My Heroes Don’t Wear Capes: the Vastness of #BlackGirlMagic

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“The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”

There are spirits we encounter in this life whose influence isn’t fully understood until their presence is long gone. So it goes with the women who have entered my life. From romantic partners to those who raised me, they have all left their mark–as I’m sure yours have left upon you.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand the gift of strong women who were brought into my life. I couldn’t comprehend the lessons learned across generations that were poured into me; each woman giving me the best of herself, in the hope that I would carry forward the torch. In the hope that I would be able to move swiftly enough to burn the flame brighter.

Back then I couldn’t comprehend how the sacred women who shared their poetry with me, in the womyn only space, where “pussy” was the word of power,  and you couldn’t leave without a hug and an affirmation that “if nobody told you you were beautiful today, I’m telling you you’re beautiful,” were sharing ancestral tales of both pain and pleasure, sacrifice and reward, loss and retribution. I was exposed before I could fully understand what I was witnessing on “the Land” at Michfest, or the brilliance before me while hosting “pow wow”. I knew that I was partaking in the divine, but I wasn’t ready to carry it, to honor it, to hone it; however, the beautiful thing about life is that even if you miss the lesson in the moment, the knowledge still stays with you eventually seeping through to the roots. Shaping and stretching you beyond your own ideal.

I was raised by full women who were as complex and intricate as they were strong. As dominant as they were feminine. As in and out of the box as they were in and out of the closet. They shaped shifted. They had the ability to stand ablaze or burn the town down–depending on who needed to be set free that night. They had the capacity to heal–themselves and others. They founded non-profits and drew strength from the community. They weren’t Amazons, they were Black women with all of the mystical powers that encompass #blackgirlmagic.

So often we speak of Black Girl Magic by oversimplifying it to refer to only the accomplishments of women who have made it into the spotlight of “mainstream” fame, but #BlackGirlMagic is so much more vast and boundless. Most of the women who raised me did not have tenure or degrees from ivy league universities, but they were vetted and degreed in the lessons of life. More than that, they made sure that I did. They were careful to equip me with the tools to navigate the world–the whole world–beyond what my eyes could see, or my young mind could fathom.

“If I have seen further, it is upon standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The woman who raised me only had a third-grade education, but you would be hard-pressed​ to find a child on Chicago’s southwest side, specifically the North Lawndale community, whose life she didn’t impact. From babysitting to Sunday dinners, we were nourished by her ever present love and compassion. Yet for all of her sweetness, the most epic mistake one could make was taking her for a fool– but even her anger was saturated in honey.

She rarely swung her belt, but when she did the remnants of an old, red, dirt road in Mississippi rolled off the tongue and each lash was swung by an arm full of fear, masquerading as rage. The scars from sharecropping and Jim Crow had lasted longer than the promise of integration and she would kill you herself before she gave the streets a chance. But even still, she was home, the quiet place that stilled it all. Her mere existence was the cure to the outside world she was so worried would snatch you away from her.

See, my superheroes wore sundresses and press and curls, grandchildren on their hips, college degrees in their back pockets, Mississippi Delta​ on the tongue,  “pretty won’t last forever, now get in there and learn them schoolbooks,” “don’t make me have to ask you again,” “I’m sending y’all out of this house together, y’all better all make it back together,” “you can be anything you want to be, baby,” “get in this kitchen and learn how to cook! That’s the only way you’ll ever be able to keep a man,” “if that man ever raises his hand to you make sure he loses it,” never red and gold together–except when raging against the warnings of their mothers, but never capes. They were flawed and often undone, but they were women–their whole selves.

Because of the lessons of these women, I have traveled and what I have learned is that not one woman has an experience that is just own her. Whose pain is just her own. Whose joy is just her own. Whose life is just her own. There are individual components, but it is the thread that binds. That black woman magic has been here from the inception, generations before we even gave words to it. It is our experiences: pain, joy, laughter, sisterhood, and most importantly, our survival.

-Ms. Malcolm Hughes

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