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.

Staying Alive: Shields on the Future of Literature

March 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

A provocative and interesting interview with the always provocative and interesting David Shields, over at the Rumpus, on the occasion of the paperback release of his provocative and interesting Reality Hunger:

Rumpus: So I ask…do you think lyric essay and collage face the same danger as the poem? What about literature in general? Will there be a day when the only people reading literary art are those who create it? And how important is this to our future?

Shields: I suppose that is a real concern, isn’t it? This is the elitist idea? I guess I don’t think in those terms. I just am trying to stay alive as a writer and reader and teacher. Almost all fiction writing bores me out of my mind. I’ve found, to my great relief and joy, work that thrills me and that I want to write. Many writers who are 55 are phoning in their SOP by now. I feel proud that I’m still completely confused, completely feeling my way in the dark through this new form, this nonfiction drawer labeled nonsocks. People will always read and write. It will take utterly new forms. And one of the main ways we’ll get there is by embracing new technologies and new modes rather than pretending “literature” consists of replaying the hits of 1908.

To MFA, or Not to MFA

October 4, 2010 § 3 Comments

That is the question, apparently, for so many young writers right now.  Why, we might ask, is there so much blog traffic and essay writing lately about the validity of the writing MFA?  Oh right, because it is writers who spend so much time thinking on this question, and after writers are done thinking, they write something.

In any case, Anelise Chen (an NYU MFA candidate) has a series of meditations on the subject over the The Rumpus, concluding with this paragraph, which we rather think gets it exactly right:

… For a person who really wants to become a writer, none of this matters. She will go to school if she feels it will help her become a better writer; she will not go if she feels it will harm her. She will teach in a Program if she needs the money, she will not teach if she is can find another way to make a living. Even if she decides the Program is nonsense, she can go her own way. Publishers for the most part (I still believe, having worked for a publisher) don’t really care if a writer has gotten an MFA. Unlike other fine arts, which perhaps have more stringent MFA policies, writers can still become insanely successful without any institutional hand holding. Writing, thankfully, is still a singles event–we choose our own music and sequined outfits and dance our hearts out, even if nobody is looking. The hope is that eventually, someone will.

Read Chen’s full essay here, along with a useful comment thread discussion.

And a few bonus posts, right here:

The MFA is not the problem.

How to be an MFA student.

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