One of the most infuriating things about urban fantasy as a genre is that one of the most familiar representations for Black readers (and of Black people) comes in the form of the magical Negro figure.
In his article “The School for Magical Negros”, Michael Harriot writes that:
The Magical Negro is the white man’s idealized version of black people—a cross between faithful slave servant who walks with his head down and a superhero too conservatively demure to wear a cape and too grateful for the benevolence of white people to slit their throats for past atrocities. He may drop his “r’s” and use incorrect subject-verb agreement (because a literal incarnation of the perfect black stereotype, by definition, can’t be smart), but he is the incarnation of the friendliest, most loving, loyal dream of a human being.
And that’s the heart of it: magical negro characters literally exist to serve (usually, but not always) white characters on their quest to great magical power.
They exist to use their magical talent (which sometimes isn’t even actual magic but uncanny ability to be exactly what the white protagonist needs to fix themselves) and provide education to prepare the naïve non-black protagonist for magical success. Unless you’re lucky, there’s rarely any attempt at fleshing out the magical negro character or acknowledging either his talent or blackness beyond what those things can bring the hero.
Like Harriot says in his article:
The Magical Negro is a pet.
Case in point?
Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries.
Bonnie Bennett is in 135 of The Vampire Diaries’ 171 episodes, but can you name:
- Her major in college?
- Both of her parents?
- Her favorite color, animal, flower and/or food?
Chances are that you can’t.
Not because there’s just so much information about Bonnie out there that the minutia gets lost, but because the show and its showrunners (like ultimate embarrassing White Feminist ™ Julie Plec) simply didn’t care about her.
Sadly, Bonnie Bennett doesn’t matter to the world of The Vampire Diaries beyond what she could do for the white characters around her. That she’s also a witch instead of a powerless Black sidekick is what made her a magical negro.
Bonnie Bennett primarily used her magic in service of the white vampires and werewolves around her. She’s used by the supernatural figures in the town of Mystic Falls to solidify their power, bring back loved ones from the dead, and protect their property.
Bonnie doesn’t matter beyond that.
Her feelings didn’t matter when Elena was around to be sad and pretty.
Even her rare love interests saw her as a second choice or a tool to be used.
Bonnie may have gained magical and metaphysical power across the seasons, but she had no real character growth that didn’t immediately benefit the white characters around her. Almost every single thing that Bonnie did or was relates back to a white character who she inevitably wound up sacrificing some part of her happiness to for in order to save or satisfy them.
I get that The Vampire Diaries as a franchise isn’t that fond of character growth – considering how series darling Elena is one of half a dozen lookalikes across history and they all make similarly terrible choices – but what that show did to Bonnie was ridiculous.
I’ve consumed a ton of urban fantasy over the years and one thing that stands out is that the magical negro present in the books I’m reading/shows I’m watching generally isn’t seen as a) human or b) integral to the plot because they’re people like the (white) main character.
It is frustrating to see how Black characters are robbed of humanity in urban fantasy stories so that white characters can learn a lesson or experience an emotion.
And it got me thinking…
While Mace Windu is technically a Magical Negro… Bonnie Bennet definitely is.
Not every single Black character in an urban fantasy series is intended to be a Magical Negro. Few authors sit down with the intent to craft a Black character that ties back into centuries of antiblack sentiments in media and a largely unquestioned belief that Black people are mystical and exist to serve white people, after all.
But we’ve already covered how intent isn’t magical.
These authors don’t need to sit with antiblackness in their hearts and minds in order to put antiblackness into their works in various ways – including this one. Which is understandable because it is difficult to break away from established tropes and trends even when there’s been documented distaste against it for several generations.
The book Horror Noire lists several examples of relatively modern magical Negro figures from Dick in The Shining, Will Smith’s Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Jezelle in Jeepers Creepers, and Epiphany in Angel Heart (152-154). What these characters have in common is that their existence is tied to their usefulness to a white hero. The moment that these characters are no longer needed – when the magical Negro has done their “job” – they are murdered, they choose to sacrifice themselves, or peacefully vanish into the afterlife in order to reaffirm the belief that the only good Black people are… dead Black people.
As Robin Means Coleman writes:
Already insightful, “seeing” people who use their powers for good, magical Negroes’ goodness is made even more obvious through their self-sacrifice. Their heroism is offered not only without regard for self, but also without regard for their loved ones (who are absent in all of these films). That is, while it is a noble goal to try to maintain Whites’ family units, magical Negroes seem to have no families who will mourn and suffer for their deaths.
It’s that last thing that gets me: magical Negroes across the board exist to make sure white characters get the happy ending, that they come back from the big battle, that they have time to prepare for the boss fight. They are foot soldiers, not the final champion.
Take Kendra Young.
For years, Kendra was the only heroic Black character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And she was only on the show for three episodes in season two. Between her death and the introduction of Robin Wood in the season seven premiere “Lessons”, there are no other Black characters with a heroic role.
Kendra exists as a pre-Faith foil to Buffy – at the far end of the spectrum from Faith who took being a Slayer lightly – and really only came to take up the stake as the Slayer because Buffy was technically dead for a few minutes. And despite being the second Slayer in the series, she’s murdered by the vampire Drusilla and then… that’s it. Nothing else.
No one mourns Kendra.
Not Buffy and her friends.
Not her Watcher.
Not her family.
Is Kendra anyone’s favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer character?
How could she be – unless, of course, you were a Black teenager starved for representation and decided to write your own ending for Kendra in your fanfiction… She had her own action figure, I believe. But she didn’t have… a legacy. She didn’t have a family. She was mourned less than some of the repeat appearing (and offending) vampires that showed up in the series.
(Similar to Bonnie and Kendra, Black characters locked into the “Magical Negro” role in urban fantasy television shows and who were also either loathed or written off by fandom, is True Blood’s Tara. Racebent and then turned into a vampire partway through the series, Tara was not treated right by her show’s canon… or the fandom. But that’s beef for another meal.)
There’s a difference between a Magical Negro character and a Black character that just happens to be magical (or otherwise supernatural). Unfortunately, not that many writers or fans know the difference.
One of the things I’ve clocked is that many of the “classics” of urban fantasy novels paved the way for this reliance on Magical Negros in the genre and those problematic patterns are replicated across the decades. Not only are many those genre pioneers still ongoing in some way – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series are all still marked as “Ongoing”, but they all still suffer from the initial issues of antiblackness in literature.
They still have their Magical Negros all over the place and they’re not treating them that well.
To this day, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Black characters are primarily Magical Negros – and they don’t get to be much more than that… Kenyon has a single novella in the main Dark Hunter series with a Black hero and heroine.
Aside from that?
All of her actual Magical Negro characters in that franchise – like the Egyptian goddess Menyara or Marie Laveau’s granddaughter (or reincarnation, who knows) Cosette – are mystical figures who really have nothing else going for them.
Same goes for the handful of Black characters in the Anita Blake series –
Something we’ve mentioned in the past.
As Gloria Oladipo points out in “The Missed “Magical Negro” Trope in “The Queen’s Gambit””:
For decades, Black people, particularly Black women, have been reduced to racist tropes, used for the betterment of white protagonists. From classic movies like Clueless (1995) to mainstream television shows such as Sleepy Hollow and The Vampire Diaries, Black women are given little screen time and used as stepping stones for white character development and plot advancement, rarely offered the space for their own meaningful storylines.
These characters don’t have narratives focused on their journey unless they luck into a book focusing on them as the main character.
They don’t have family that they’re close to. They don’t get to be real characters who have their own on the page identities.
They just exist to help or hinder a white protagonist using their magic, super intelligence, or some other seemingly supernatural aspect. That’s it. They don’t get to be… anything more than a stepping stone for a character that doesn’t appreciate them or treat them properly or a reminder that even in fantasy worlds, bad things still happen to Black people.
And it’s tiring that it’s a trope that people – creators, critics, and fans – do not recognize when they see it in play.
Instead of writing Magical Negros, aim for fully fleshed out and well rounded characters that just happen to be Black.
One thought on “Urban Fantasy 101: Magical Negros in the Genre”
I’m a black writer working on an urban fantasy and I just happened upon your blog today and am so thrilled to have found it. Fantastic article, you named a lot of the reasonings I am often unsatisfied with much of the urban fantasy Ive read. Thank you for naming the exact issue. I’ll definitely will be reading your blog – I’d love to see a list of books you think got it right.
Comments are closed.