Writing Across Race: Roxane Gay and the “Magical Negro” Trope

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

Roxane Gay, author of the  haunting “There Are Distances Between Us,” the current issue of Brevity, weighs in on the book/movie “The Help” and the “magical negro” trope at the heart of the feel good story. We’ve always been a fan of Roxane’s no-bullshit essays and her straight-talk approach to race, but she is surely hitting her stride with this one.  Two excerpts, and a link to the full Rumpus essay below:

The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement …

Hollywood has long been enamored with the magical negro—the insertion of a black character into a narrative who bestows upon the protagonist the wisdom they need to move forward in some way …(see: Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Unbreakable, Robin Hood (1991), The Secret Life of Bees, Sex and the City, The Green Mile, Corinna, Corinna etc.)

In The Help, there are not one but twelve or thirteen magical negroes who use their mystical negritude to make the world a better place by sharing their stories of servitude and helping Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan grow out of her awkwardness and insecurity into a confident, racially aware, independent career woman. It’s an embarrassment of riches for fans of the magical negro trope.


I write across race, gender, and sexuality all the time. I would never want to be told I can’t write a story where the protagonist is a white man or a Latina lesbian or anyone who doesn’t resemble me. The joy of fiction is that in the right hands, anything is possible. I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know as much as possible…

I don’t expect writers to always get difference right but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women but she doesn’t try hard enough

Jump to the full Rumpus essay here.

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§ 2 Responses to Writing Across Race: Roxane Gay and the “Magical Negro” Trope

  • Laura Tamakoshi says:

    It would have been great if one of “the help” wrote the book instead of Skeeter but I don’t agree that the white women were “sympathetically” depicte. They came across as harsh and ignorant and members of their society as most white women were at that time about the lives and feelings of black women. I was impressed by the movie, as much by the general notion of betrayal as by the particular case. By leaving out much of the civil rights drama, the author got past all that rhetoric (however important it was) to the daily drama of people’s lives, to the ultimate causes of the drama, the insults and unfairness, the personal tragedies. It was more affecting than most documentaries.

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