It was early Wednesday morning, and DeJuana Thompson, founder of Woke Vote, still hadn’t slept. She’d spent the months leading up to the special Senate election in Alabama coordinating with thousands of students at 14 historically black colleges and with a number of black churches — grinding, thankless work that paid off Tuesday in Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore.
Thompson was tired, understandably so, but she livened up when the subject turned to the idea of the Magical Negro. The Magical Negro was much on my mind after seeing the reaction to a contest that turned largely on the votes of black people, black women in particular. Black women, election observers said, had managed to save white people from themselves.
“People like to believe in magic,” Thompson told me with a slight chuckle. “Even though I celebrate the essence of black women, I recognize that that magic has come with much sacrifice. It’s a dusting of hard work. It’s a dusting of perseverance. It’s not the dusting of fairies.”
In Hollywood, as in politics, the Magical Negro is a virtuous black character who serves to better the lives of white people via seemingly supernatural means and asks nothing for herself. She is frequently praised for what she has done for white folks, praised for her saintly equanimity and selflessness, and too little acknowledged for all the things — the wiles, the grit, the grinding, thankless work — that went into securing the happy outcome.
Black women played a massive role in engaging black voters in the months leading up to Tuesday’s election, Thompson told me as she fought exhaustion. The student captains at those historically black colleges were almost exclusively women, she said; their teams were mostly made up of women as well. Thompson saw the same trend within black churches: Despite the overwhelming number of male pastors, the majority of the people who stepped up to be faith captains and take responsibility for organizing church members were women.
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Carissa Crayton, who canvassed for Jones and worked for a Hillary Clinton-affiliated polling firm during the 2016 campaign, said the majority of people she saw working the polls and voting at historically black Alabama State University, where she cast her ballot, were black women.
“We did put in a lot of hard work. We hit the ground running and we did the work that it took to get Doug elected,” Crayton said. “People shouldn’t disregard that and just think … we saved the day without doing any hard work, that we just magically went out and voted and that that’s all we did.
“Don’t just overlook the hard work that we did,” she added. “Don’t overlook the hard work that we’ve been doing.”
Thompson pointed to the labors of other organizers ― including #BlackVotersMatter founder LaTosha Brown, Birmingham Councilwoman Sheila Tyson and BlackPAC executive director Adrianne Shropshire ― as proof that black women are making things happen.
“These are dominant black women who are very much the reason why yesterday happened,” she said.
There’s no great mystery why black women mobilized Tuesday. They had to protect themselves ― from conservative policies that seek to undermine the well-being of the black community.
Black women stand to lose the most if Obamacare is destroyed, because we suffer more from diabetes, uterine fibroids, obesity, high-blood pressure, and sexual and domestic violence than any other demographic. We are more likely to be the sole providers for their households and to live below the poverty line than their white counterparts. Black women are the fastest growing part of the prison population, and upon their release from prison they have a harder time finding housing than white women with criminal histories. Meanwhile, they make up only 3.6 percent of all members of Congress and 3.7 percent of all state legislators.
But not even liberals really want to hear this part of the story. They want the votes without the grievances.
In the wake of Jones’ victory speech in Birmingham, another win came to mind, this one scored in another part of Alabama nearly six decades ago, also by black women.
In 1955, during the lead-up to the Montgomery bus boycotts, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith were arrested for refusing to give up their seats while on the bus. By the time Rosa Parks was arrested that December, the black Women’s Political Council was ready to call for a full boycott of the city’s bus system. The Montgomery Improvement Association was created to organize the boycotts, and Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president.
In his first address to the association, King’s praise for Parks already bore the marks of a public strategy that required Parks, a fierce activist for black liberation, to play the part of a harmless middle-aged seamstress — that required her, in other words, to be a Magical Negro. “Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming,” whom no one could call “a disturbing factor in the community,” King said.
A year later, just hours after the end of the Montgomery bus boycotts, King gave a speech at Holt Street Baptist Church in which he thanked the boycotters for their tireless ― and successful ― political organizing in the face of many setbacks.
“These 12 months have not at all been easy. Our feet have often been tired. We have struggled against tremendous odds to maintain alternative transportation,” said King. “There have been moments when roaring waters of disappointment poured upon us in staggering torrents. We can remember days when unfavorable court decisions came upon us like tidal waves, leaving us treading in the deep and confused waters of despair.”
And then he used a line that would become a favorite of progressive activists of all stripes. “But amid all of this,” he said, “we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.”
King’s speech at Holt Church tells the story of black political achievement writ small: that it is a matter of shrewd, relentless organizing and that even the victories are framed in a way that puts white folks at ease, no matter that it means slighting the role of black women in making such gains possible.
There were echoes of Holt Street in Jones’ victory address Tuesday night. Already he was speaking of “finding common ground and reaching across.” He said, “We have work to do in this state. To build those bridges within this state. To reach across with those that didn’t vote for us to try to find that common ground.
“I’m pledging to do that tonight,” Jones said, “but I will tell you, tonight is a night for rejoicing because as Dr. King said, as Dr. King liked to quote, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.’”
White people were thanking black women on Twitter. God is a black woman, someone said. “Trust a black woman” and “Let black women run things” were commonly expressed sentiments. Black pixie dust was falling all over liberal America.
But DeJuana Thompson and Carissa Crayton know the real story: There is nothing magical about the straightforward, unlovely work of organizing that goes into black political achievement.
“This is not something that I just happened upon. This is something I learned. This is something that I worked on. I’ve been in my field for 15 years,” said Thompson. “That is not magic, that is perseverance. That is the embodiment of investing in myself and in my craft. And that craft — just like so many other black women — our craft is creating spaces for other people to be successful.”