Poet Morgan Parker’s latest collection, Magical Negro, is a riveting testimony to everyday blackness. The writer behind 2017’s acclaimed collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, which examined black womanhood and identity, now turns her attention to challenging black stereotypes. Her new collection of poetry explores how identities are constructed, not only through the prism of race but also through historical legacies and pop culture. By replacing the self-effacing goodness of the “magical negro” trope, Parker highlights the authentic, specific characteristics of real people.
There is no distinct separation between the writer and her elegy. Parker is uncompromising with her interior life, and between stanzas puts it fully on display. She invites us into her bedroom and therapy sessions. We are left to experience the magnitude of the violated black body: Every day it is bitten with new guilt. It is a moving window into her day-to-day existence, a tenacious black woman rejecting oppressive standards of beauty in favor of profound self-acceptance.
Parker is deliberately provocative on race. She playfully mocks America’s hypocrisy without fear of retribution. Throughout the collection, readers are greeted with the devastating contradictions that riddle American history, so often to the detriment of black lives:
The history of black people, an investigation.
The history of black people, a tragicomic horror film.
The history of black people, or, joy stinging pink lips.
The history of black people says me.
The history of black people goes blank.
The history of black people, adapted from white people.
While Magical Negro is a condemnation of black objectification, it is also an acclamation of black triumph. Parker’s boldness and vulnerability are rewarded within the verse, which offers an inquiry of black genius: the gentle weaving of cultural icons from Diana Ross to Eartha Kitt, the tributes to visual artists Adrian Piper and Glenn Ligon, the political homage to Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. And beyond the critical acclaim of her heroes, she acknowledges that black lives are often denied recognition of agency and personal autonomy. She leads us toward a chorus of black voices chanting, We are still here.
Magical Negro’s soft radiance permeates the soul, inspiring a disquieting melancholy. It is wry and atmospheric, an epic work of aural pleasures and personifications that demands to be read–both as an account of a private life and as searing political protest.
This appears in the February 04, 2019 issue of TIME.