In 2013, the phrase “Black girls are magic” was introduced to subvert the dehumanizing narrative attached to Black girls and women. The phrase, originally credited to feminist writer Cashawn Thompson, became the viral hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. Embraced by celebrities and public figures, such as Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg, singer-songwriter Solange Knowles and singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe, the mantra is intended to uplift Black femmes in a society that maintains systemic racism and violence to oppress marginalized people.
Yet Shayla Lawson, the director of creative writing at Amherst College and author of three poetry collections, seeks to look beyond the notion that Black girls are magic. This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope not only spotlights the nuances of Black womanhood but also rejects the claim that their power is rooted in an inherently superhuman or supernatural disposition.
Navigating the world as a Black girl means being simultaneously seen and not seen. Lawson examines how the private inner lives of Black girls are routinely misconstrued, misunderstood and vilified by the institution of whiteness. The work’s dedication page shares this Toni Morrison quote: “Racists always try to make you think they are the majority, but they never are.” Morrison was not afraid of speaking her truth, even if it meant losing the favor of white literary critics and readers. As witnessed in her famous interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison had no interest in writing for a white audience. Lawson, like Morrison, is not attempting to explain Blackness or Black girlhood to white people. Consequently, her self-reflection is not a means to make Blackness more palpable for the white gaze.
In the collection’s opening essay, “You Are Here,” Lawson invokes a wide range of creative ingenuity: Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Josephine Baker, SZA, Simone Biles, Janet Jackson and more. Lawson calls upon these influential women to highlight their brilliance, resilience and ability to thrive in a world determined to cut them down. These women are very different, but they all prove one monumental truth: There is no one “right” way to be a Black girl. We are able to take on many forms; we can resurrect ourselves.
Yet, despite a Black girl’s ability to transform, this does not mean we are otherworldly. In “Black Girl Magic,” Lawson notes, “Black Girl Magic relies upon a white conception of supernatural blackness in order to make girls special.” Thompson’s movement “focused on Black Girl Magic as a state of being” and is significant, but its social media-friendly version “makes black girlhood a commodiity, a list of attributes you don’t have to be us to reproduce.” Black girls are magic, but Black Girl Magic “doesn’t set us free.”
Notably, freedom is a topic that is explored repeatedly throughout Lawson’s essays: What does it mean to be free? What does freedom cost? How do Black girls get free? And once you get free, how do you stay free? Whether she’s discussing the politics of Twitter popularity, the pitfalls of interracial dating, the ever-shifting cultural definition of “black” or the reality of gentrification, Lawson is a master of her craft. Her keen poetic sensibilities sharpen topics that may seem amorphous or expansive. She doesn’t present herself as the representative of all Black girls, but she seamlessly blends deeply personal memories with overarching moments in history and pop culture. The result is a sense of familiarity between the writer and the Black women who pick up this book.
Near the end of the book, the essay “Diana Ross Is Major” dissects the musical and cultural legacy of the Supremes frontwoman. Lawson uses the black-and-white image of Diana Ross enjoying a rib in her hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, as a structural bookend. The photo, taken in 1997 by Ruven Afanador, captures the singer in a silky slip dress and fur-accented shawl, hair done in a voluminous Afro, the rib stripped to the bone. Lawson contemplates how Ross not only broke barriers but also offered an unprecedented and radical vision of Black femininity. Racial caricatures of Black women have always relied on the assumption that Black women cannot be soft. These tropes portray a Black woman’s strength as brute aggression: the Angry Black Woman, the Strong Black Woman, the Sapphire. Additionally, a Black woman’s sexuality is seen as deviant or immoral, as evidenced by the hypersexuality of the Jezebel stereotype. The Mammy, another trope that can be traced back to Hattie McDaniel’s character in Gone With the Wind, is subservient, a devalued matriarch whose selflessness is born out of fierce loyalty to everyone but herself. None of these roles cast Black girls as worthy of protection or tenderness. Lawson argues, “Ross made black women visible in a time when we weren’t seen at all, and definitely not in our entirety.” When we think of “major” Black women changemakers, you can’t include someone like Nina Simone without someone like Diana Ross.
In This Is Major, Lawson doesn’t aim to provide all the answers, but the journey is certainly commendable, real and undeniably striking. Lawson’s voice can be smooth like honey or cut to the quick. This essay collection is a necessary study of self-enlightenment and the unique power of Black girls: We contain multitudes. And while it’s forever imitated but never duplicated, our influence reaches beyond expectations, moving like water.