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What Is the Magic Negro?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The “magic negro” is a racist archetype which appears in literature and film, primarily in the United States, where many people struggle with racial issues and the legacy of slavery. “Negro” is in and of itself a rather dated and offensive term used to refer to people with African ancestry, highlighting the fact that the magic or magical negro is a dated stereotype. Critics of film, literature, and other media started examining and questioning this archetype in the late 20th century, but it continues to appear as a plot device in a variety of settings.

Classically, the magic negro is a character of low social caste, such as a janitor or bus driver. This character is usually male, and no back story or history is provided, with the typical magical negro being relatively benign, although the character may embody other racial stereotypes, such as a lazy attitude or an inability to speak standardized English. The character usually has no friends and family, appearing as a standalone individual in the story who has been stripped of sexuality and personality.

The key feature of the character is that he or she has mystical abilities and an air of sage wisdom. These abilities are used to help the almost always white protagonist get out of trouble, with the magic negro guiding the white hero to a greater understanding of the world, and swooping in to save the day whenever necessary. This stereotypical character will make any sacrifice necessary to save the white character, making the magic negro rather paradoxical, as he or she has supernatural powers, but is still servile to a white character.

This character appears again and again in American literature and film, from Uncle Remus to Morpheus in The Matrix. As with many other racial archetypes, the character has such a long history that many people are unaware of how prevalent this character is until they start to examine the roles of black characters in books and films. People may not also be fully aware of how racist this archetype is, an issue which has been brought up by many cultural critics and sociologists.

Although some people might assume that the magic negro archetype is on the wane, they might be surprised. In 2008, a leading Republican official attracted a great deal of commentary when he circulated a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” a parody of the first black President of the United States. He claimed that the song was meant as a harmless satire, but many of his opponents felt differently.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1006478 — On Mar 20, 2022

Ack! First, you have to watch out conflating the "Sage" archetype to the Magic Black Person (ahem, its hard for me to use that other word) one. The latter has a political connotation, while the former has people of all races acting out the role without an issue -- unless it is conflated with the political version. The political connotation didn't start political. It was a random bonding of a black and a white character, although by that definition, it appropriately applies to other bondings too -- the Lone Ranger and Tonto being and old one and a good one. As for the political side, political people are gonna politick. When you are struggling to gain power, an attack on your political enemies that destroy your group narrative gains traction, e.g., Uncle Tom. The term “obsequiousness” (which is how I found this page!), “oreo”, etc.

As for the "Leading Republican", you didn't do your research. That song was more than a parody or politcal satire about Obama, although that part did apply also. White people across the country were hoping that electing the first Black president would solve racial ills, or prove that they weren't racist. So the term was used in a slightly different context by the original person who attacked Obama, not as some random black character who helps save whitey, but rather a random black character being used by whitey. Which might also apply to other situational pairing also (the gay guy in a sitcom, for example).

As for the originator of the "attack" on Obama, that was actually a Black L.A. Times writer attacking Obama for not having the American Black experience, and chosen because white people consider him Black, allowing them to absolve themselves of racism, and not because Obama was the best candidate. Ironically, that might be an attack on affirmative action, but politics can get confusing when it is one-sided. Notice the double attack here: against whites for choosing him and not someone with actual Black experiences, and against Obama's black supporters who don't realize that Obama is not one of them. The article ends with an almost racist conclusion: "If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him". Which makes the author (David Ehrenstein) guilty of my original point of "Politicking" the concept of "Sage". Why can't a Black person be a sage?

By ddljohn — On Jul 29, 2012

@fify-- If that's true, doesn't this make the use of this phrase tricky? If we consider it to be inoffensive, then people could use it in a sort of double meaning way and insult people without getting in trouble.

I respect your opinion and of course, things were a little different in 1950s America. But this doesn't change the fact that magic negro is a racist reference.

I completely agree with what the article said. The magic negro character in films is so contradictory. On one side, you're saying that African Americans are good, holy and have amazing capabilities. On the other hand, you're implying that whatever qualities they may have, they are still inferior to the white man.

Like in the movie Ghost, I hated how Whoopi Goldberg was portrayed this way.

By fify — On Jul 29, 2012

@alisha-- I don't deny that this phrase is sometimes used in a bad way. But the original idea behind the "magic negro" character was not to make fun of African Americans. It was actually an attempt to show society that African Americans (and other minorities) are good people. I think in order to understand what magic negro means, we also have to understand this context.

In those years, I think there was a general dislike of minorities among whites. And for the most part, minorities weren't really cast in movies. And if they were, they were given "bad characters" and usually made villains. The magic negro character was a first in that not only were African Americans cast in films, but they were also cast as good people.

When we look a the magic negro character within today's context, it may appear to be racist. But within the context of when it first appeared, it definitely did not intend to be racist. I agree that the literal phrase could have been chosen more carefully, but this phrase was probably attached to the character by the viewers, not the film makers.

So I personally don't see as much harm in the use of this phrase as you do.

By discographer — On Jul 28, 2012

I was also offended by "Barack the Magic Negro" mp3 when I heard it. Many people found it funny, but I didn't. I don't think that racist phrases can be used for fun. If you do, you are bound to offend people.

I'm not sure who came up with this phrase in the first place. I realize that it is a common character in films even now. But the fact that this phrase was founded during a period where racism against African Americans were rampant, it's no longer appropriate to use it.

I'm against the use of "magic negro" regardless of whether it is used in a discriminating way or not. Why do we have to hold on to such phrases that remind African Americans about slavery? I think it's time to move on and such phrases have no place in present day America in my opinion.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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