not quite the same as a hot habanero, but I certainly feel my senses come to life.
Kyah Parrott is a writer and stylist who boasts a unique style – her favourite style icons include Solange Knowles, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kanye West. Kyah’s aspirations revolve heavily around empowering people across continents, through both broadcast and narrative journalism. Born in Toronto, Canada, Kyah is currently curating culture locally in Melbourne, Australia; with aspirations for a global influence.