Opinion: Closing the “magic negro” loop


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It was the comments from ‘Andrea’ and ‘JM’ that capped it for me.

We’ve gotten lots and lots of response to Lisa Richardson’s ‘Barack the magic negro’ post. Thanks to all for joining in the discussion, it was a great exchange. But there were so many responses, readers had to click through half a dozen pages to see them all. And as the similar remarks by Andrea and JM illustrated, folks simply aren’t bothering to do that. The same points are being raised, parried, riposted and re-parried. I don’t blame readers, I blame the blogging software (thank you, TypePad!) for making it too much trouble for them to see when they’re covering old ground.


Here’s what Andrea wrote:

Does the LA Times writing staff lack the inclination or interest to read their own paper? Is that why one after another feigns shock and outrage when confronted with something their own wrote?

Now, for the record, one more time, to repeat, just to be absolutely clear: the phrase ‘magic Negro’ didn’t originate with the Los Angeles Times staff. It appears to have been used first in writer David Ehrenstein’s Op-Ed about Barack Obama in March 2007, and I think he would be mortified to be considered one of the Times’ ‘own.’ Op-Eds (the bylined ones on the right-hand page) do not express the views of the Times. That’s the domain of editorials (the unsigned ones on the left-hand page -- fittingly, at least in this publication). In fact, the point of Op-Eds is to bring a diversity of viewpoints to the opinion pages. In this spirit, different Op-Ed writers frequently take opposite views of the same issue -- see, for instance, these pieces for and against a continuation of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, which ran within four days of each other. We editorial writers try very hard not to change our minds quite so quickly.

Just to complete the lesson in history, Ehrenstein, who’s African American, borrowed the ‘Magic Negro’ concept from other writers about contemporary culture. Here’s how he explained it in the op-ed:
The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. ‘He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist,’ reads the description on Wikipedia.
One other thing that bears repeating: context matters. The context of Paul Shanklin’s parody was different from David Ehrenstein’s critique. For an interesting take on the importance of context in this instance, read this Tim Rutten Op-Ed. But please -- those views are Tim’s, not the Times’.