Dr. Linda Chavers on #BlackGirlMagic and the Article that Started a Firestorm

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Since CaShawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsareMagic in 2013, the phrase, often shortened to #BlackGirlMagic, has become a way for Black women to affirm each other. What began as a small online community, complete with t-shirts and hoodies, has now made its way to magazine covers and mainstream media.

This week, Elle published an editorial by Dr. Linda Chavers, "Here's My Problem with #BlackGirlMagic." The backlash to the piece was immediate.

For Harriet's editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, spoke with Chavers about the piece and the concept of #BlackGirlMagic.

This interview has been edited for clarity

For Harriet: How are you feeling?

Linda Chavers: That's a really great question. Hurt...bad, but it's complicated. I feel bad on the surface of things because I've read the comments. I got in my car on my phone and saw the reactions and saw that people wanted to smack me and pull me to the dumpster by my cuticles. I'm very visual, so I kept trying to picture how that would look. Then, the expressions of hurt and betrayal. I felt, I still feel really sad, very sad.

For Harriet: Let's start from the top. Were you happy with the framing of the article? Were you happy with the headline that was chosen, the image that was used, the tweets that were sent out?

Linda Chavers: It's funny, I don't think I even saw the tweets from Elle, but frankly, I saw nothing wrong with the headline. The image of the kind of dancer in the dark I had no problem with. I think I am so overwhelmed with the tweets, I actually did not even get a chance to see the official Elle tweets, so I don't know what the wording was for that.

For Harriet: Among the first responses and reactions to the article I saw were criticisms of the platform. Why Elle?

Linda Chavers: Honestly, Lord only knows how this is going to play out. I had already written the piece, and I'd pitched to Elle before. I've pitched that piece to other places. I'm not a full time writer. I write small pieces as a freelancer to pay my bills. I'm being very honest here. I don't make shit up. I don't do crap for crap's sake, but that's why I do what I do. I'm trying to write a memoir and I'm a freelance writer and I need to write. I honestly had not followed the controversy about Elle with the hairstyle thing. I know of the controversy overall and I agree with the criticism, like, oh, Black people, we've been doing for decades and a white woman who does it, it's oh my God, it's so cute. It's been going on for a long ass time and it's not specific to Elle. It's not. It's been going on since I was 9 years old. Frankly, if you ask me why Elle? It's because in terms of what I'm being criticized for. What I'm being criticized for has been going on for longer than I was alive and it's not specific to Elle.
For Harriet: I know for certain that if this piece had run in a Black publication, the response would be different.

Linda Chavers: I agree.

For Harriet: Not that the backlash would not have happened, but it certainly would have taken on a different tone.

Photo Courtesy: Dr. Linda Chavers
Linda Chavers: I agree. When I wrote the essay, I wrote the essay before Essence's Black Girl Magic cover, and I had talked to a friend of mine who is a writer and said, oh my God, I don't want to piss off Essence because, I'm sure this will never come through now, but Essence is a magazine I've always wanted to write for. And I've pitched for them, and they said they're not taking anything until March, so I was like, okay, I'll talk to you all in March. Meanwhile, I've still got to put stuff out there. That's my honesty. They don't need anyone right now.

I thought of so many things and that's definitely one of them, that if I published this in a Black publication, and I say "Black publication" because we have to look at what that actually means, it would have actually been different. I wonder what the reaction would have been like if I were 20 years older. I wonder what the reaction would have been if I were a Black man. I've wondered about that a lot.

For Harriet: What type of influence do think that your age has on how people responded to your criticism?

Linda Chavers: I think it's expected of me to agree.

The creator, I believe, and  a lot of the backlash is from folks younger than me. Even though I'm older than them, [they] still think that I'm young enough where I should accept it. I should understand it. I should get this. The thing is, I do. I just don't agree.

For Harriet: The lede of the piece really set a bad tone. We got into the different kind of reaction you would have gotten if you would have published this in an Ebony or an Essence, but the initial criticism of Essence put people on edge.

Linda Chavers: It's not meant to be a criticism. Literally, the timing was, like, I was just writing on this. I talked to a girlfriend about this and now there's this issue. I don't want to piss them off, but there it is. It's more of it. Frankly, the more mainstream it gets, the more problematic it is.

For Harriet: I understand. I think people who work in editorial understand the importance of timeliness in an opinion article. I get it there. 

How familiar were you before you pitched the article with the origin of #BlackGirlMagic and the #BlackGirlsareMagic hashtags?

Linda Chavers: Not much. Not much. That's honest. Not much.

I've been talking with Ashley Ford a lot, and she's been really great. A lot of people have been really great. They've giving me honest criticism about the holes in my piece and [they] have actually been letting me know.  I was. I am. but not as in detail as they're saying I should have been.

Nonetheless, I read Ashley's piece. I see that. I get it. I still don't agree with it.

That's okay. That should be okay.

For Harriet: I think not embracing it is completely fine. Let's move on. The central parts of your piece were that you felt like #BlackGirlMagic helps perpetuate old, oppressive tropes about Black women and Black womanhood like the magical negro trope and the strong Black Woman archetype. In your conversations that you've had with Ashley, in the other conversations that you've had over the past day or so, do you still feel that way?

Linda Chavers: Yeah, I do. It kind of saddens me. A lot of people were saying this has nothing to do with that. I think it absolutely does. It's how I see history. It's how I see language. It's how I see human thought. There's no decided dates that one trope officially ended, like, "Oh there's no more of that. We don't do that anymore." We still do that. We still see in certain ways and act in certain ways that suggest a certain way of thinking.

For Harriet:  Does the fact that black women originated the hashtag and are the primary participants in the hashtag and in this movement, does that affect the way that you interpret it at all?

Linda Chavers: No. Not too much. We're not a fully segregated society, being black and white, and I see it as a way of survival. I get it. I see it. Someone said, "How else will we celebrate ourselves? No one else does." Yes, of course. The language matters. If we keep perpetuating suggestions of being exceptional, we're getting into dangerous territory. We've done it before. We're going to do it again, whether we originate it or it originates explicitly from white supremacy, to me, doesn't matter.

For Harriet: Is #BlackGirlMagic about being exceptional? Is it about being superhuman or is about about self definition in spite of the fact that we are expected to be superhuman? I have always felt like this exemplifies our humanity, that Black women are coming together to affirm each other in community. If we were superhuman, we wouldn't need to create these sorts of communities because we would just be able to do it on our own. 

Linda Chavers: You know what it is? Listening to you is actually helping me articulate this better. Just in response, you said "this community," actually I'm writing an essay about Black girlfriends and Black girlhood. I have Black girlfriends. They've all read the piece. I think some of them disagree with it. Some of them don't. Some of them, to them, it didn't matter. I think that was also the issue.  Is there a special club that uses the term officially versus the artificial clubs that also use the term?

For Harriet: That's fair. There's been a lot of criticism about the politics of who gets in and who is out.

Linda Chavers: Yeah, I was very confused by that. Besides the originator, I didn't understand. So there's an allowance here? What's that about? I'm not going to subscribe to that. I can't. In terms of your earlier question, I think what it is is, I'm 33 years old. I'm tired of calling attention to ourselves versus calling attention to the bullshit we face. I don't want to say, "Oh wait. We're so wonderful and fantastic and beautiful and wonderful." No. I mean, yes we are, but I'm tired of it. I'm really tired of it. I want to call out the bullshit. I want to call out the racism, the white supremacy, the rapists, the killers. Make them a hashtag. I'm tired of hashtagging. I'm tired of slogans.

For Harriet: I guess I understand, but Dr. Chavers, where is the space for joy? When do we make time for celebration?

Linda Chavers: That's a good question. I don't know. I'm not saying don't be joyful. That's not what I'm saying. I don't feel like we can't have both, that we can't have joy and point the finger outward. I'm tired of pointing at ourselves, even if it's in celebration. I'm just tired of it. We're still shot and killed. We're still raped. We're still locked up, so #BlackGirlMagic, okay, great. We still have all these things happening at such alarming rates that to me, it feels like a punch in the face. It's not, all these things. "Oh, she's depressed. She doesn't have friends." Yes I do.  I know I'm big and bad. That's why I'm saying this shit.

For Harriet:  Let's get to your point about orientation, about us always turning inward. One of the things that concerned me about the piece was, it almost feels like your orientation was completely outward, like, it's about what is projected upon Black women. It feels to me that you missed the purpose or the beauty and importance of Black women closing rank. Is there any benefit to that? 

Let's go there. Is there any benefit to Black women coming together and saying we're great?

Linda Chavers: Of course there is. Absolutely. 

For Harriet: Just not in this context?

Linda Chavers: Yeah, not in this context. I was at an all girls school for 10 years. Before that, I went to an all Black school. There's absolutely a need for that space. I'm just talking about the language and the dangerous territory that it can lead up to.

For Harriet: Your issue is the magic?

Linda Chavers: I don't want to talk too much about that because then it gets into, "Oh, she took it too literally." No, I didn't. It's the sentiment.

For Harriet: Okay.

Linda Chavers: Yeah, sentiment.

For Harriet: For me, the most jarring part of the article was the kind of listing of the terrible, most visible incidents of violence that have been acted upon Black women in the past year or so.

You referenced Sandra Bland, the 14 year old girl who was tackled in McKinney, the 13 black women who were sexually assaulted by Daniel Holtzclaw. Why make that choice?

Linda Chavers: Because that's what I mean when I say I'm tired of it. I want us to talk more about that, frankly. I did tweet that. I will always talk about our bodies having violence enacted upon them, being raped, being maimed. I'm always going to talk about that because it keeps happening. I'm not going to say #BlackGirlMagic when this is going on. I'm not going to do that. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don't believe in that right now and that's me. I don't like doing that.

For Harriet: How do you celebrate Black women? What kind of expressions or communities do you take part in that you feel are valuable and beneficial for Black women and girls?

Linda Chavers: My girlfriends, engaging this way, I don't think I have to talk about 99 joyful things to be celebrating my Black women. It's that they respect the effort. It's that I'm engaging, it's that I'm engaging and talking to you because I care about what they have to say more than anyone else. 

For Harriet: Do you think that it's possible for us to have a social media movement, a mass movement to uplift Black women and girls that does not concern you in the ways that #BlackGirlMagic does?

Linda Chavers: What do you mean?

For Harriet: If instead of #BlackGirlMagic we said, #YayBlackGirls or #BlackGirlsareAwesome... 

Linda Chavers: Before I answer that, I wanted to say also, when I said more than anyone else, I meant, if someone's coming at me with criticism, I'm going to always pay attention to the Black woman most and first. I'm not saying that I care about Black women more than anyone else on the planet. No, I'm not. I'm just saying, there's a party that I'm always going to be all engaged with. That's why I was engaging for almost 6 hours last night.

For Harriet: Right. I will say that I do think it's unfortunate that I saw very little nuance in the way that people were responding to you.  If I understand that you are coming from a place of love, then I am going to respond to you differently than I would to somebody who I know does not have the interest of Black women and girls at heart. It's not the same. 

Linda Chavers: I felt that. I called my best girlfriend like "Don't they know me? Don't they understand?" But No. They don't. Well, they're going to learn today. That I was not explicitly clear that I love my Black women, then that's my bad. That's my screw up. I don't blame anyone else for that.

For Harriet: That's admirable.

Linda Chavers: Yeah, thank you. A lot of people were saying that last night and today. I'm a teacher.  I tell my students you own your shit. If I screwed up, I screwed up. I stand by what I believe, but the manner in which I stated it, if that was wrong and certainly not having the dialogue with the creator that was wrong, then yeah, I screwed up there. 

For Harriet: You engaged quite a bit yesterday on social media. What did you take away from those conversations?

Linda Chavers: That I should have spoken with the creator of the hashtag. 

Then, you know, looking again at my piece, so many people were saying that I was using the deaths and bodies of these women and part of me was like, yeah, it's my evidence of the claim I'm making. The other part was like, okay, let me try and see it from their point of view. I think my mistake was sort of related to what you said earlier about coming from a place of love. I do have a tendency to write as if somebody already knows me and that can be a problem, obviously.

For Harriet: Do you see why someone who has experienced violence might react viscerally to invoking those incidents?

Linda Chavers: Well, I've experienced it.

Yes and no. I mean, it's still a strange experience, this whole thing. I've been telling Ashley, just there's some weird parts to this that feel like you're telling me that there's only one way to think about this, and that's why I did agree with you earlier that I think it's less about what I said and more about where I said it, that this essentially can be airing dirty laundry.

For Harriet: Oh, absolutely.

Linda Chavers: Yeah, also because of the reaction I've gotten from other women, other Black women, that I've seen online saying that that's why they don't use the hashtag. That's why they don't wear the shirts because of where I said it.

For Harriet: I don't think that's an unfair criticism, but I do absolutely believe that colors the criticism.

Linda Chavers: I'm not saying it's fair or unfair, but it's there. I'm torn on whether that was the right call or not to publish it in Elle because I am someone who personally and professionally, I completely get it, the whole airing your dirty laundry thing among the Black community, I do get it. It mainly pisses me off.

For Harriet: How so?

Linda Chavers: I tend to not subscribe to it usually. No, no, I'm not going to say how so because it's going to lead to a whole other attack, so I'm not going to go there, I'm sorry.

For Harriet: Understandable.

Linda Chavers: I'm not going to go there, but I'll say there are things that Black people, we know we've screwed up but we won't talk about it in certain spaces and that can be even at our own detriment. That's all. 

For Harriet: I think it's interesting here. Respectability politics is kind of, it's one of the most visible phrases, visible ideas in social justice work and movement work, even in Black women's spaces. It's always interesting the way that respectability pops up. Even people who would absolutely say that they are against respectability politics, who absolutely denounce them and say that they do not ever work. It does creeps up in the that way we engage.  

Do you regret publishing the piece?

Linda Chavers: No. Not right now. Maybe I will tonight, tomorrow. 

I'm not someone who would say, "I don't regret it and I never will." I'm not doing that. It's ridiculous. I probably will. Maybe I won't.  Probably a little bit of both.  Frankly, here's where this gets to the whole ownership of the slogan, the hashtag in that community, I didn't see it as a problem publishing it in Elle because I've seen it in a very mainstream way.  That's how I've seen it used so that's why I've been so confused. I'm legitimately confused.

For Harriet: Yeah, I think there are definitely some concerns from some of the #BlackGirlsareMagic/#BlackGirlMagic OGs that something that once felt proprietary is no longer that. I think the confusion is warranted. Even for the people who use it, the boundaries are incredibly arbitrary.

Linda Chavers: It's like they're putting up these boundaries because I was saying I don't embrace it. I don't know. It's weird.

For Harriet: You are an easy target. 

Black twitter has been at it. Peak Black twitter,  I will say with the #ChaversNextArticle hashtag.

Linda Chavers: That's funny. It's funny. If something's funny, I'm going to laugh.

For Harriet: You're laughing right along with them. Is it hurtful at all for you or is that the least of your concerns?

Linda Chavers: It was funny.  In my head I thought, "Oh God. Is my barely there writing career over?" Who knows? My sister is like, "Why is our last name hashtagged?" Of all the things, I found that to be the least hurtful. I'm on Black twitter. I love my folks. When we go in, we go in. It's funny. Some of it was like, that's not funny, but I chuckled. I think the only time I found myself hurt is when I was seeing writer colleagues of mine whom I reach out, there they are. They never get back to me on it. That stings, but okay. I get it.

For Harriet: You said that you consider yourself to be a part of Black twitter. You've seen these kind of incidents pop up. What's it like to be on the other side?

Linda Chavers: You know, I go in and out. It's a shitty feeling. I'm not someone who's like, on it, on it like that. I don't go in, I'm never clever enough to get 140 characters. I think I've been quoted once, twice, max. 

I think by the time I saw the hashtag, I was so emotionally exhausted that I was like, it is what it is. I think I've resigned myself to that. 

For Harriet: What are you going to take away from this experience? In the next couple of days, people will forget about this incident. Black twitter will have moved on. I think that this has been kind of traumatic for you.

Linda Chavers: Yeah, I will say as a professor, I came to work today and was, in a way, relieved that my colleagues won't know what's going on, so that's good, but some of my students will, especially my Black girl students. Like, oh God. Having to come in and teach all day afterwards is both a good thing because it's healthy distraction, but I can't wait for the day to be done because I just want to go home and get under the covers for like 3 days.

For Harriet: Right. Do you think that you might be a little gun shy or hesitant when you're going to pitch your next piece or write your next piece?

Linda Chavers: Oh yeah, I'm scared as hell. The hashtag was #ChaversNextArticle. I'm scared as hell. I am. I hope I'm still accepted. I hope that I am given what I gave. 

For Harriet: For anybody whose first encounter with your work was that article, what would you want them to know about Dr. Linda Chavers, the writer, the academic?

Linda Chavers: That I don't hate us. That I love us. That's where I'm speaking from. I'm afraid for us all the time. I wrote that piece because I'm afraid for us, not of us. I'm afraid for us.
Yeah, I think that's what they should know, that I love being a Black woman. I love Black women. That's where it comes from. I'm afraid for us.

I'm afraid for us, and I have to speak that out loud.

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