Magic is scarce in today’s high-tech, fast-paced, globally interconnected society, but if you cast your gaze back into the past, with an open mind and an eye for detail, you will find that it was once all around us. Much of the body of knowledge we now possess in the 21st century once lay unexplored – relegated to the realm of some distant futurity where people could fly like birds, and explore the depths of the ocean and the reaches of outer space, their vast, sprawling empires boasting towers that scraped the sky, augmented by computers which could answer to verbal commands and a wide array of gestures. Some of these machines, like the Voyager probes, would go on to breach the furthest reaches of our solar system, eventually arriving in interstellar space, a poignant testament to the very best this civilization has to offer the universe itself.
Surely, to the eye of the average observer just a century or two ago, much of our technology would look like magic. Many natural processes must have seemed magic, as well – think back to the outrage caused by Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution, or further still, to Gallio and Copernicus, both scorned for presenting a non-geocentric model of the solar system. Sometimes, magic is just another word for the inexplicable, whether that is manmade technology or natural processes. Other times, magic is quite real. It exists as ties that bind us to our past, through the lines of our mother’s mother, and her mother before her, or back through a patrilineal line of descent. It exists as the roots we put down, and the paths we have walked, and the dreams our ancestors had, both for themselves, and for the future.
In the short stories, “All God’s Chillen Had Wings,” a folktale that is told second-hand by Caesar Grant, and “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt, magic plays a prominent role, not only as a narrative element, but also as a metaphor for something deep and ancestral, some essence of the past and of the homelands of the black characters that they carried with them, something so enduring that it could not be stolen nor bartered by their oppressors and the people who would seek to sell and own them and subjugate them in a myriad of ways.
In one of these tales, an old man spoke to his fellow slaves after a brutal day of working in the sun without rest or respite, and “As he spoke to them they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which had once been theirs.” (“All God’s Chillen Had Wings” 133) This is a powerful testament to the reserves of strength and fortitude oppressed peoples carry within them – the very light their owners and those who would seek to leave them powerless wish so desperately to quell, the self-same light that burns and burns and never quite stops burning. It is a light that remembers the magic of freedom, and the roots that bind one to a homeland. It is the same light carried from generation to generation, one that is incapable of forgetting magic and freedom and love and the essence of what it is to be human.
In the Goophered Grapevine, magic exists as a means of blurring the lines of the hierarchy of power in the South, both before and after the Civil War. Magic is a conduit through which the black characters reclaim some measure of power from the white men that sought to enslave them. In this short story, a certain Aunt Peggy, a freed slave, performs a bewitchment in exchange for what is ultimately a paltry sum. Here, the bewitchment impacts a slave, and while it would have been poetic justice for it to be the ruination of Mars Dugal, the slave owner, that is not what happens – and while the goopher does go on to benefit the man who tells the story of the bewitchment of the vine, he stills ends up employed as a coachman, which is a situation that still sits uneasily with a more modern audience as unsatisfactory in that the white characters benefit greatly and the black characters are slighted, despite attempts to blur the racial lines built into the existing system of power through magic.
In short, I have found that magic in early Black Sci-Fi served as a potent metaphor, both for challenging power hierarchies, and, perhaps more pressingly, establishing black characters as powerful in their own right, by alluding to ancestral ties and roots, which possess a deep and enduring magic of their own.
I would like to leave you with a 21st-century poem called “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class” by Clint Smith. I found one of the final lines – ‘Here you are star, before they render you asteroid – before they watch you turn to dust.’ – to be a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by African American youth, despite the attempts of their predecessors to forge a better future. “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class” is a powerful poem and a commentary on education, empowerment, and ancestry are interconnected.