Woman who created 'Black girl magic' responds to Taraji P. Henson's criticism of the phrase: 'It wasn't accurate'

Taraji P. Henson, seen here in March, said recently about "Black girl magic," "I get it—it's to lift us up. But you have to be careful with that term." (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images,)
Taraji P. Henson, seen here in March, said recently about "Black girl magic," "I get it—it's to lift us up. But you have to be careful with that term." (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images,)

Taraji P. Henson hit on plenty of topics while speaking recently at the 2020 Marie Claire Power On summitmenopause, mental health and stigmas that plague Black women, including through the trope of the "strong Black woman."

She also took aim at the popular phrase-turned-hashtag, "Black girl magic."

"I get it—it's to lift us up,” she said. “But you have to be careful with that term, because what it does is it dehumanizes our pain… We're not fairies. I can't rebound from pain, or the loss of my son to the law, and nothing's being done about it.”

Henson continued, “I am human and I hurt. And I think those terms like that are the reason why Black women die in the emergency room or giving birth [at higher rates than white women], because we are known to be strong.” One study, from as recently as 2016, found that nearly half of first- and second-year medical students believed that “black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s,” and that “trainees who believed that Black people are not as sensitive to pain as white people were less likely to treat Black people’s pain appropriately.”

Henson has not been the first to take issue with the popular phrase and link it to medical racism, as Harvard University lecturer of African American Studies Linda Chavers shared similar sentiments in a 2016 Elle op-ed, noting, “Black girl magic suggests we are, again, something other than human. That might sound nitpicky, but it's not nitpicky when we are still being treated as subhuman. And there's a very long history of black women being treated as subhuman by the medical establishment, in spite of the debt Western medicine owes to them.”

Still, when news of Henson’s comments hit social media, it grabbed the not-too-happy attention of some — including the woman behind #BlackGirlMagic, CaShawn Thompson, a D.C. native, early-childhood educator of 20-plus years (working through the pandemic) and a self-described “Black matriarch of the 21st century.” Yahoo Life reached out to Thompson to set the record straight on what she intended “Black girl magic” to be about.

Yahoo Lifestyle: What did you think about Henson’s connecting “Black girl magic” to the perceived invulnerability of Black women?

Thompson: It wasn't accurate, because “Black girl magic” is not related to the “strong Black woman” trope. And it's not related in a big way, because the “strong Black woman” trope was assigned to us by those outside of Black womanhood, but “Black girl magic” is ours. That's how we’ve defined ourselves. It has nothing to do with us being impervious, waving wands or casting spells. And it doesn't have to do with us being able to withstand everything, because we are very human, and none of us forget that (even when other people do), so we don't need reminding of that. The strong Black woman trope is BS, and I'm not claiming that for me or any of my sisters out here.

Are you concerned that one celebrity point of view could diminish what you intended it to mean?

I don’t think she can do that. Even with her star power, it just can’t happen. I don’t think any one person can do that, regardless of where they stand in the social stratosphere.

How did you happen to come up with the phrase?

It’s something that came to me when I was a little kid, years ago, way back in the ancient times of the 1970s. I grew up in a family of women — not only women, but the women (of course, as we always are) were the movers and shakers of my family. What I knew of womanhood and girlhood was Black, and the work that I saw them do, to me, at 4 or 5 years old — I thought it was magic, because that was my point of reference. I was a huge fan of the fairytales that my mother would read to us, so when I would see the women of my family in movement, doing everyday things, I literally thought we were magic.

How did it go from a childhood notion to the popular hashtag we see used today?

It wasn't until sometime in 2013 when I got so overwhelmed with the negativity being put on Black women that it made me share the thought online. At the time, people were saying Serena Williams looked like a man — basically misogyny and transphobia in one fell swoop —and they were trying to downplay her accomplishments, as if she isn’t the greatest athlete of all time. So I said something like “I don’t know what they’re talking about, but Black girls are magic.” From there it took off and was turned into a hashtag. The hashtag got shortened because of the old Twitter [character] limit, and then somebody told me that if I put [the phrase] on a T-shirt, they would buy it. When I put it out there, I thought “this will be fun,” assuming I’d sell about 30 shirts, but I ended up selling 330. I started seeing it in the media, and it just became a huge thing.

What was that like for you?

At first, it was great. People started asking me questions about it and I did a few interviews, but as time went on [the message] started getting warped. I think it’s because the verb had gotten dropped, so it became a thing to have instead of a thing to be. That kind of commodification is what led to people like [the white professor who posed as Black] Jessica Krug and the like to take on Black womanhood — because they see it as a thing they can take on and off, instead of who we are.

On top of that, there was back-and-forth about trademarking, but what really bothered me more than anything is that there were a lot of attempts to stratify “Black girl magic,” like putting restrictions on who deserves to say it or be it, which was just inappropriate to me because we're not doing that — at all. It's not about who gets to shine or who is worthy. We all are, just by birthright. Nobody gets left out and nobody is free until we all are.

Do you see a connection between Beyonce’s album Black Is King, or the series Lovecraft Country, and the notion that the magic of Blackness is something inherited?

Yes and yes! And I’ve seen so much about who we are in that show! For at least the last three episodes, that show has made me say, “Oh my God, this is it. Somebody finally gets it,” and it sends me. I go up for that show because it's exactly what I've always meant. I felt the same way when I saw [actress] Jurnee [Smollett-Bell] in [writer] Misha Green’s other show, Underground.

It’s so important for the experiences of Black women to be represented and validated, because we tend to be the canary in the gold mine about a lot of things, right?

We always see things before other people do. Like what we tried to say about Trump, the infiltration online or the last election. We tried to warn people, but nobody wanted to listen. I guess they didn't think we knew, but we been knowing. And look where we are now… One thing this pandemic has shown me is that it has brought out the very best and the very worst of every person and situation. But of course, as many have said before me, “Whenever America gets a cold, Black women get the flu.”

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