In 2018 I was in my second semester of graduate school at Lesley University. Everyone in my cohort was tasked with reading hefty portions of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. The book is a very helpful tool for screenwriters to better understand our characters and how this deeper understanding of character can help move our stories along. I became particularly interested in a section where Vogler discussed The Catalyst Heroe.
“…central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” (Vogler, p. 37)
I was particularly struck by the use of Eddie Murphy’s character, Axel Foley, in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, to support his argument.
“A good example is Eddie Murphy’s character Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop. His personality is already fully formed and distinctive at the story’s beginning. He doesn’t have much of a character arc because he has nowhere to go. He doesn’t learn or change much in the course of the story, but he does bring about change in his Beverly Hills cop buddies, Taggart and Rosewood. By comparison they have relatively strong character arcs, from being uptight and by-the-book to being hip and streetwise, thanks to Axel’s influence.” (Vogler, p. 37)
Vogler was not wrong in his assertion. In fact, he was spot on. That is exactly who Axel Foley is. And unfortunately, his character never grew in the four films that were made about him. The way Vogler described Axel Foley reminded me of a term I had heard filmmaker Spike Lee use years prior, at a lecture at American University: The Magical Negro. This trope has been present in film and television for decades.
“These supporting black characters often come from a poor background and use magical powers or sage advice to help struggling white protagonists find themselves and achieve success. Unfortunately, their inner lives are rarely explored and they prioritize white people’s problems over their own. “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Spike Lee asked an audience at Yale in 2001. “They’re still doing the same old thing … recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.” – (Matthew Hutson, Slate Magazine, November 14, 2014)
These definitions of The Catalyst Heroe and The Magical Negro, and the strong supporting Axel Foley example made me think of another group that falls under these categories: Black Women in the workplace. Also working in corporate America, as I continued my graduate studies, I was often burdened by the dichotomy between how I saw myself and who I knew myself to be, and how my white co-workers and supervisors saw me, and who they thought I was. This dichotomy was not something I was able to dismiss. It was ever-present from the moment I sat at my desk until I left at the end of the day. I had come to understand that my feelings were an across-the-board experience of many Black women. I conducted interviews with several Black women of varying degrees of education and professional experience, and decided to explore those experiences, in comparison to several Magical Negro tropes that exist in film and television.
What Is A Magical Negro?
Spike Lee was one of the first filmmakers to inspire me to write films. He was speaking at American University, in Washington, DC. My brother had an extra ticket and called me to join him and a friend at the highly anticipated event. In 2001 Lee was doing a series of talks at colleges around the country, on the roles created for Black men in films. He actually referred to these characters as “the mystical, magical negro,” to be exact, and I was fascinated by this concept. I had either heard of, or seen, several of the films he referenced, among them, The Family Man, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile, and almost anything Morgan Freeman appeared in. But, watching these films, and having no knowledge of this trope, I simply
paid attention to whether I enjoyed the films; whether the stories kept me engaged. Wikipedia defines the Magical Negro as:
“…a supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film’s white protagonists. Magical Negro characters, who often possess special insights or mystical powers, have long been a tradition in American fiction.”
Wow. Unknowingly, I had been watching Magical Negro characters in film and on television my entire life. In the 2000s The Family Man, Don Cheadle’s character, Cash, is a sort of hood angel who shows up to help Nicolas Cage’s character, Jack, navigate the new life he wakes up to. We know nothing about Cash, where he’s from or his interests. But, we know that Cash is hell-bent on making Jack see what he’s missing on the other side of life, and works to get Jack comfortable and settled in this life. Once Jack is transformed, Poof! Cash is gone.
The Legend of Bagger Vance always felt like a horribly boring and unnecessary film. I’m not into golf and I thought the idea of a mysterious Black man coming out of the woods to help a young white man play golf was dumb. Will Smith, having already achieved major success with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black and Enemy of the State, took the role of Bagger Vance, I assume, to work under the direction of Robert Redford. At that point in his career the role seemed like a step back, so my assumption was that he wanted to work with a legend. Bagger Vance emerges from the woods one dark night, addressing Matt Damon’s character, Rannulph, as “Sir,” then later tells him he’s lost his golf swing. They’ve never met, but this mysterious Black man knows Rannulph’s problem and is intent on helping him fix it. And once that’s done Bagger Vance can retire into the woods until another white man in distress.
The Urban Dictionary allows users to share their own definitions for popular terms, slang words and colloquial phrases. When defining the Magical Negro, most made reference to Black men in movie roles, playing a “token” or “cliche” character who is old, wise and somehow uses magical powers to selflessly help white men get through their problems, with little to no reward. There was even mention of a non-Black version of the trope, otherwise referred to as a Noble Savage, in the form of Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid films. Yes, somehow Mr. Miyagi was able to slap his magical hands together, rub them several times and cure almost broken limbs. Magical. But, in all of the articles I found on the Magical Negro, there was little to no mention of Black women characters. Are there Black women Magical Negro characters?
In 1940 Hattie McDaniel won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing “Mammy-House Servant” in Gone With the Wind. Throughout film and television history the Mammy character has shown up in various forms. But, in Gone With the Wind this woman’s name was Mammy, and she epitomized the stereotype to a tee: a heavy-set Black woman, born in the deep south, who was so happy being a slave that once she gained her freedom she continued to work as a domestic for white people. Mammy is sexless and unattractive, lending to zero moments of jealousy from the white women she tends to, or suspicious behavior from the white women’s husbands. The Mammy character does not aspire to a higher position in life, and this is very comforting for the white people she works for. If she were to educate herself, she could leave and do more with her life. And what would they do without Mammy? Who would tie their shoes?
Mammy characters are often portrayed as sassy know-it-alls, keeping the white people in check and serving as the all-knowing voices of reason. Hmm… Mammy is the most uneducated person in the home, and yet she is relied upon for her all-knowing wisdom and superior common sense. In Gone With the Wind Mammy has been taking care of Scarlett since she was a baby. So, in some respects she probably looks at Scarlett like a daughter. But, in the reality of that time, Black women in those domestic roles often had families of their own at home. In one scene Mammy tugs and pulls at Scarlett’s corset, getting her dressed to go to a fancy barbecue. But, Mammy desperately wants Scarlett to eat before she leaves. She yells, she scolds, and snaps at Scarlett in a rapid, broken dialect. She’s also very concerned about the amount of skin Scarlett is showing in this dress; all things a mother would naturally be concerned about. But, moments later, a twist is revealed. Again, Mammy pleads with Scarlett to put something on her stomach saying, “If you don’t care what folks say about dis family, I does. I’se told ya and told ya that you can always tell a lady by the way she eats in front of folks like a bird. And I ain’t aimin’ for you to go to Mr. Jonas Wilkerson’s and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog.” So, Mammy’s concern is deeper than the motherly concern of wanting a child to have food on their stomach and cover up their cleavage. Mammy is concerned about the family image and status being tarnished if Scarlett eats like a cow at this barbecue. She wants to maintain the O’Hara family decency; protect it. Mammy thinks she is a part of this family. She thinks they are a reflection of her. She’s like a kidnapped person experiencing Stockholm Syndrome; an impressionable teenager indoctrinated into ISIS. Or, Mammy’s misguided protection mirrors today’s Administrative Assistant or worker in a service industry. Today’s workplaces, much like the home where Mammy worked, often resemble a sort of modern day plantation; structured to keep Blacks in a position of servitude. By making Blacks believe there’s nowhere better to go they don’t aspire to more.
During most of my undergraduate education – and for a time after I graduated – I worked in restaurants, as a server and hostess. I was much better at the latter and worked in that position for the majority of my time at restaurants. I was often promoted or given more responsibility. Sometimes that came with more pay. I had never experienced a moment where I had doubts about my hard work being rewarded. The work environments were racially and socioeconomically diverse. At the fancy downtown restaurants, the only people who treated me poorly were the entitled suits. At one particular fancy restaurant I had been diligently working as a hostess for over a year. This restaurant was one of many owned by a successful restaurant team. The same positions existed at every restaurant, and the Floor Supervisor position became available at one of them. At my restaurant I worked under the Floor Supervisor and he trained me well. He thought I would be great in the role and suggested I apply for it. One day I mentioned my wanting to take the open position to another manager – a young, blond, white woman who never shied away from addressing the other Black women workers as “girl” and often referred to tables full of Black women guests as “the sisters.” I told this woman I was considering applying for the open position and she was taken aback; confused, even. She said she wouldn’t have thought I wanted a higher position because I seemed to like hostessing so much. She wondered what they would do without me doing this thing I did so well: seating people and answering the phone. I don’t believe I responded to her. In those moments, Black women always carefully consider the response options: React, and give in to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, or ignore the comments and keep our eyes on the prize. I applied for the position and got it.
In 2018 I was an administrator, supporting a department of six people, but mainly supporting the executive in charge of the department. For several years the executive in charge was a half-Caucasian/half-Korean woman, very focused on climbing to the top of her field. Her frustrations on this climb, often trickled down to everyone in the department. Because she was my direct report – and my desk was only a few feet away from her office – I often bore the brunt of these frustrations. She would yell for me to come into her office, and I would brace myself for what could be the matter. Sometimes she would gripe and tell me what issue she was having with me, or someone else in the office. Other times she wanted to sit on her sofa and release her emotions on being held back by the boys club in the C-Suite. So, at any moment I was either friend or foe. I took pictures for her match.com profile, but when I asked for a raise I deserved, she peppered me with complaints that had never been brought up in my reviews, or otherwise. She happily wrote one of my recommendation letters for graduate school, but when she mediated a meeting with a co-worker I was having a hard time working with, she quickly chose sides. She stuck with the white woman on the fast track; the other climber. Because, let’s be clear, that association worked for the world she was trying to enter. An association with me did nothing for her climb.
The 1981-1987 television sitcom Gimme a Break depicted a modern day Mammy. For six seasons we watched Nell Harper’s character, Nell Carter – a heavy-set, sassy Black woman tend to the needs of three white teenage girls, their widowed father, and eventually the young white boy she adopted. The premise of the show is that Nell was a friend of the Chief’s late wife. When she passed away the Chief asked Nell if she would move into the house to take care of it and his children. Nell is the star of the show. So, to not have her follow the pattern of the typical subservient Mammy, we do see what goes on in Nell’s personal life, and the family does not take issue when she attempts to have one. But, what stands out most about the premise is whether the decision to cast a Black woman in that role was on purpose. If Chief asked one of his late wife’s white friends to be his housekeeper and nanny, did the producers worry about the audience believing that premise? Is that an unrealistic scenario for a white woman? In 1981 was it still typical for housekeepers and nannies to be Black, so the producers went with what they knew? Is a white woman able to be sassy and direct in the way Black women are perceived to be? Nell keeps everyone in the home in check, with quick one-liners and a lot of attitude. Could a white woman pull that off? Would it have been an entirely different show with a white lead? If the housekeeper were white, she may have eventually become a love interest for Chief. But, following the mold of the heavy-set, sexless Mammy, there is never a moment when we believe Chief would ever make a pass at Nell; that’s not what she was there for.
In Season 2, Episode 22, Nell is very sick; to the point where she may have even had the flu. It is visible, from the moment the lights go up on the stage, that something is very wrong. Chief is going out of town and Nell attempts to pack his luggage, but she’s having trouble moving around. Chief finally notices and takes her temperature. Seeing that Nell’s temperature is very high, Chief enlists his mother to come to the house while he is away. Later, the girls tell Nell to stay in bed and want her to get well. Chief’s mother even offers a few home remedies to help her get better. But, as Chief’s mother starts to drive everyone crazy, the girls turn to Nell to fix things, because, as a Magical Negro, even on her deathbed she has the magical solution to save the day. And like Mammy, Nell pushes aside her own needs (to not die from the flu) to help the girls come up with a solution to make Grandma go back home. My next thought after watching this scene was, but wait, if Grandma goes home early who’s going to take care of the girls and the home? Oh, right, Nell will do it. Sick, well, or dying, if no one is able to do it Nell will do it… because she’s magical.
Interview #1: Debra
Debra was in her early 30s, has a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health, is very articulate and poised, and has an all around great personality. Debra had a tough time getting a stable position in her field, so she was working as an office manager, which in many ways was the office mom. In our interview, she talked about feeling like everyone’s therapist, even listening to her supervisor complain about work. Debra’s responsibilities included being on top of the staff birthdays, setting up socials for new hires, ordering office supplies, and unloading the dishwasher. At the time of our interview, she had recently lectured the mostly white staff about dirty dishes left in the sink. They were very appreciative that Debra had the ability to be so straightforward about the dirty dishes, as it was a constant issue that everyone had a problem with. But, without Debra it would have seemingly never been resolved.
When I asked about her personal work relationships – if anyone asked or cared about her life outside of work – she recalled a rather interesting occurrence that had recently happened. She had been taking care of a friend who was soon to pass away. This moment occurred one day when she was on her way to work. Debra emailed her supervisor to let her know what happened and that she would not be coming in that day. The supervisor said she was shocked, replying, “I had no idea.” Debra said she thought to herself, “I know her daughter’s name, I know how she broke her arm, I know her husband’s name, I know her ex-husband’s profession.” Debra, as a Magical Negro, was devoid of a personal life, in the eyes of her supervisor. As long as she was serving the purpose her white co-workers and supervisor needed her to serve, she was serving her only desired purpose. “It’s almost like they’re afraid to ask me anything else, unless it’s about work,” Debra said. And, at the time, she had not come to understand what that fear was about.
Whoopi Goldberg is a talented actress. She proved that fact in The Color Purple and every film thereafter. In 1991 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for the role of Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. She was the eighth Black woman to be nominated, but only the second to win, since Hattie McDaniel in 1939. In several of her films, including Ghost, Whoopi has played a Magical Negro. But, because of her immense talent, and (what I believe) a certain power and control that comes with that talent, we do not often realize we’re watching a Magical Negro in her performances. She has portrayed a housekeeper in the films Clara’s Heart, The Long Walk Home and Corrina, Corrina. And she was oddly cast as the token Black friend in Moonlight and Valentino and Boys on the Side. But, for the purposes of my craft paper I decided to focus on her roles in Corrina, Corrina and Ghost.
Much like Nell Carter, Corrina Washington is a modern take on the Mammy character. The film was set in 1959, but premiered in 1994 when a certain amount of political correctness – absent in the 1980s during Nell’s television run – had seeped into much of what we were watching. So, Corrina Washington was somewhat of a refreshing take on Mammy; still sassy, quick-witted, and full of random acts of magic, but refreshing. Whoopi received top-billing for the film. Her co-star, Ray Liotta, plays a man named Manny Singer. When his wife passes away, Manny is left to raise his daughter alone. He sets out to find help, interviewing several potential housekeepers/nannies. The interviewees were pretty diverse: several white women, a sultry Latina, a very forthright Asian woman, and even a man. Manny hires who he thinks is a good fit, until the woman climbs into his bed one night, under the assumption he was also looking to fill the position of new wife.
In the next scene Corrina steps off a bus, cigarette in hand, sashaying in pumps and a fitted suit that flatters her curves. Particular attention is given to the way she stomps out her cigarette, moving her head and fingers to a jazzy tune only she can hear. She has a commanding presence. We definitely want to know who this woman is.
Manny’s daughter, Molly, has been having a very tough time since her mother’s death, and has stopped speaking. But, when Corrina shows up for her interview, and says nothing too astounding to the child, Molly later communicates with Corrina by honking her bicycle horn at her, as she leaves the interview. Looking on, from inside the house, Manny decides to hire Corrina. So, Corrina has that magical it factor none of the other potential hires were able to tap into. But, beyond having a commanding presence, Corrina doesn’t really have any housekeeping experience. She has a college degree, which means nothing much to Manny, because he is specifically looking for a housekeeper and nanny. During the interview Corrina even knocks over and shatters a vase. She didn’t have much going for her, but she was chosen.
Much like Gimme a Break, I wondered if it would not be believable if Manny hired a sassy white woman who sassily stomped out her cigarettes? Mary Poppins is white, beloved by all little children, and does actual magic. But, in American film and television history, most of the magical nanny and housekeeper roles have been portrayed by Black women. Molly takes an instant liking to Corrina, who, of course, eventually gets her to talk. Corrina takes Molly home with her and the little girl becomes great friends with Corrina’s nieces and nephew. Molly even starts singing in the children’s choir at the Black church. Manny’s mother is very concerned about Corrina’s influence on Molly, but as Manny is also enjoying his talks, laughs and comfortable banter with Corrina, he brushes off his mother’s concern.
Manny takes Corrina and Molly to dinner, defending her honor when a white patron grabs her arm, assuming she is a waitress. Manny buys Corrina flowers as a thank you when he lands a big account, and even listens to Corrina talk about her dream of writing liner notes and a music column. Manny is supportive and seems to sincerely care for Corrina. When the woman he’s dating meets Corrina saying, “Oh, this must be your girl,” Manny is visibly uncomfortable. And when the woman gives Corrina a direction, Manny does it himself. But, all this time, Corrina is keeping a big secret from Manny.
Molly had a rough transition back to school, so she cried and pleaded with Corrina not to make her go back. One day turned into several, where Corrina takes Molly with her to other housekeeping jobs. One night Manny comes close to kissing Corrina. His feelings are apparent. They are also apparent to Molly, who looks on from the window. The next day he finds out Corrina’s secret and explodes, driving to Corrina’s house, bursting in the front door, accusing her of lying to him and breaking his trust, then he fires her. But, wait… we thought Corrina could do no wrong. Molly’s happy, Manny is falling in love. What’s the problem? Why this level of extreme emotion?
The all-knowing Mammy cannot slip up. It would be uncharacteristic of her genetic makeup todo something as humanly simple as make a mistake. The all-knowing Mammy does not complain, she’s never too emotional – unless she’s sassing or scolding to maintain order – and she most certainly never fails.
Interview #2: Olive
Olive, an Administrator in her early 50s, who completed high school and correspondence training, had been in her position for almost 28 years. She had never been promoted, and consistently felt overlooked. But, because of her lengthy tenure, she carried the reference of the person who knows where the bodies are buried. “Olive is the go-to person in the department. It says that in my review. But, when I look at that check…,” Olive said, her voice trailing off and she wrestled with the decades-long feelings of unfairness. Olive supported two different departments, totalling six people. There were several people who showed concern for her wellbeing, asked about her family, her personal life. But, there were several people who did not even say good morning to her, before giving her an assignment. “I feel like I’m held to a higher standard than my white counterpart. And I don’t know if that was brought on by me, in wanting to keep my job, but, it makes me angry…. I support six people, but there’s no recognition. And I think that’s because I’m Black and a woman.”
Interview #3: Susan
Susan, a Manager at the same company, also in her early 50s, has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, and actually quit her job the week I interviewed her. After ten years, she was tired of being the “fixer” in her department, while also being made to feel inadequate. She too was considered a “go-to” person, heavily relied upon to have all the answers, but was accused of not being a team player, and was denied her raise; a raise everyone in the company received at review time. Like many Magical Negro characters Susan never felt like who she is as a person ever mattered to her co-workers. They engaged in obligatory chit chat, but talks never went beyond the norm. She attempted to make it known that she was a Football mom and was away at her son’s games most weekends. It surprised her at the start of the week when no one would say, “How did your son play?” or “Was it a win?” So, she quit. She ended our interview looking intently into my eyes saying, “If I dropped dead tomorrow, they’d send some flowers and keep it moving.”
Whoopi Goldberg’s take on Oda Mae Brown was essentially what made Ghost a huge success. A less talented actress may have tanked the film. Goldberg’s character is funny, endearing and believable. We leaned in whenever she was on the screen, and cared more about her journey than the main characters. But, Oda Mae Brown is a Magical Negro. She is an uneducated woman from Brooklyn, who swindles people out of their money by trying to convince them she can talk to their deceased loved ones. She’s had zero success at this racket until Patrick Swayze’s character, Sam Wheat, shows up. All of a sudden, Oda Mae becomes magical, and she finally has something worthwhile, significant and legitimate to do with her life: help Sam find his killer. He essentially asks Oda Mae to risk her life to help him, and for no other reason than the fact that she can hear a dead white man – and he won’t leave her alone – she decides to help him.
Sam is not related to Oda Mae. He wasn’t one of her favorite co-workers, married to one of her sisters. His girlfriend, Molly, was not an old high school friend of Oda Mae. So, there was nothing internal driving Oda Mae to choose to face death. As a Magical Negro, her loyalty to this white man does not have to be explained. Magical Negroes give themselves, at all costs, as if it is their inherent duty to serve. But, none of this was the focus when Ghost was topping the box office. And once Whoopi won the Oscar, any assertion that her character fell into the categories of the trope, were surely panned.
As we entered a new millennium, a greater focus was given to creating smart, interesting, relatable television characters. Shows like Gilmore Girls, Queer as Folk and Girlfriends, gave viewers this new sense of diversity on the small screen. The Sopranos premiered on HBO, the year before, instantly hooking a large amount of viewers, and fan favorite, Friends, was still going strong. But, stereotypes loomed during this sea change, and in 2005 a new Magical Negro character showed up on the quirky detective drama, Bones. An oddly long running show, considering it’s considerable decline in popularity, Bones managed to eek out twelve seasons. The main characters are a detective and Anthropologist that work together to solve murders. A motley crew of scientists assist these efforts, rounding out much of the diversity of the cast. A beloved character, AUSA Caroline Julian, was played by Patricia Belcher. Though we were experiencing this sea change on the small screen, Caroline Julian was a direct reference to a mammy of long ago. She’s a heavy-set Black woman, who often appears to be sassing the main characters, but is in fact dropping the gems they need to solve their cases.
We never learn much about Julian, and as the show isn’t focused on her, the stock nature of her character becomes an afterthought. For someone with so much knowledge, smart enough to get to the top of the legal ladder, it often felt pointless and uncomfortable when she was onscreen. Much like, Gimme A Break, I wondered what would a white actress have done differently with the role? Would she still be a favorite? Did viewers love her because she was classy and smart, or because she was a sassy, smart, Black woman?
A decade after Bones premiered, the entire country changed. Barack Obama was president, Gay people could legally marry, and a Black woman was the Showrunner for three of the most popular shows on network television.
To say that Shonda Rhimes changed the game, in television, is an understatement. She flipped the industry upside down, proclaiming that America was ready for Black female leads. And she was right. Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and How to Get Away With Murder’ s Annalise Keating, definitely shifted perceptions of Black women; who we are personally and professionally, our capabilities, and our strength. Race relations added to the popularity of the programs, as there was mounting discussion about the fact that both women were involved with white men.
For her role as Annalise Keating, Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. In 2016, Taraji P. Henson won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series-Drama. Her character, Cookie Lyon, on Fox’s hit melodrama, Empire, was a vast contrast to the polished images that Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating represented. Cookie is an ex-con from the streets of Philadelphia. Her outfits are as loud and garish as her mouth. And yet, if you ask anyone of the viewers who loyally tuned into the show, why they stuck with it, they’ll say it was because of Taraji. She lit up the screen like a bonfire in the sea, maintaining that bright flame through turbulent, rocky or calm waters. Taraji also helped Hidden Figures become number one at the box office in 2016. The sea change had officially become a tsunami when the unexpected film about the real-life careers of Black women at NASA, crossed over and continued to stay afloat.
Interview #4: Edwina
Edwina is a head-turner. In her early 40s, she is poised, polished and eloquent. Having grown up in Baltimore City, to a single mother, she has managed to become very successful. She received her undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and her law degree from Georgetown. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and in her position she is one of only two Black vice presidents at her company, and the only Black woman vice president. Having attended predominantly Black schools, growing up in Baltimore, Edwina chose to attend a predominantly white university, to prepare herself for what the real world would be like.
Heavily influenced by her grandfather – a former sharecropper, who valued a dignified self-respect, and the access to education – Edwina is strong-willed and self-assured; often speaking up about inappropriate comments in the office. She talked about once being in a meeting where the debate over the Affordable Care Act was being discussed. Someone in the meeting asked, “What happens if the ACA doesn’t pass?” Her white boss said, “Oh, well, then everyone will go back to Mexico.” Edwina quickly shot down the chuckles from the table, pointing out how inappropriate the joke was. She is never afraid to speak up about offensive behavior or when she bears the brunt of unfair policies.
Edwina was hired as an Associate Vice President, and quickly moved up to rise past this position for some time. At the time of our interview, promotions were frozen and Edwina had to make a tough decision about the priorities of her career trajectory. “Because I’m never going to get promoted, realistically, what I do is just make demands on my money. I’m like, look, you won’t get me what I deserve title wise, and salary wise, so you have to figure out how to get me some money another way. And then I don’t care what you call me.” Edwina feels that there are several factors playing against her ability to rise to where she feels she should be. “One I’m brown, two I’m female, three I’m single, and four, I’m childless. So, there are things that people think that I don’t need. People are counting my money for me and deciding what my obligations are. No, not your call. My money is my call… You don’t know enough about me, my life, my culture, my black experience to know what my outside of work life, family obligations and financial commitments look like. So, the main priority should be giving me what I am entitled to, so that I can take care of what I need to take care of.”
Looking back on the tremendous highs in media, in 2016, it seemed like the mammy character had died. We soon learned that she was really on an extended vacation, and had not gone home to rest. She re-appeared in 2017 on an ABC show called Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. Kimberly Hebert Gregory played a woman named Yvette, who mysteriously showed up to help Kevin save the world. Only Kevin can see Yvette, and not much is known about where she came from. She’s essentially an angel, but as this was a modern program, she delved into some deeper explanation for her existence, beyond merely being an angel. Yvette is attractive and curvy, with a head full of natural curly hair. And, of course, she is very sassy. How else could she get this miserable white guy – who has checked out on life – to do everything she says. And because Kevin is white and wandering, unsure of where life will take him, he needs a sassy, sharp-tongued Black woman to guide him on his journey to greatness.
Before the show’s premiere – in the midst of our small screen tsunami – there was a Hollywood Reporter article about the antiquated direction of the show. (‘Kevin (Probably) Saves the World’ Creators Promise to Avoid “Magical Negro” Trope, Kate Stanhope, August 6, 2017)
The article makes it known that originally, Latina actress Cristela Alonzo was cast as Yvette, but replaced with Herbert Gregory. The producers were grilled about this change during a press event. ”I certainly have heard of that trope and I think part of that trope is that that character exists only to service the white character, and I feel like we have built a character … who has wants, has needs and has her own storyline,” co-creator and co-showrunner Michele Fazekas said.
I never doubt the mammy characters have hopes, needs and the ability to carry their own story line. The problem exists with the character’s entire being; her being a necessary presence in the lives of white characters. The pillowcase can be stuffed with the finest variety of feathers, but the pillowcase remains the same. Ensuring that Yvette expressed her wants and needs, simply gave the actress an every-so-often opportunity to focus on dialogue that wasn’t about Kevin. But, that simple development did not dismiss the fact that Yvette definitely fits into the Magical Negro trope.
Interview #5: Taqueria
Taqueria’s presence consumes and captivates every room she enters. Maybe it’s her New Jersey confidence or her island girl ease. 35 years old – at the time of our interview – she was constantly trying to use her presence and know-how to get her foot caught in the right door. She has a BA in Public Health from Rutgers University, and an MBA from Keller Graduate School, where she focused on project management.
Fresh out of college she held prominent positions that were eventually downsized. She decided to uproot her life and try a door in D.C., only to land in a position more administrative than managerial. She was the only Black person in her small department, that was led by a very ambitious and assertive white woman. Taqueria felt she was at times very fair, making it clear to others in the office that Taqueria was not to be used to manage calendars or expense reports. She was free of those administrative tasks, because of her strong background in project management. But, Taqueria was not free of all the other administrative tasks that consumed most of her day. She described her boss as being condescending at times, making it clear she should stay in her lane. Their relationship felt like it was developing well when Taqueria was first hired. There seemed to be real interest in her life, but it soon went away. They began to just engage in what seemed to be the obligatory chit chat a supervisor must engage in with their employees, to maintain a positive professional tone. For this reason, Taqueria refrained from talking about her life, or much at all. “I don’t know if there’s an impact in me sharing what I do on the weekends or who I am because I am pretty sure it’s not going to be remembered anyway.”
At the time, Taqueria spoke with her boss about ways she wanted to improve her skills and development, by taking the exam for the Project Management certificate. She was excited about the interest, it seemed, her boss had in seeing her improve and grow. Taqueria found two days on the calendar, where nothing major was going on, and decided to request off to study for the exam. Her request was approved and she was looking forward to the two-day deep dive into the test, as opposed to the quick bits of time, here and there she was typically able to devote to studying. But, when the time off rolled around she was asked to work-from-home instead. Taqueria, of course, obliged, but was very disappointed by the lack of real interest there was in seeing her grow. During our interview we talked about the fear whites on the plantation used to have when slaves were caught with books. The fear of us educating ourselves was two-fold: We could leave and become something greater than them, and we could leave and they would be left destitute without their reliable help. If Taqueria passed her exam, she was guaranteed more money and a wider amount of doors could have opened up for her at other companies. But, Taqueria was exhausted, and rightfully so. ”I’m definitely tired of always having to try to find the next new skill or certification or degree just to display that I’m capable or qualified, then achieving those things and it not being enough. I already have my bachelor’s, I have my MBA, I’m getting this other certification, I’m a licensed Realtor in New Jersey… How many more pieces of paper do I need to get!”
Though I crafted the idea for this paper, the information I read and watched for my research, and the interviews I conducted, opened my eyes to a greater purpose for my future, outside of being a writer. In the film and television industry, the ebb and flow of representation of Black women, lies heavily with the work that’s being created for the world to see. Down to the animated characters my daughter obsesses over on her cartoons, those of us with the ability to control the image and the narrative, need to work to ensure those images, and that narrative are a true representation of Black women, devoid of the monolithic stereotypes of the past.
Rahima R. Rice is an award-winning writer from Washington, DC. She has a BA in Mass Media from the University of the District of Columbia, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for the Stage & Screen from Lesley University. Rahima’s stage and screen work has been featured in the OLA Film Festival, the Anacostia Playhouse Visions/Revisions New Works Festival, and Signature Theatre’s SigWorks Reading Series. She has been published in LEVEL Magazine, The Daring, Looper and Medium. Rahima is the founder of the DC-based arts & entertainment company The 4208 Group, and curator of the 10-minute play festival The 10-Minute Taste.