Digital Magical Negro My Creepy Neighbor, Robert E. Lee
I believe that every Black person has a Black voice in our ear, acting as our conscience, checking us if we’re not looking out for other Black people.
This is Digital Magical Negro, a column by Chris L. Terry on his experiences as a mixed-race Black man navigating contemporary life in America.
As a teen in Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Robert E. Lee lurked around the corner from where I slept. The Confederate general invaded my dreams, reminding me that, even at home, it was set in stone that I was less. Moving forward feels impossible in a town that’s still fighting a war it lost in the nineteenth century.
I’m fighting against the idea that your past makes you who you are, because like Richmond’s history, mine is shameful. My early twenties took place in the early 2000s, the era of white indie rockers shouting Chappelle’s Show quotes and busting stiff dances to Missy Elliott. Back then, to some of my white friends, I was the authority on this exciting new Black shit. Nevermind the fact that it was new to me, too, and I wasn’t quite sure what “the itis” was. Still, I relished my position in the white world because it confirmed my Blackness—something that felt tenuous, since I’m mixed-race and look like a raggedy version of the light-skinned guy from Kid ’n Play.
Dave Chappelle had a joke about how the WB Network’s mascot, a cartoon frog in a top hat, was racist. He did an impression of it, crooning, “Welcome back, niggers! I like chickennn!”
It was funny because, well, everything Chappelle did back then was funny. It was also funny because the chicken stereotype was the kind of low-hanging racial fruit that white people understand. Finally, it was funny because it was true: The frog threw a strong minstrel-performer vibe. My friends and I didn’t consider that last one, but the joke still got stuck in our heads.
One night, I was biking down Harrison Street near VCU when a couple of white friends of friends cut a left in front of me on their BMXs. As they passed, the tall blond dude in front smiled at me and sang, “Chickennn,” his voice drifting off as he pedaled up the street.
At that age, I felt guilty around other Black people because I knew I was doing the wrong thing by giving white people these permissions. I suppressed that guilt by avoiding Black people, therefore ramping up the racism I was experiencing.
That night, as the only Black person on that city street, half a mile from Robert E. Lee, I gave a tight smile and biked on, hoping no one heard me let this white guy obliquely make a Black joke, something he probably wouldn’t have done if I wasn’t there. Usually, this happened in private, while porch-drinking or watching TV on a thrift-store couch, and I’d let the jokes slide—even join in, because being the Black friend is a lonely life, and I was scared to push anyone away. It was different in public. The jokes had stopped being funny, and I never felt Blacker, or farther from other Black people, than I did right then. It was a low point in my life as a Magical Negro.
The term Magical Negro is credited to filmmaker Spike Lee, who used it to describe a movie trope where an isolated Black character with no desires of their own shows up and uses their sage wisdom and supernatural abilities to help white people, before quietly disappearing. He was talking about a handful of movies, including The Legend of Bagger Vance , where Will Smith plays a mysterious Black golf caddy who teaches a rich white failson to succeed at golf and life in the 1930s.
You also disappear when you’re “the Black friend.” You get asked to speak for all Black people instead of your own weird self, and that flattens you and stretches you thin. So I wasn’t just me; I was Missy Elliott and Tyrone Biggums, covering my cringe with a coonish grin when white people yelled, “I’m selling weed, nigga!” in the Chappelle voice.
I got done laughing to keep from crying. If my presence gave these Caucasians permission to make Black jokes, then I decided I should leave. I went to Brooklyn then Chicago, got an MFA and got married, even made some Black friends. As happy as I became, running wasn’t enough. I found out that if I didn’t fight to fix the past, I could be in a whole new city and still feel like the same ol’ asshole.
By 2016, I was living in Los Angeles with my family and a community of Black, brown, and ethnically ambiguous artists. Rihanna had just dropped her best album yet. The election was months away. I was optimistic.
One morning, I was walking back from the park with my toddler, and he was talking a lot. I was feeling fried because the convo had been going on since dawn, so I checked my phone, which is something I do when I’m overwhelmed by what’s in front of me. I had a Facebook notification from a white Richmond friend who I hadn’t heard from in years. No bad blood, just the distance that grows throughout your thirties when you move, start a family, and stop drinking forties on Wednesday nights.
When I encounter a Richmond friend, I hope that they didn’t just get older. I hope that we can connect as the people we are now, instead of relying on shared memories from a time when I was miserable and immature.
This old friend sent me a picture of the new issue of Essence , sitting on a pebbled brown kitchen counter with Gabrielle Union in something shiny and black on the cover, and the caption, “Weird. Somehow my wife has a subscription to Essence.”
A “white person talking about Black stuff” alarm was ringing in the back of my head, but I ignored it and tried to picture his wife, a country white woman who trains attack dogs, reading about how to get twists like Alicia Keys. That made me chuckle, so I okayed the Facebook post and it went to my profile. My kid was still talking.
At home, a few minutes later, I pawned my kid off to my wife and lingered by the bathroom sink, looking at my phone. I had a message from a Black acquaintance, telling me to get my boy before Black Twitter came for us. I pictured this sunny, pleasant woman I’d met at a poetry reading standing on a hill and raising a scepter to summon Black Twitter. Wind howls. Lightning strikes. The “Formation” dancers from Beyonce’s Superbowl performance appear on the horizon, brandishing lit-up phones.
I got that “Oh, crap. Someone’s gotta do something . . . and that someone’s gotta be me” feeling that comes when I have to remind a white person that their safe Black friend is still Black and will not be standing for this. It’s stressful because there’s a catch-22 at its center: I worry that I’m not Black enough to handle the situation, but I get into these situations precisely because my Blackness is questionable. I’m not just on the front lines with white people—I’m deep in the fray, incognegro. And since whites are comfortable with me, I have to use that privilege to check them.
There were a hundred other things I wanted to do that day besides deal with racism. But I knew I needed to listen to this woman on Facebook because, for so long, I had no one like her to listen to. Plus, she was right. While my old friend’s post about Essence wasn’t outright racist, it lived in that sketchy gray area that I had run from when I left Richmond.
I worry that I’m not Black enough to handle the situation, but I get into these situations precisely because my Blackness is questionable.
While my family was kicking up a ruckus in the living room, I sat on the edge of my bed and commented on my white friend’s post, “Did you send me this because I’m Black?”
I wasn’t just writing that to him. It was for the guy on the BMX, for the white nonprofit coworker who rapped Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga” word-for-word during a 2011 carpool, for whoever put Robert E. Lee by my old apartment.
A hard part about making a better future is sacrificing the known for the potential that lies in the unknown. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, like taking that cheap bedroom at my friend’s house in Brooklyn when I needed to get out of Richmond. Other times, it doesn’t feel so good, because making a better, Blacker me means throwing an old friend under the bus to do right by someone I met once at a poetry reading. But this day, that someone wasn’t just one person. My inaction had forced her to be a Magical Negro, standing in for all other Black people.
I left my phone on my dresser while I downed a glass of water and stared out my kitchen window at the LA skyline. I was glad to finally live in a wildly diverse place where I always sorta feel at home. Since I was in a new place, it was time to let the new me catch up.
When I went back to my phone, dude had apologized and deleted the post. I told him I couldn’t joke like that anymore, and he understood. We ended up hanging out a year later and it was cool—no Black jokes or Wednesday-night forties. I never heard from the Black Twitter Bringer again. I’d already made her do more work than she ever should have had to do.
My most recent novel Black Card is about a mixed-race punk musician who is fed up with his white so-called friends. I’ll let you guess where I got that idea. When the editor asked if I had a dedication to include at the front of the book, my immediate reaction was “Nope!” I felt like my options were to say something ominous to my child, guilt-trip my parents, or point fingers at some white people. All of those dedications would cast a shadow instead of shedding light, so I left that space blank.
Writing Black Card was a slow process because I was writing a character whose Blackness feels validated when he experiences racism. It made me stew in the insecurities that come with being a pale, isolated Black person. But writing down some embarrassing old shit is therapeutic: It forced me to own it, and it gave me distance. These things always look better on the page than they feel rattling around inside my heart. Sometimes they’re even kinda funny. It took bringing the book out into the world and getting messages from other yallas, cornball brothers, and “Black friends” to realize that I wrote that novel for everyone who’s ever been a Magical Negro. So, while I thought I was writing the book for myself, it ended up making me less alone.
In Black Card , I expanded on Spike Lee’s definition of Magical Negro. Like therapy and buffalo cauliflower, Magical Negroes are no longer just for Caucasians. I believe that every Black person has a Black voice in our ear, acting as our conscience, checking us if we’re not looking out for other Black people. Sometimes we can see our Magical Negroes, looking like cooler versions of ourselves (mine’s got a hairline to die for) or people who presented ideal Blacknesses to us when we first became aware of our race: Q-Tip, the first Aunt Viv. Sometimes we just feel them, shouting “Aw, hell naw!” when we know something’s off but can’t prove that it’s racist. Sometimes they catch us slipping and DM us on Facebook.
We visited Richmond over the holidays in 2020, six months after the Confederate monuments started coming down during the Black Lives Matter protests. I associate being Black with doing the work, and I was grateful for the results that the protesters got that summer but felt guilty for not being out there too. It wasn’t just that I wanted to prove something about my identity; I was dying to feel the catharsis of standing by a burning cop car or a toppling statue of a slaver. I’ve been tamping down pain and humiliation for decades and can feel them rotting inside me. They need out. But I’d watched the uprisings from home, scared of bringing Covid to my family or getting popped by a cop. Had I changed at all?
Sometimes we can see our Magical Negroes, looking like cooler versions of ourselves (mine’s got a hairline to die for).
In Richmond, there’s only one Confederate statue left standing, my creepy old neighbor Robert E. Lee. But Lee looks practically tie-dyed, spraypainted with layers of colorful anti-racist graffiti. For a few nights, George Floyd’s face was even projected on the statue’s side, ghostly and huge. Thanks to the work of Black activists, a symbolic change that I’d fantasized about since I was a kid had finally taken place. The once-austere roundabout at Lee’s foot had been transformed into a welcoming space, where Black students took graduation pics by a garden, basketball hoop, and signs marking the names of Black people who’d been murdered by the police. Hopefully, a systemic change was next, and those police would be toppled too.
I couldn’t wait to see Lee’s makeover and the stone pedestals where the other monuments had once stood. I wondered if I’d get that sense of catharsis I’d been seeking or if I’d missed the chance and would spend my visit feeling stuck in the past. Going to Richmond is always a trip down memory lane, and the memories aren’t always good. Jogging on my first day there, I crossed a bridge where one of my friends died in a bike accident, saw a white family moving into the little house that my parents had to leave for money reasons, then ran back to the gentrified version of my great-aunt’s old neighborhood and showered at the Airbnb we were renting from a guy who’s boo’d up with one of my exes. I felt okay, and I don’t trust myself when I feel like that. I worry that I’m burying a stronger feeling and coasting on privilege, ignoring something I should be working on.
A few days later, we went to check out the monuments with my best friend from high school. He was sporting a cleaned-up take on his old punk uniform, including a fresh version of the Dischord Records T-shirt he’d worn out by senior year. He joked about replacing the shirt online, expecting to open the package to find a note that said, “Stop reliving your glory days.”
Walking down the median on Monument Avenue, I teared up when I saw Black people milling about at Lee’s foot, but it didn’t feel like rot and hatred were leaking out of me. It was a swelling of joy, the same one I got when my Black grandfather got to vote for a Black president, or when my four-year-old read his name off the thank-you list in my book. Being Black isn’t always pain and struggle. There’s a lot of joy in there too. Real joy, not the cheap stuff that comes from repeating someone else’s jokes.
On the steps at the bottom of the statue, I watched my kid play soccer with a stranger, and then we posed for a pic. My wife had me scoot to the right to fit in some graffiti that read, “Every nigga is a star.” I rubbed my kid’s curls. Things were moving forward, and it took me well over a decade to be ready. It took Richmond over a century. It still happened.
Buffalo-cauliflower joke lifted from Jaboukie Young-White.