All your faves are problematic: A brief history of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stanning and the trap of #blackgirlmagic

Adiche. Image via Howard County Library Flickr.

In my late twenties, I fell in love with Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s words. In part it was because I understood the world she was describing. I had not yet been to Nigeria, and knew nothing of Nsukka – the university town that features so prominently in so many of her books and stories. Still, that didn’t matter. I knew the striving and the drive; the piety and the pride that drove her characters because I had seen them in the household in which I grew up. I recognized my people and their ambitions and so Purple Hibiscus became mine.

I love books for different reasons. I loved Alice in Wonderland because it mapped out an imaginary world I would never have ventured into on my own. I loved Oliver Twist because I understood the longing Dickens so painstakingly described.

There are some books that you love because reading them is a struggle: Albert Camus’ L’etranger has a special place in my heart because I read it in French when I was in high school. It was hard work grappling with existentialism in a language I had only heard in school. Yet Camus was preoccupied with making sense of a society built on the same sorts of inequalities and corruptions I knew so well.  The complications and difficulties of that book are etched in my heart. In other words, most books matter because of who you are at the time you are reading them. This is precisely why Adichie meant so much to me.

I was not alone. Adichie’s arrival on the literary scene was heralded with much excitement because she was precisely the sort of writer many women of my generation needed, and ours was a powerful and unique generation. Born after colonialism had ended we were free and the continent in which we grew up was still gleaming with possibilities. Although by the time I was thirty, Africa was seen as a “basket-case,” the Africa of my childhood was not yet a failure. Adichie found a way to articulate that. She was writing the kind of books many of us had been wanting to read. She represented the future so many of us had known as children.

I had not yet thought I might pursue writing in any serious way, but I saw myself as the sort of confident young woman whose ideas might matter and be taken seriously. Before her, I had devoured the books of Miriama Ba and Tsitsi Dangaremba and Sindiwe Magona and a host of African women whose writing had been crucial to my intellectual formation. Yet none of them were my contemporaries. None had come of age alongside me in the way Adichie was doing. I saw myself in the worlds she created, but I also saw myself as a fellow traveller, as someone who was striking out a new path in her field. I was doing what she was doing in a sense, just in my own small professional patch.

In many ways then Adichie occupied a unique place in contemporary black women’s thought and literature for at least a decade before the phrase black girl magic was coined as a hashtag, and as the motto for a new generation’s struggle for recognition and self-love.

Adichie is African of course, but because she began writing in a world that was more global than it had ever been, because she traveled so frequently between Nigeria and America, she was easily claimed as a member of a much larger global African diaspora. She may technically belong to two countries, but she is collectively seen as a daughter or a sister to black people in a broader sense.

In other words, Adichie has become a signifier for something larger than herself. In some ways, she has marked the rise of what Taiye Selassie calls, “the Afropolitan.” The phrase is problematic, and I use it fully aware of its complications. Still, part of the Adichie phenomenon has been the sense for many Africans who are similarly located as citizens of Africa as a concept, that if success was possible for her in the world of arts and letters, then surely, we might all succeed in the various new terrains we sought to master – from engineering to cosmetic surgery to venture capital.

And it was when we began to project our dreams onto her that loving Adichie the symbol – rather than her books – became murky. This is not unique to Adichie, but it provides a stark example of the limits of black girl magic. It plays in the dangerous terrain in which we accept that, “there is some sort of inherent connection between all brown-skinned persons. We know something. We necessarily connect…[A]ll group identities are constructed. However, some group identities run away with us. Some become harmful, or even work against the purpose they were created to defeat…[T]he “Afropolitan” is just such a group identity. It is exclusive, elitist and self-aggrandizing.”

By the time Adichie’s “Danger of a single story” TED talk was released, she was already flirting with fame. The talk has been viewed millions of times and it helped her to take the first serious steps towards genuine fame. It became a manifesto, a sort of treatise for a new generation of feminists of all races but of a very particular class background, who were looking for more complicated ways of understanding the world than their mothers had been able to provide.

Both in its substance and in its form, the talk laid the foundation for the sort of hero Adichie would be. She was at once acceptable – pretty and made up but not too much – and rebellious. She broke the rules by not memorizing the talk. She read her talk because she was not the sort who would be pushed to adhere to silly rules about how to give good TED talks. She stood in jeans and a head-wrap and read her comments. The ease of her words, and the commonsense style of her delivery were at once charming and intimidating. Adichie was haughty and no nonsense and infinitely poised in a way that was instantly recognizable to me as a middle class African woman who had met many women raised in Adichie’s mold. She was not a new phenomenon to me, she was simply a newly celebrated phenom, and I allowed myself the indulgence of enjoying the moment as though it were my own.

The talk cemented her status as the sort of intellectual rock star, the kind of literary and cultural maven many of us had been looking for. Even in her form, she was supremely of the moment. Giving a record-breaking TED Talk was a supremely contemporary way to get famous, and it mapped onto the ways in which a new generation of diligent and prodigious middle class Africans hoped to make their mark. As the “Africa rising” narrative swept across the pages of The Economist and The Financial Times, Adichie’s star rose higher and higher.

While her book sales were significant and her name was on the lips of more people than ever, it was her next talk titled “Why we should all be feminists,” that sealed her place in the firmament of literary and popular culture. She had tapped into an important conversation – albeit one that had been happening around her with far more complexity and rigor, for many generations.

She was both able to speak to a mainstream audience, and signal to a core constituency of imagined and imaginary black women who were as Selassie might say, “nodding with recognition” at her words. She explained feminism so well that Beyonce – a pop icon who is similarly able to signify to an imagined audience of black folks while speaking in a language the master understands and can commodify – included the talk in her song “Flawless.”

Since the release of “Flawless,” Adichie has increasingly been used as an expert on non-fiction matters relating to race, gender and African politics. Beyond her books, she has come to be recognized as a spokesperson in the West.

There are traps of course for any literary celebrity, and certainly for one who hails from Africa. As Professor Simon Gikandi points out, “… globalization creates all of these opportunities for novelists and writers; but at the same time, of course, again the more complex issue revolves around the terms of that globalization. Some people could argue… that in order for these fictions to become global, they have had to be involved in a fascinating and sometimes disturbing act of cultural translation because their audiences are no longer located in their sites of referent. Let me put it this way: there is a split between the object of representation, and the people who read it… [W]orks are set in East Africa but… readers are North American, and in that sense it would be interesting to ask what kinds of transactions have taken place so that these African fictions can succeed in a global scene. So the global scene, and globalization in general, are transforming the terms of cultural contact, but also transforming the forms of fiction.”

Adichie has no control over this of course. These are forces far larger than she. At the same time, because she has walked so confidently into the realm of non-fiction, and has agreed on multiple occasions, to take up the mantle of “spokesperson,” there is an increasing expectation that she is up to the task; that she can in fact authentically speak on behalf of the fans who adore her. Over time those fans have included young women enthralled by her popularization of existing mainstream feminist ideas and LGBTI communities across the diaspora and in urban European, American and African contexts.

Recently, Adichie made comments about trans-women that indicated that she was more conservative in her feminism and her understanding of matters of sexuality and gender than many of her fans had assumed. And finally, it seems the sparkle has worn off Adichie.

Both her comments and her clarifications were offensive. Yet “celebrities” wander into territory they aren’t equipped to navigate all the time, and in so doing they grossly oversimplify and flatten and demean the experiences of the people on whose behalf they claim to speak. So, in a sense, one might suggest her misstep was not such a big deal.

The difference is of course that Adichie is not Angelina Jolie. She has staked her reputation on substance and heft and thoughtfulness. Yet the disappointment amongst members of LGBTI and feminist communities I spoke with after Adichie’s comments were published, went deeper than that and it is important to examine that disappointment and what it speaks to.

In part, Adichie’s over-reach is again bigger than her. It is a consequence of a growing culture of stanning. Adichie has been steeped in a celebrity culture that has created the Beyhive – which functions as an emotional bodyguard for the singer; and she has been embraced and championed by the black girl magic movement. Stanning is not merely being a fan, it often involves taking on an active and confrontational stance in relation to defending one’s celebrity. The celebrity becomes an extension of the fan – a persona who stands in for the identities of those who love him or her. I understand the power of this feeling, and it is clear why Adichie has become as much of a celebrity as an African literary author can be, in the midst of this climate.

There is a politics to the adoration of course. Beyonce’s fans are not unthinking robots. As Fezokuhle Mthonti notes, in an essay in The Con, those who stan for Beyonce are “a complex set of people who traverse space and place in multiple and complicated ways.” Mthonti decries “the assumption that we are a homogenous set of automatons who have no agency, no capacity for critical thought.” Similarly, there is a politics that propels those who continue to admire Adichie even in the face of her transphobia. It is a politics similar to that which keeps her fans publicly quiet, even as they wonder about her decision to agree to promote Boots No. 7 by suggesting in a glamorous and expensive-looking ad, “the truth is, make up doesn’t actually mean anything, its simply make up.” Make up is a choice of course, and the conversation about its role and place in the lives of women and men is an important one. To have that discussion in service of selling make up is at best disingenuous, and at worst, patently self-serving. Still, the very fact of Adichie being chosen to represent a major fashion brand at all is seen as an affirmation – something not to be criticized but to be praised. The disquiet is quelled by the sense of being under siege, of being always scrutinized by the forces of racism and sexism. In this environment, raising questions – especially publicly –  is seen as an attack.

It is clear then that the relative silence in relation to the commodification of Adichie’s messages — particularly her feminism — is a testament to the fact that black girl magic has reached the limits of its usefulness.

***

When CeShawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic in 2013, she was giving contemporary voice to a long-practiced strategy for coping amongst marginalized and excluded. The hashtag sought to push back against mainstream narratives about black women. The idea was simple. As a piece in the Huffington Post noted: “Black Girl Magic was used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of black women. It’s about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves.”

It caught on. It has provided a quick and easy retort to those who have felt it necessary to deride Venus and Serena Williams. It helped to push back against those who suggested Viola Davis was not “classically beautiful.” It shone a spotlight on the achievements of Misty Copeland, Simone Biles, Michelle Obama, and a host of other African-American women who were in the public eye, but risked backlash. #BlackGirlMagic enveloped them in a protective blanket. As they soared, they were kept on course by a brigade of young black women wearing capes making the air around them shimmer with beautiful arrogance.

As is almost always the case with pop culture, what began as a subaltern articulation with particular resonance amongst an internally cohesive group, managed to spread. The phrase was a push-back, a statement about the virtual impossibility of continuing to exist in the face of daily threats to life and limb – especially in Europe and Australia, where black women were visible minorities, or in places like Brazil and South Africa where blacks are the demographic majority but come up hard against the reality that the architecture of racism has resisted dismantling. The phrase acknowledges – in a subtext that is easy for black women to understand – the idea that black women pulled rabbits out of hats, made food appear where there was no money, provided us with educations. The phrase captures the sense when black women are able to succeed in systems that were never meant to accommodate them, it takes supernatural strength.

While the genesis of the phrase was political in ways that matter, it was also always teetering on the ledge of the sort of feel-good feminism that can be essentialist and counter-productive. Over time, black girl magic has run into tricky terrain. It has been gobbled up by the mainstream and has begun to privilege mainstream black women. In addition, inevitably, the advertising industry has been only to happy to capitalize on the trendiness of certain kinds of black women in ways that operate to depoliticize and deracinate what is worth saving in the idea of black girl magic.

And so we find ourselves in a moment in which the sort of black girl magic that is visible in popular culture is no longer subversive. Instead, the catch phrase too often celebrates only certain kinds of black women, and in so doing essentializes what it means to be a black girl, and what magic ought to look like. Rather than the emancipatory arrogance that has helped oppressed people survive exploitation, black girl magic offers a smug and increasingly narrow celebration of black womanhood.

And so, for many who remain on the fringes of even black womanhood itself – fat black women, trans women, disabled black women, dark skinned black women, poor black women, queer black women, sex workers who are black women – the notion of magic simply doesn’t apply.

It is virtually impossible to be magical while navigating systems of power that are genuinely hostile to those who seek to resist them. So for example, it is not evident in the hashtag movement, whether or not the struggles of black women who survive welfare and criminal justice systems — and do not tweet about their troubles — qualify as black girl magic. Do those who survive physical abuse and continue to go to school but are not straight A students make it onto the list of woman crushes?

Indeed, even for those who are included, those who are toasted for their magic, those – like Adichie and Beyonce and actress Taraji B. Henson – who have legions of fans who sprinkle them with fairy dust, the idea of being magical has its burdens.

Many of the women who occupy the black girl magic spotlight have support systems. Women like Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Henson – the faves of the black girl magic movement – are wealthy. They are public figures for whom having fans is a part of life. Still, because the rise of black girl magic has coincided with an explosion in celebrity culture, and an intensification of the stan, these women find themselves in untenable positions – having to make choices and speak on behalf of people whose desires and dreams they will never know. This is at once the privilege and the quandary of being high profile. In addition, when the stumble – as Adichie has in a number of ways of late – the condemnation is harsh and swift. The fury aimed at black women is almost always disproportionate to the offense. Ironically, this paradox is precisely why stanning has become such an important – albeit double-edged – act of solidarity.

In “Why we should all be feminists,” Adichie argues: “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.” She is right of course. It is also evident that black girl magic has come to function, if not as a cage, then certainly as a cave. Like cages, caves have their merits. They provide shelter from the elements and can offer privacy and spaces from which to recuperate. Still, caves can be dark dank places because they seldom let in enough light.

We are living through a difficult global moment. There are many forces arrayed against the very people black girl magic was conjured to protect and defend. Perhaps then, it is time to accept that creating new possibilities doesn’t happen magically. The work of imaging new futures and shaping alternate trajectories does not belong to a few glammed up spokespersons. Maybe we need to accept that it is the stans who will change their own world – through their solidarity and organizing and their critical intellect. This – much more than magic – will push our faves to be better.

Sisonke Msimang

Sisonke Msimang is a writer who probably tweets too much.

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