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Deke and the Problem of the Magical Negro

Image by Jenny Shead from Pixabay

There’s no question that The Points Between is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. I can think of plenty of authors who are better suited to writing it than I can, but I’ve waited patiently for someone else to tell this story and nobody has stepped up so here I am, trying to use muscles I don’t really have. Because this is a story that’s hard for me to get right, there are many, many opportunities for me to screw it up. So very, very many opportunities. And one of the big ones shows up in the Chapter 10 update, which I posted a little earlier today: the character of Julius Marshall, a.k.a. “Deke.”

Many years ago, when I was making my first attempt at the Points Between (my first attempt was for NaNoWriMo in the year 2004, my second attempt was as webfiction a few years later, and this is my third attempt) and writing it in third person past tense and not really being able to get a handle on Matthew and generally finding the entire thing just beyond my ability to pull off, I introduced one of the most important secondary characters in the entire story. Everyone called him “Deke” because he’d been a deacon at his church for most of his life. He was based on an old black guy I met at a diner in either Fredericksburg or Spotsylvania who tried to witness to me because I was dressed in leather and had spiky hair and was obviously a lost soul, and he was so brazen and direct and charming about it, all I could was sit there and let it happen. In fact, the line where Deke says “You on drugs? Drugs ain’t gonna do a thing for you that Jesus can’t do better” is based on something he said to me (though he definitely didn’t say the “except maybe kill you—though I reckon Jesus could do that better, too, if He wanted” part) and I remember thinking at the time “I gotta remember this guy” though I wasn’t really writing then so I didn’t know exactly why.

Anyway, I was pretty pleased with Deke and how he fit into the story and I remember posting it on a little forum where a few of us were posting our NaNoWriMo efforts. And Matt, a good friend of mine and a one of the co-creators of the Foldspace universe, read the chapter and said “Congratulations. You’ve just created a Magical Negro.”

That was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase, so I googled it. And when I found out what it meant, I was PISSED. I threw a royal tantrum about it, if I’m going to be honest. It was the classic How Dare You reaction that white dudes have been having since the first time anyone tried to point out that maybe we were getting something wrong and being willfully blind about it.

Eventually, after I calmed down and actually thought about it (I wish I was better at doing things the other way around—think first, then throw a tantrum, if warranted—but unfortunately “going off half-cocked” is my idea of preparation) I had to admit he had a point. If you’re not familiar with the trope, it does have it’s own entry on TV Tropes (and for those of you who decide to click the link remember to come back here and read the rest of this article in a few days, the site is a sinkhole of fascination and some people have never returned) but I’ll give you a summary here:

The “magical negro” is a term coined by Spike Lee to describe a rather troublesome1 story element where a white protagonist meets a mysterious black man (usually a black man) who is wise (though not necessarily smart), who seems to have unusual insights about people and things going on around him, and who acts as a kind of moral compass for the white protagonist (though not as an authority figure, more as a continuous gentle nudge) and serves to point the protagonist in the right direction and make them a better person as the story progresses. Sometimes the character actually does have magic powers, but it’s not necessary. This is usually the entire point of the character: it exists solely to serve the spiritual growth of the white protagonist, and does nothing else.

So I look at that, with the distance and what little wisdom I have acquired over the space of nineteen years, and I see the danger.

The problem is that well-worn tropes have a certain amount of gravity about them: if you get too close to the trope it pulls your story into it and all of a sudden there it is, in your narrative, whether you intended to put it there or not… and like any singularity, if you cross an event horizon there’s really no getting out. While the purpose of Deke in this story isn’t to contribute to Matthew’s moral and spiritual growth (he has his own goals and battles, and you learn more of them as the story progresses) it is very difficult not to put him in that trope because:

  • Matthew is the protagonist, and is a white guy in a southern setting
  • Deke is a black guy in a southern setting
  • Deke is an old man with a certain amount of wisdom that exceeds the protagonist’s common sense
  • When he is first introduced, Deke knows more about the situation than Matthew does
  • Deke has a certain amount of concern for his fellow man that extends to Matthew, and has specific opinions on what Matthew is doing, and shares them

All of those elements feed into the trope. Every single one. And in a story where the protagonist is a white dude and the things that happen around him shape his character development, there is automatically going to be an element where Deke, an important character, does something that affects who Matthew is. And there’s that damned trope again.

In my head, it’s an entirely different matter. In my head, Deke is a fully fleshed out character who has his own story, and has been doggedly pursuing that story for a very long time. It happens to intersect with Matthew’s story in a major way, and that intersection changes both stories significantly. But in my head is not the same thing as the story as written, and the danger is that because the story as written focuses on Matthew (as it should, he’s the protagonist!) important pieces of context for Deke’s story will be left out. It’s tempting to shave off secondary character backstory, and sometimes it’s even necessary to keep the main story from bogging down. But you can write a character too flat, and when you do the only place it can go is into the world of “just a trope with nothing else behind it.” I’ve been guilty of that kind of flattening before.

So I want to call it out right here: I see the danger here. I think Deke’s story will avoid the danger if I don’t screw things up, but the danger is real and the story is hard and if I screw it up the trope will grab Deke and pull him across its event horizon and he will be nothing but a painful stereotype and it will be entirely my fault. The fact that I’m aware of the danger doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll avoid it, but it’s important to the story that I do avoid it, so I’m calling it out here, and you are all my witnesses. You will either see me succeed or you will see me fail. This is my Kessel Run and I’m gunning for less than twelve parsecs.

Footnotes

  1. Racist, OK, it’s pretty goddamn racist.

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4 comments

Lightdefender 20 March 2023 at 2:33 PM

The TV Tropes link appears to be missing.

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C. B. Wright 20 March 2023 at 2:38 PM

It works for me…

Reply
C. B. Wright 20 March 2023 at 2:47 PM

I updated the stylesheet to make the links a little easier to see…

Reply
Andy Konecny 20 March 2023 at 10:05 PM

My Trope defences came up just from the title, started screaming after Matt’s comment to watch for the rabbit holes, then saw it there, plain as day before you pointed out. I can plainly hear the robot calling out, “Danger, Will Robinson!”
I managed to step around it gingerly to make it to the end here, until LightDefender’s comment. The helper/support side of me just had to check that it works. I managed to step away from that tab back here, and now I have to manage to close it afterwards without it sucking me back in and cutting into sleep time. Been there, done that, need a t-shirt to that effect!

I was wondering if Deke was just a Magical Negro or if you were going to do something interesting with him, as is more your style. Good luck on sailing around that trope and not being trapped by another in your Odyssuesian journey between Scylla and Charybdis. Looking forward to following it.

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