When I was coming up I imagined my Black mama as being something other than human. She was the one who cared for her children and her siblings; it was my mother who put her own dreams on hold to ensure that her kids could pursue theirs. No one could convince me that the young Black woman who was my life source—and America’s target—was not the tough, enduring and idyllic symbol that I had made her out to be.
The day came, though, when my mom, this seeming invincible, perfect person, let loose a big laugh as she slid the crown covering her front teeth from her gums into her hands. Suddenly her smile had a gap wide enough to pass two Now and Laters through. It was the moment I understood what I had refused, and in some ways was unable to recognize all along.
My mother’s smile was not a lie, but it was a story. She was strong, but she was not unbreakable. She was otherworldly, and as the hole in her mouth revealed, she was also of this world.
I was taught to believe the lie that all Black women—even Camden-born, young, single mothers like my mom— are salvific and supernormal characters. Centered in the narrative somewhere between American degradation and American progress sit Black women; the mythical all-doing, all-knowing, all-saving creatures of everyone else’s imagination.
There’s something dangerous—and brutal—that happens, however, when a people, Black men included, reduce Black women to ideals. When we refuse to believe that they have their own desires…and can feel pain…and sometimes may need to be held after spending a life holding so many others.
Superheroes are not allowed spaces for deep breaths and pauses in the story. They are not afforded the luxury of refusal—to not save those in constant need. And there ain’t enough magic in the world dynamic enough to conjure that which our genuine love of Black women might allow: the full lived-out expression of their humanity.
We fail Black women by demanding that they always show up with #blackgirlmagic because those of us who have benefited from their private and public labor love our comfort more than we love their freedom. Perhaps we love their magic so because it’s most often deployed in the service of others.
“Who are we when we are not someone’s mother, or daughter, or sister, or aunt, or church elder, or first Black woman to be this or that?” historian Paula Giddings asked in her seminal book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. If only we could collectively answer her back: Black women are human and belong to themselves first.