Stephen King's Super-Duper Magical Negroes
By Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
25 October 2004
I first heard of the Magical Negro from author Steve Barnes during a Clarion East Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop discussion in 2001. He explained that a Magical Negro was a black character—usually depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the white protagonist—whose purpose in the plot was to help the protagonist get out of trouble, to help the protagonist realize his own faults and overcome them.
As I sat there listening to Barnes, I realized with dismay what bothered me about several of Stephen King's novels. Several of his greatest works hinge on Magical Negroes and, furthermore, the result was a propagation of racial stereotypes.
To fully understand how deeply King's Magical Negroes affect, it's best to first look at the history of the Magical Negro. Sometimes called the "Magic Negro" or the "Mystical Negro," the term "Magical Negro" typically references characters in film and dates back to the 1950s, around the time of the film The Defiant Ones .
In this film, a white man named John "Joker" Jackson (played by Tony Curtis) and a black man named Noah Cullen (played by Sidney Poitier) are convicts on a southern chain gang. When they escape because of a bus accident, they make a run for it. The going is slow because they're shackled together by a thick chain and both are also full of racial assumptions. At first, they hate each other; they argue over which way to go and Joker's use of the word "nigger." But in the end, after many trials and tribulations, they become friends. When Cullen is able to jump on the moving train, Joker can't make it. Cullen then sacrifices his own freedom to help Joker. And so the first famous Magical Negro was born.
Much more recently, in 2001, during a discussion with students at Washington State University, film director Spike Lee popularized the concept by renaming it the "Super-Duper Magical Negro." He was referring specifically to John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile and Bagger (played by Will Smith) in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Both films are about a white man whose moral and emotional growth is made possible by the appearance of an almost angelic mystical black man. In The Green Mile, Coffey eventually dies after effecting great change on the white protagonist and just about everyone else around him. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger (whom the author of the book said was based on the Hindu deity Bhagavan Krishna) leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, once Rannulph Junuh's life is back on track. Both characters, John Coffey and Bagger, are only important in relation to the protagonist of each story.
Interestingly enough, Krishna means "black" in Sanskrit. The name is often translated as "the black one," and early pictorial representations generally showed him as dark- or black-skinned. By the nineteenth century, he had become the blue-skinned deity most are familiar with.
Here are what I call the Five Points of the Magical Negro; the five most common attributes:
- He or she is a person of color, typically black, often Native American, in a story about predominantly white characters.
- He or she seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first.
- He or she disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist.
- He or she is uneducated, mentally handicapped, at a low position in life, or all of the above.
- He or she is wise, patient, and spiritually in touch. Closer to the earth, one might say. He or she often literally has magical powers.
The archetype of the Magical Negro is an issue of race. It is the subordination of a minority figure masked as the empowerment of one. The Magical Negro has great power and wisdom, yet he or she only uses it to help the white main character; he or she is not threatening because he or she only seeks to help, never hurt. The white main character's well-being comes before the Magical Negro's because the main character is of more value, more importance.
The Magical Negro is like the happy slave, glad to sacrifice himself, his happiness, his time, something of value to him, in order to help the white character. And at end of the story, many audiences often end up quietly wondering, "Well, why'd she do that?" That is, if they remember the character at all.
A Magical Negro is not just a racial stereotype, he or she is also a specific plot device; this character is dropped into the story to help the protagonist along, and the story is often successful because of this device. The use of the Magical Negro evokes the Ursula Le Guin story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."
Le Guin weaves a tale whose center is a utopian society called Omelas where everyone is content. There are no crimes, no enemies, no wars; all is good. Then, well into the story, a child is introduced. This child was forced to dwell in a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas where he or she (it is not disclosed if the child is a boy or a girl) is tortured.
It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.
In the case of the Magical Negro, like the child in Le Guin's story, it is he or she who must make the sacrifice so that everything in the story can be possible.
Stephen King has written the most well-known Magical Negroes of literature (and maybe film). All of King's most popular Magical Negroes have played a pivotal role in the success of the stories they are a part of. Still, when one looks at his greatest novels, there are so many Magical Negroes that as a thinking educated black woman, I'm forced to ask, "What's going on here?"
Let me preface by saying that Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. Though I don't like all of his work, when he's on, he's really on. I can even say that he is one of my top three favorites (the other two being Salman Rushdie and Octavia Butler). However, one shouldn't ignore the obvious. Even in my favorite King novel (cowritten with the legendary Peter Straub), The Talisman, one of the main characters is a Magical Negro.
The Green Mile, The Talisman, The Stand, and The Shining—these great novels harbor his most popular Magical Negroes. The summaries of these characters speak for themselves as to why they're Magical Negroes. It becomes most apparent when the Five Points of the Magical Negro are applied to each character.
In The Shining, Dick Hallorann is the cook at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Hallorann takes an instant liking to Danny, the five-year-old son of Wendy and Jack Torrance, because little Danny also has what Hallorann calls The Shine (psychic powers). The family is staying at the Overlook Hotel for the winter as caretakers. The hotel has a history of bad things happening there, including the case of Delbert Grady, a previous winter caretaker who suffered from cabin fever and ended up killing his family before committing suicide. When the evil ghosts of the hotel drive Danny's father mad, Danny psychically calls Hallorann for help. Hallorann leaves Florida immediately. After he fights his way into the Hotel (he has to fight animals made of possessed shrubbery), he's knocked unconscious by the deranged father. In the film, Hallorann is even more strongly portrayed as the Magical Negro when he is brutally murdered when he enters the hotel to save Danny.
In the epic novel The Stand Mother Abigail is powerfully religious and magical. A 108-year-old black woman full of patience, kindness, and wisdom, she is the force that pulls all the members of what Tolkien would have called "the White" (the "Good") to her home in Nebraska after a super-flu kills off 99.44 percent of the world's population. Mother Abigail gives her guidance, wisdom, and advice to the chosen group of travelers (comprised of the protagonists of the story), and then she dies.
In The Talisman, in order to save his dying mother and the world, twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer must find the talisman, the nexus of all the worlds masked as a crystal-like globe perhaps three feet in circumference. It is Speedy Parker, a mysterious, kindly old guitar-playing black man working at an amusement park, who convinces Sawyer to embark on his quest. It is also Speedy, whom Sawyer meets again on his way from one ocean to the next, who tells Sawyer about the "magic juice," which helps Sawyer "flip" from our world to a parallel one known as the Territories. Though King cowrote The Talisman with Straub, I strongly believe that it was King who came up with Speedy. Call it assumption from past observation.
In The Green Mile, John Coffey is a new prisoner sentenced to death for raping and murdering two young girls. A very big, tall, child-like black man, he possesses enormous psychic powers. And he's also innocent. As the story moves along, Coffey breathes life into Mr. Jingles the mouse, cures main character Paul Edgecombe (who is in charge of death row) of his bladder infection, cures the warden's wife of her brain cancer, and performs other miracles. Nevertheless, in the end, Coffey, tired of suffering from the heightened awareness of the world's evils and too aware of his lowly position as a poor black man, asks to go through with the execution.
All four characters are African-American. All four are harmless.
In The Talisman, "What Jack had understood as soon as he had known that his father would have liked Speedy Parker was that the ex-bluesman had no harm in him." Part of what makes Jack comfortable with Speedy is not just that Speedy is a safe person for a boy to deal with, but that he is completely and utterly nonthreatening. Jack never sees him very angry, Speedy is always ready to help Jack, be it by telling Jack what he needs to know or being a shoulder to lean on. He's like a pillow as opposed to a chair; not only does Speedy always seek to support Jack, but Speedy is also always yielding.
All four characters mentioned appear in stories where most of the main characters, if not all, are white. All four of these characters possess great powers. All four are far from wealthy. All four are bent on helping the protagonists before themselves.
In The Green Mile, Coffey is most gracious. "'You and Mr. Howell and the other bosses been good to me,' John Coffey said. 'I know you been worrying, but you ought to quit on it now. Because I want to go, boss,'" he says near the end to Edgecomb. Coffey basically thanks his jailers who have not questioned his guilt until it's too late and done nothing to help him get out of jail (until Coffey cures the warden's wife) or even convince him to try.
Lastly, Speedy, Hallorann, Mother Abigail, and John Coffey come to some sort of a bad end, except Speedy. (He, at least a version of himself, doesn't get injured for Jack's sake until the sequel, Black House.)
It is not easy to pinpoint the reason why Magical Negroes exist, for no one can truly say where stories come from, not even the authors. Decades ago, when issues of race were far more cut-and-dry, in-your-face, less masked, less stamped out, one might have hypothesized that the Magical Negro was simply how the writers of the stories viewed black people. That to them, in a way, blacks were like robots (or slaves), put on the earth to help white folks. That like Asimov's robots, black people had rules imprinted in their brains that made them so selfless.
These days, however, I don't think the Magical Negro's existence is so conscious. I hypothesize that the Magical Negro in film continues to live because a lot of the less savory beliefs about race are still in the American public's psyche. And because so much of art these days is commercial, the great machine needs to "give 'em what they know." A good example was how the plight of the character Dick Hallorann was altered in the film version of The Shining; Hallorann was killed off in the film yet in the book managed to escape with his life.
In her June 7, 2003, Washington Post article "Too Too Divine: Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day, but at the Cost of His Soul," Rita Kempley wrote,
Damon Lee, producer of the hard-hitting satire Undercover Brother, has come up with a similarly intriguing hypothesis drawn from personal experience. "The white community has been taught not to listen to black people. I truly feel that white people are more comfortable with black people telling them what to do when they are cast in a magical role. They can't seem to process the information in any other way," he says. "Whoever is king of the jungle is only going to listen to someone perceived as an equal. That is always going to be the case. The bigger point is that no minority can be in today's structure. Somehow the industry picked up on that."
Damon Lee has a very strong point. However, his words apply more to films, where a story may be something in the beginning but becomes something all together different in the end, to the writer's horror. The "too-many-hands-in-the-pot-makes-the-stew-go-bad" syndrome. When this happens, all sorts of things are mixed into and imposed on the original story. America's cultural values, which are full of all sorts of "isms," not only find their way into the story through the author, but are added more consciously by the machine of The Industry. Novels, though often heavily influenced by editors, are more organic.
King is not a racist. The Talisman, The Stand, The Shining, and The Green Mile are superb novels and I do think that there was good intent behind the making of the characters I've mentioned. Nevertheless, these characters are what they are and King does benefit from that fact. Magical Negroes are always interesting, being magical and mysterious, and they make things happen. When a Magical Negro pops up, the story crackles and pops.
In a letter to horror writer Kimile Aczon (who is African-American), author Peter Straub wrote, "Most horror fiction is so unthinkingly lily-white that its readers never encounter sympathetic black characters, or, for that matter, any black characters at all. This is a tremendous deprivation; it injures all of us."
Being black is part of what makes King's Magical Negroes stand out, at least when they are around. Their race is important and intentional. These characters stand out because they are the only blacks amongst mainly white characters.
King's Magical Negroes most often fit the stereotype of a person of color with mystical powers. According to general racial pigeonholes, people of color, especially blacks, are more primitive than whites. And because they are more primitive, they are more in tune with their primitive powers, the magic of the earth and spirits. One may see a lot of these assumptions with Native Americans, also. It is also this stereotype that the myths of the oversexed black woman and the well-endowed black man spring from, for to be primitive is often equated with being more sexual. The stereotypical primitive person of color is familiar to audiences and thus instantly understood. To assume such a role implies a certain primitiveness about all people of color. It is also, of course, harmful; a reader may be inclined to assume such a role for any person of color who comes into the story.
When you have a character sacrificing himself or herself for another character, this is not, in and of itself, bad. In religious texts, sacrifice is most often treated as an act that makes one godly. In Theosophy, a belief system developed from the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, self-sacrifice is even one of the greatest acts one can perform. The most perfect form of sacrifice is Divine Sacrifice.
In "Sacrifice in Soul Life," an essay from The Theosophical Movement (a theosophy magazine based in India), it is stated, "This principle of Divine Sacrifice conveys to us the chief method of human progression and perfection. The human soul evolves by reproducing within himself the divine quality of sacrifice. By sacrificing himself for the good of others, he manifests his divinity."
One can look at religious and historical figures like Jesus Christ, the Buddha Gautama, and Krishna and see that self-sacrifice is a respectful practice, a sign of greatness. All three of these "characters" sacrificed something important for the greater good. Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross; Buddha sacrificed all worldly possessions to become a teacher to guide those who chose to listen; and Krishna sacrificed his immortality to take the body of flesh and blood to teach humankind. Because of these sacrifices, they are divine and revered.
However, sacrifice does not bear the same meaning when it is done by the Magical Negro. This problem becomes apparent when viewed in context: 1) The fact that this character is typically the only (or one of very few) black character in the story. 2) The history of slavery and subsequent race relations in the United States, and the world. 3) The Magical Negro's low position in life.
Though Buddha turned away from it, he came from noble blood. His father was a king. Krishna also had noble blood. Jesus was the only one who came from a "lowly" background, being the son of a carpenter. And because they are so well-known, so are their backgrounds, their upbringings, their pasts. They do not just pop out of thin air. Nor do they disappear after their sacrifice.
These self-sacrificing "characters" come in on a pedestal. Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna are usually the center of the plot. The fact of who they are makes their sacrifices meaningful. The same cannot be said about the Magical Negro. The Magical Negro is expendable because he or she isn't anyone special. The audience is not expected to feel great sadness at a Magical Negro's passing, at least not of the prolonged sort. The audience is meant to be a little sad, maybe a little disturbed, but then quickly turn to see what the main character will next do, especially since the main character is usually more energized after a Magical Negro's death; the path is usually cleared in some way. It brings to mind the ritual sacrifice of animals in some West African cultures where it is believed that through the animal's sacrifice, the sacrificer is given energy.
The grand result of the repeated use of the Magical Negro archetype (coupled with the gigantic success of King's novels) is the implication that black people are inferior and expendable, even when they have power to wield, and white people are superior and important, even when they have to rely on the Magical Negro.
In Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, I wrote a very very short story titled "The Magical Negro." It was a parody of the self-sacrificing Magical Negro who gets a clue in the middle of things and decides to save himself and move on to things he wants to do instead of dying for a white stranger, who was supposedly the main character.
Part of my point was that Magical Negroes have power that, if harnessed for personal intent, would change the story greatly. What would The Green Mile be if Coffey had been more concerned with escaping than helping? What would The Talisman have been if Speedy hadn't been there for Jack because he was trying to save the talisman himself, because he thought he himself was capable, too? What would have happened in The Stand if Mother Abigail had been more concerned with helping her own folks make it to a better place than the ragtag group that came along? What would all these stories have been if these characters' destinies weren't so tied to someone outside of themselves? If they hadn't been written that way? The answer: the stories would have been more complex, the characters more human, less lapdog.
Though too many of King's black characters are Magical Negroes, not all of them are. One of his most vibrant characters is Susannah/Odetta/Detta of the Dark Tower Series. She is the Legolas of King's Lord of the Rings (although I cannot say that she is always as level-headed). And King is anything but careful with her character.
King's website sums her story up best:
From New York, 1964, just a few months after President Kennedy's assassination. Susannah arose from the joint personalities of Odetta Holmes (heir to the Holmes Dental Industry fortune) and her secret evil double, Detta Walker. Detta Walker came to life after five-year-old Odetta was hit on the head by a brick, one dropped by the psychopath Jack Mort. Jack Mort entered Odetta/Detta's life again in 1959 when he pushed her in front of the A-train at Christopher Street Station. The train severed her legs, just above the knee. Before entering Mid-World, Odetta was active in the Civil Rights Movement. Detta wasn't, but she had her own ways of seeking vengeance on the oppressive white system.
When Detta Walker is in charge, the curse words fly, à la black caricature. When Roland and Eddie Dean tie her to her wheelchair, just after bringing her into Mid-World, Detta is like a captured serpent. From Drawing of the Three:
"Why don't you go on and eat each other's COCKS?" the struggling thing in the chair screeched. "Why don't you jus go on an do dat if you fraid of a black woman's cunny? You just go on! Sho!"
King is not "politically correct" when it comes to Detta's character. King does cushion the impact of her speech by saying that he wrote her to sound like a caricature, a stereotype, but that's as far as he goes. Aside from the fact that some of the nasty things she says are just plain hilarious (where we are laughing with her, not at her), she is just crazy—the no-holds-barred kind of crazy. Odetta Walker is so sweet, and Susannah, the result of when the personalities merge, is strictly hard-core. Far from a Magical Negro, there is complexity in Susannah's actions and motivations.
Speedy, Mother Abigail, Dick Halloran, and John Coffey are fascinating people. They are some of King's greatest creations, I dare say. In worlds where magical things happen, there will be magical folks who are kind and full of wisdom and sacrifice. And there will be such folks who happen to be black. Nevertheless, these folks are flawed in ways they should not be—they are flawed in context.
Some say art imitates life, others think life imitates art. I say, "Who cares?" Art and life affect and feed off of each other; that makes entertainment always more than its definition. The issue of the Magical Negro cannot be dismissed as just part of entertaining an audience. The archetype of the Magical Negro has power in its powerlessness and it is not a positive type, leading to stereotypes, negative assumptions, and limited characterizations of black people in King's work.
In the Dark Tower books, one learns that all of King's books are connected to this central story of Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet, Eddie, Jake, and Susannah. The evil that Mother Abigail and Speedy fought against at some point is the evil that Roland and his group seek to defeat. It all ties together. And with the publishing of his last book in the Dark Tower series, King's "Constant Readers" can finally learn whether the Dark Tower falls or stands.
Was all that sacrifice worth it? One will have to read and see.