Black Girl Magic: Black Girlhood, Imaginations, and Activism


Black Girl Magic: a term used to celebrate the power, beauty, steadfastness, and resilience of black women. Coined by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 as a hashtag.

As a teen, I would say that I was uncomfortable with being a black girl. Growing up in the lily white suburbs of Washington, DC, I stuck out like a fly in a glass of milk. I did whatever I could to just blend in. My southern parents did their best to make sure I knew my heritage. We listened to mostly black music from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; my mother cooked soul food, we went down south to Mississippi and North Carolina every summer; we had big, extended family gatherings every Sunday and at every holiday; and they even tried to make me celebrate Kwanzaa one year (this did not go over well).

As an adult looking back, I realize now that my discomfort came from the fact that I couldn’t find myself. I was always the sidekick in books, movies, and TV. Girls who looked like me never got the guy. Seventeen magazine gave tips for the latest hair trends, but they never included my hair texture. I was always pretty for a black girl. I was the smudge.

I needed magic.

I hope a new generation of black girls can cling tight to the novels of the ladies below and start to find themselves in interesting and dynamic new media. I know that if I had had even a few of these books and role models, the teenage me wouldn’t have felt so invisible.

Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She is co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — books for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. A former teacher and middle school librarian, she’s COO and Sr. VP of Librarian Services for the non-profit We Need Diverse Books. Dhonielle is the co-author of TINY PRETTY THINGS and SHINY BROKEN PIECES, and the author of the forthcoming fantasy series THE BELLES coming in 2017.

First Question: What does the term “black girl magic” mean to you, and how does it influence your books?


NIC STONE: There’s a point in the movie Hitch where the titular character gives a definition for the word “perseverance”: Continuing in a course of action without regard to discouragement, opposition, or previous failure. That definition, to me, is the epitome of “Black Girl Magic”. It’s this hodgepodge of grace and resilience and grit topped off with a few sprinkles of audacity. Fighting not just to survive, but to thrive has been a part of the Black female legacy in this country since its founding, and once we recognize the magic that’s inherent to our being, there’s no stopping our ascent to greatness. The most magical part of all is that anyone who supports us on the journey gets to join the climb, if that makes any sense.
The thing is, because Black girls live in a world that often doesn’t esteem us very highly unless we fit a certain mold of acceptability, many of us—myself included—initially find it difficult to believe there’s any “Magic” within us at all. I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, but I never even dreamed of writing fiction until I was in my late-twenties. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the stories I had to tell.

But then came Shonda Rhimes. She wasn’t writing books, but she was definitely telling stories. And people were riveted. So I decided to give it a shot. Now the more I see the Magic flowing out of other Black girls—from Beyoncé to Ava Duvernay to Zendaya to Nicola Yoon—the more driven I am to tap into my own Magic. My first two books didn’t sell, but because of the Magic, I was convinced the stuff in my head needed to be in the world somehow, so I kept going.

Now I don’t intend to stop.

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work. Stone lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @getnicced or on her website


ZETTA ELLIOT: In her book A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand argues that Black people throughout the diaspora have demonstrated “a mastery of way-finding.” Against all odds, we find ways to keep moving forward; we insist upon our right to be free, to experience joy, and we create myriad ways to express the fullness of our humanity. June Jordan calls Black poetry a “difficult miracle” and that’s what comes to mind when I think about #BlackGirlMagic. It’s not just a celebration of talent or achievement. It’s an affirmation of our will to survive—and thrive—to be seen and heard—despite so many forces working to destroy us. There’s an abundance of talent in Black communities but only limited opportunities to develop those abilities. Who knows how many gifted Black writers simply gave up after trying unsuccessfully to break into the white-dominated publishing industry? So when I write about Black girls with magical abilities, I’m creating the images and narratives I craved as a young reader but could never find. Magic is ultimately about power, and I want Black youth to see themselves (re)shaping history in a way that centers social justice. When those stories get rejected over and over by an industry dominated by white women, I opt to self-publish which is a way of saying, “I don’t need you” to a group accustomed to Black women being subordinate and dependent. There’s a price to pay for that kind of defiance, but it also extends the tradition of independent publishing in the Black community. Black and White women have a fraught history in this country, and Kitchen Table Press was one response to racism within publishing and the mainstream feminist movement. Self-publishing is another, and it means a lot when young Black women come up to me and thank me for not giving up. That’s the essence of #BlackGirlMagic—we persist, and we celebrate ourselves and each other in spite of all the barriers placed in our way.

Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth. Three books published under her own imprint, Rosetta Press, have been named Best Children’s Books of the Year by the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature. Rosetta Press generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.


TIFFANY JACKSON: It’s like a synonym, a code word for when one’s achievement, despite the odds, is beyond comprehension. That unwavering perseverance, brilliance, beauty and strength, through the daily turmoil of being a black girl in this world. You gasp when you witness it. I think of the term often when I develop characters, trying to find ways to bottle up and serve that magic by writing stories featuring immensely strong black girls faced with unthinkable adversity.

Tiffany D. Jackson is a TV professional by day, novelist by night, awkward black girl 24/7. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Film from Howard University and her Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School University. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves with her adorable chihuahua Oscar, most likely multitasking. Her debut contemporary YA novel Allegedly (Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins) hit shelves January 24th, 2017.


RANDI PINK: It’s hard for me to define the term “black girl magic.” Offering one definition feels impossible – like stuffing a star into a soda can. There’s just too much “black girl magic” in the world to do it justice. With that said, here’s my effort:

I’m very visual, and when I set that term at the forefront of my mind, I see black mothers and aunts holding rat-tail combs – parting and greasing little girls’ scalps with Blue Magic Hair Dress. I see church mothers proudly gracing the front most pew; they’ve earned it through decades of diligence. Pastor’s in the pulpit, but they’re the quiet heartbeat of the church. I see playgrounds, hopscotch, double-dutch, and colorful clamps littering the chalked concrete.

I see Carla Hall from The Chew, cooking whatever she wants to cook and wearing whatever she wants to wear, critics be damned. I hear Shirley Caesar transforming the atmosphere of a congregation within the span of a four-minute gospel selection. I feel the unconditional support of Birmingham teacher and blogger, Javacia Harris Bowser, selflessly and lovingly lifting the women in our community. I see you, Dhonielle Clayton, mixing up mayhem, magic, and books in the best way!

So poised, so strong, so talented.

I’m “black girl magic.” I credit my mama, my mama’s mama, my father’s mama, my husband’s mama, and my husband’s mama’s mama for writing the recipe and stirring the caldron to create that magic. But above all, I credit myself for applying their wisdom without protest. It influences my books because I can’t help it. It’s who I am.

Randi Pink grew up in the South and attended a mostly white high school. She lives with her husband and their two rescue dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, where she works for a branch of National Public Radio. Into White is her fiction debut.


IBI ZOBOI: I think the term “black girl magic” arose out of our collective need to elevate the image of black women and girls to that of resilience, defiance, wonder, awe, beauty, and of course, magic. In every corner of our world where poverty and disenfranchisement linger, dark girls are the most marginalized and violated, and are at the very bottom of our social hierarchy. Yet, we’ve accomplished so much. And given our collective circumstances, these triumphs seem magical. All of this is included in everything I write. My characters face hardships and tough choices; they are equal parts ordinary in their daily lives, and extraordinary in their resolve to achieve unsurmountable goals. I was writing magical girls even before this hashtag movement—literal magical girls. I’ve always infused otherworldly elements into my stories—from traditional African spirituality to space travel. This is part of the magic of who we are. I think we can transcend space and time with our mojo. We’ve always been conjurers in every sense and it’s evident in both our fiction and non-fiction, from the subtle magic in Toni Morrison and Virginia Hamilton’s work, to the very real intellectual and athletic prowess of Mae Jemison and Serena Williams. “Black girl magic” simply encapsulates everything about who we are and what we do.

Ibi Aanu Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and is a graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, “Old Flesh Song”, is published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, a collection of African American speculative fiction. Ibi received an award from the Women for her short story “At the Shores of Dawn”, which was published in One?Respe! literary journal. She won a “Tricky Talker of the Year” an annual tall-tale contest presented by the Afrikan Folk Heritage Circle. Her children’s fable, “Mama Kwanzaa & Her Seven Children”, was published in African Voices Magazine. She designed and taught a course on female archetypes in world mythology to the young women of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project where she also taught creative writing and leadership classes and she’s been a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, Inc. Ibi presented a paper entitled, “Oya’s Brood: Mythology and the African American Woman” for a symposium on Octavia Butler at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College. She is a recipient of a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for her original program, the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, partnering with local organizations Dwa Fanm, Inc. and Haiti in Brooklyn, and Fondasyon Felicite in Haiti to conduct a 3-day workshop with teen girls in Port-au-Prince. Ibi has completed a teen fantasy novel based on Haitian myth and folklore. Her short story “The Harem” is recently published in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation and holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Ibi lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist and educator Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children.


NADIA HOHN: Years ago, one would most likely hear more “black magic” with its negative connotations rather than “Black girl magic”. Today, “Black girl magic” is current. Black women have also been described as “the mules of the earth” (Zora Neale Hurston). We are impacted by both gender and race issues and of course some of us experience additional forms marginalization. Yet “still we rise” (Maya Angelou) and we are seeing many examples of girls who come out of the woodwork and are “roses growing from concrete” (Tupac). Girls who defy all of the oppression, discrimination and restrictions, the history of our enslaved past as African people and emerge flawless, “fly”, and literally slaying the competition. We see it in Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, etc. We saw it multiple times at the Olympics and the upcoming movie “Hidden Figures”. It is every Black woman who breaks down barriers. These are the groundbreakers, the pioneers, and the unsung heroes.

I tend to write stories with strong female and complex lead characters. I am working on a few projects and have already written one which became my first picture book, Malaika’s Costume. This little girl is impacted by poverty, globalization, the “barrel children” phenomenon– separation from her mother who migrated to Canada to work and send money home–, her grandmother is raising her, yet despite the odds, she finds a way to make her dream come true. It is a metaphor for a lot of girls.

I see “Black Girl magic” in my mother, women in my family, and it’s all around me. I grew up reading Essence magazine. These influences of strong Black women have naturally leaked into my work as a writer. I see this in the brilliant Black girls I teach, especially the ones who are above their years in reading and writing skills and knowledge. One of my former students is a dark-skinned Black girl who wanted to be a pilot since Grade 1. She was “quick as a whip”, intuitive, lively, and moody and when I took my students to the museum to see the King Tut exhibit, she soaked everything up that I taught her. She in her little body along with my other Black Grade 1 students “took up space” in a predominantly white adult institution with their kente cloth vests. She was spewing off and recognizing scarabs, hyeroglyphs, and sarcophagi. That’s Black girl magic. I want these girls to have every opportunity afforded to them that I know they should have despite their ethnic background or the neighbourhood they live in.

From the age of five years old, Nadia L Hohn began writing stories, drawing, and making books. Nadia is the author of the Music and Media books in the Sankofa Series to be published by Rubicon Publishing in 2015. She was awarded the Helen Issobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Book Award for her picture book manuscript, Malaika’s Costume, in 2014. In 2016, Malaika’s Costume was published as a picture book by Groundwood Books and won the 2015-2016 ETFO Children’s Literature Award. Nadia Hohn loves to write (songs, blogs, journals, stories), play piano, cook vegan dishes, travel, study arts and cultures of the African diaspora especially Caribbean folk music, Orff music education, and run. Nadia is an elementary school teacher from Toronto. She is currently working on a middle grade novel and researching biographies. The French translation of Malaika’s Costume will be published in spring 2017 and the sequel, Malaika’s Winter Carnival, in fall 2017.

tameka-fryer-brownTAMEKA FRYER BROWN: This term “black girl magic” gives me total life, and I wish it had been around when I was growing up. The powerful nature of these words is so visceral, it’s difficult to describe their impact in verbiage that will do justice, but here’s my attempt:

Black girl magic is the idea that the achievement potential of black girls (and women) is limitless, that our nature is inherently fierce, that the indomitable spirit of our foremothers in the face of unspeakable oppression is worthy of unreserved pride. Embracing my own black girl magic is what allows me the confidence and freedom to express myself as a writer, in a manner of my choosing, unconstrained by convention or other people’s expectations.

Tameka Fryer Brown has gone from medical supplies sales rep, to full-time-mom, to children’s book author. Her first title for children is Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day (Abrams Books for Young Readers). She is the author of My Cold Plum, Lemon Pie, Bluesy Mood (Viking).

brandy-colbertBRANDY COLBERT: To me, black girl magic is celebrating all the wonderful and singular aspects of being a black girl or woman. It can be physical, like the unique textures of our hair or the gorgeous, varying complexions among us, or it can be our numerous achievements in all types of fields, from science to the arts to sports to entertainment. When I think about black girl magic, I think about a gender-specific type of black excellence.

Black girl magic is at the root of all my work because I’m proud to be a black woman and show the myriad ways we exist and excel in this world. Although my first book was about a gifted ballet dancer, I don’t think black girl magic necessarily has to encompass an extraordinary talent. Black women and girls have been kicking ass since we’ve been here. It’s just that now, we’re getting the chance to share our stories and voices.

Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the Ozarks—more specifically, Springfield, Missouri—and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Missouri State University. Her debut novel, Pointe (Putnam, 2014), won the 2014 Cybils Award for young adult fiction and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, the Chicago Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. She was also chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Her forthcoming work can be seen in the upcoming anthologies Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories, Feminism for the Real World, and Triangles: The Points of Love. Her second novel, Little & Lion, will be released in spring 2017 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Brandy lives in Los Angeles where she works as a copy editor for magazines and books. Her writing is represented by Tina Wexler at ICM Partners.

watson-headshotRENÉE WATSON: When I think of “black girl magic,” I think of the word magic not as illusion but magic, as in miracle. We are black miracles, how we birth movements, how we mother black children—who may or may not return home to us emotionally whole—and then there’s the fear of them returning to us at all. Our blackness survived what was intended to break us, kill us, and yet, we are here. And not merely existing but thriving. From the arts to politics, to business and education, black girls and women are trendsetters, organizers, artists. And so, when I think of black girl magic, I think of the source that our black girl magic comes from—the women who sometimes get left out of history books. Those make-a-way-out-of-no-way women who prayed this generation into existence, who somehow kept their laugh and grace, their joy and faith intact.

These are the women and girls I think about when I write. It is important for me to give context to where we are now, as a people. I want my characters to wrestle with the past in order to understand why things are the way they are now, how they can do something—small or big—to make a difference in this world.

As a writer of realistic fiction, the influence of Black Girl Magic motivates me to write not only about struggle, but triumph. I purposely surround my protagonist with a community of diverse black women who nurture and challenge her. I think it’s important that the pain of blackness that so often gets written about is not the only story of black girlhood. I hope to write stories about the pain, yes, but also about young girls finding their voice and becoming budding activists, about the innocence of a first kiss, the awkwardness and insecurity of adolescence, the ambitious dreams of a teenager.

On one hand, nuanced characters are just good writing. The characters I love the most are characters who are flawed, striving, complicated. A good writer can make a reader root for a villain, see beauty in a scene that is mostly devastating. That’s what writing should do. In general, it’s just a good rule to follow. But I especially think this is important when I write about black girls. I feel responsible for making sure that there is balance of bitter and sweet, that stereotypes are challenged, and that the communities I write about reflect the vibrant, loving, and complicated worlds of the real black girls I know. I believe it’s important that these stories make it into the pages of books, the stanzas of poems.

Renée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015), which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her books have received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature for her picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one-woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. She has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers throughout the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books and currently teaches courses on writing for children at Pine Manor College. Renée has given readings and lectures at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. In 2015 she was honored with the STEAM award for her work in arts education by Inner City Foundation of New York, Inc. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.

olugbemisola-rhuday-perkovichOLUGBEMISOLA RHUDAY-PERKOVICH: It means affirming, celebrating and amplifying the gorgeous array of vibrancy that exists in Black girls across the diaspora. Countering the dominant narrative that Black girls and their stories are a problem to be handled, suppressed, or ignored.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of the middle-grade novel 8th Grade Superzero (Scholastic, 2010), co-author of Two Naomis with Audrey Vernick, and contributor to the anthologies Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick Press, 2013), and Imagine It Better: Visions of What School Might Be (Heinemann Educational Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in Scholastic Instructor, American Baby, and Healthy Kids, among others, and she has been a contributing editor to the teen publications Word Up! and Right On. She has taught at the Brooklyn New School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, and she is an Alumni Admissions Ambassador for Cornell University. She holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.A. from New York University.

leah-hendersonLEAH HENDERSON: For me, “black girl magic” is about power, determination, and a special kind of grit and sass. It encourages upliftment and compassion, unity and inclusion, friendship and sisterhood, while embracing and celebrating every black girl’s unique voice. It’s an ability to turn sour into sweet, pain into strength, and bitter into heart. Throughout history black girls have been last in the line for so many things, yet first in the line for cruelty, injustice, and invisibility. Yet through it all, our will, our fight, and our inexhaustible fabulousness have never wavered.

“Black girl magic” resonates with a spirit that can’t be hushed, and a creativity that won’t be squandered. There is a restless beauty within us that deserves and needs to be unleashed in every creative form we have thought of and those we have not. It speaks to talents that are all our own. It comes from our foremothers struggles wrapped with their success and their belief in a brighter future for those to come after them. The magic is a light that we refuse to let dim. In every way we can, we fuel it, so that it continues to shine. Black girl magic is knowing within yourself that you are spectacular, and blessed, and that you DO have something worthy to say.

It gives confidence to my words and allows me to unleash my voice. My characters may not always be the loudest or the most outspoken, but each has a quiet drive propelling them forward. In many cases, their spirits are a mirror of my own. So each time I put pen to paper, I cannot help but think of this magic.

Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. She hopes these experiences help add layers of richness to her writing.
Leah received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. Her middle grade novel, One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster), is due out June 6th, 2017. You can find Leah’s book on Goodreads. And can also follow her on twitter @LeahsMark. One of the many places she is trying to leave her mark on the world one sentence at a time.

See Part 2 here of this Round Table Series here.