It was a moment we should’ve been wholly proud of.
It was hard not to tear up, watching the triumphant array of black female dynamism on display in a minute-long film released by Google in tandem with Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. The theme? A celebration of the everyday phenomenon we’ve come to call “black girl magic,” which hit an all-time high in Google searches during February.
It’s a phrase I use almost daily here at The Glow Up, sprinkling it liberally and unapologetically throughout our coverage. And like many black women, I also personally identify with it, wearing it like an earned badge of honor. It’s a phrase that confirms what we have always known to be true: black women, no matter the obstacle, are transcendent and transformative. For those reasons alone (and “magical negro” tropes aside), we have always been, in our own uniquely black girl ways, magic.
This isn’t a fact we’re accustomed to the world at large recognizing, which is why there was overwhelming response from black women when “black girl magic” suddenly reached the zeitgeist a handful of years ago. But Google’s promotion of the phrase makes it clear the world at large is recognizing it, too—even if solely for the sake of capitalism. If search results are any indication, suddenly everyone wants to know what makes black girls so damned magical.
What they seem less interested in is who brought that magic to our collective consciousness—and more importantly, who it includes and serves.
The debate over who coined the phrase “black girl magic” has been raging for years now—and is one I’m hesitant to relitigate here. In fact, our sister site, Jezebel, did a comprehensive dissection of the issue and its legalities in 2017, with writer Clover Hope centering one of its primary, but oft-overlooked players, CaShawn Thompson. Though she isn’t the first to use it, Thompson is widely recognized as popularizing the term as early as 2013 on social media, quickly evolving it into a hashtag and soon after producing a small line of t-shirts and accessories emblazoned with the phrase “Black Girls Are Magic.”
For those in need of a refresher: unfortunately, what Thompson didn’t do in 2013 is file a trademark for the phrases she was instrumental in helping go viral. So, when Black Girls Rock! founder Beverly Bond sought to trademark “black girl magic” for multimedia usage in 2014, there was no mention of Thompson to be found in the customary trademark search—and therefore, nothing to indicate Thompson was in any way the originator or proprietor of the phrase.
Speaking with The Glow Up, Bond maintains she wasn’t aware of Thompson’s involvement with the phrase until well after she’d already done due diligence and applied for the trademark. Likewise, Thompson was unaware of Bond’s legal claim until—ironically—a Google search revealed the trademark application.
Today, a Google search for “black girl magic” will instantly lead you to a Wikipedia page which exclusively credits Thompson. Meanwhile, in January, Bond put her ownership rights to work with the premiere of the Black Girl Magic! Hour podcast. But in perhaps the most cruel twist in an already intensely fraught issue, Google included neither woman in its spot.
“It was disconcerting, because it felt like, at this point, anybody who wanted to know could find out,” Thompson told The Glow Up. “But it was really trippy to me, because it’s Google. Google didn’t google? Or did it not matter to them where it came from?”
Similarly, Bond was frustrated by the fact that she wasn’t even consulted on a phrase she technically owns.
“For Google to be on the front end of it without putting anybody in front of it ... we can’t act like nobody [created the term],” she scoffed.
Why were both women excluded from Google’s tribute? Since the company did not respond to our request for comment, we may never know. But speaking with Thompson and Bond, it was clear the issue went beyond ruffled feathers. Brought to the surface were deep-seated concerns about black female competition, classism, and most significantly, the erasure that feels almost a rite of passage as a black woman in America. Given the supposed intent of black girl magic, there was an inescapable irony to the issues raised, with both conversations ultimately and unfortunately begging the question:
Who exactly is black girl magic for?
Bond, who’d previously refrained from speaking publicly on the issue and the legal battles that ensued subsequent to her pursuit of the trademark (none of which, notably, were with Thompson), insists her arrival at the phrase was organic; a natural outgrowth of the Black Girls Rock! brand she began building in 2006, and one of many phrases she trademarked after licensing Black Girls Rock! to BET.
“You don’t think that the girl who came up with [Black Girls Rock!] had a whole bunch of other ‘Black Girl—’ shit?” the producer asked, referring to those who have contested her claim to the phrase, while likening her branding style to Apple’s as she rattled off a series of other titles she’d acquired. “Come on—this is what I do.”
Bond credits friend and author Joan Morgan with subconsciously planting black girl magic in her head as early as 2000, with the release of her landmark book of essays, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. There, Morgan wrote of being urged “to recapture the feminine and discover the fierceness of a black girl’s magic.”
Surprisingly, Morgan has remained relatively mum on the issue, neither staking claim nor denying it, and was unfortunately unavailable to comment on this article. But Bond told us she considers Morgan the mother of the phrase “Black Girl Magic”—and Black Girls Rock! the mother of the movement it spawned.
“I’m not sorry [about getting there first], because what I did is ignite something in black women,” said Bond, noting that much of the opposition she faces is from other black women trying to claim the same space. “I didn’t come into this for competition. ... I came into this because it was a necessity; it was something we needed. I decided in the moment, this is bigger than me.”
Bond and Thompson have never spoken, nor have they attempted to reach out to each other. While Bond has engaged in legal battles with other corporate entities over the use of “Black Girl Magic,” she has thus far refrained from trying to restrict individuals from using the phrase publicly; even Thompson. Instead, there has been a primarily one-sided online dispute, much of which has played out on social media and makes any non-legal resolution of the issue unlikely.
“There’s no legal stuff going on between me and [Bond],” said Thompson. “I think it’s more about she’s trying to do something in a legal way and I’m trying to do the same thing in a legal way, and we are probably just getting in each other’s way.”
“What I do not want to do, is I don’t want to be the person who’s fighting the other black girls over black girl-ness,” Bond said. “We are all black girls. I just happened to do something, and incorporate something and trademark something that is now a business, right?”
However you may feel about Bond trademarking a phrase that should arguably belong to all black women, it would be naive to think someone else wouldn’t have, had she not—and likely, a non-black entity. Call Bond a capitalist, but Nielsen’s highly-read September 2017 report, “African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic,” proved what she’d acted upon well over a decade before: black women are not only a highly desirable and influential demographic, but increasingly a highly marketable one, as well.
Though she may have the law on her side, will Bond go head-to-head with Google over their usage? She says no; mainly because of the response it would likely garner from other black women.
“I see a bigger picture—and also seeing the kind of damage that gets done to us because we’re not aware of all of our glory, and all of our magic, and all of our contributions—and sometimes, it just pits us against each other,” Bond said. “I don’t want to be in that pit—I refuse to be in that pit. ... So, now that it’s a thing and everybody’s using it, it is what it is; but unfortunately, when we get into spaces like this, who’s going to battle Google?”
Playing diplomat for a moment, I asked both Bond and Thompson: Was it possible they may have simultaneously seized upon the spirit of a moment in our collective unconscious? Both were willing to entertain that possibility—and each would’ve been fine if they’d both been included in Google’s tribute. Yet, each was equally emphatic about her ownership of the phrase and the credit due.
But if Bond (perhaps to the dismay of some) is the consummate businesswoman, the branding of black girl magic—both by Google, and perhaps even as Bond eventually intends it—raises legitimate concerns about who is included in the narrative. On the whole, the term has been associated with aspirational black women, as are many of those most visibly featured by Black Girls Rock! (though its adjacent nonprofits and initiatives serve all demographics of black women and girls). This is in part due to the multitudes of well-known black women who have used the phrase, including Michelle Obama, Yara Shahidi, and more; all of whom have a right to claim the mantle, as black women. But equally true is that the women we celebrate as being “magical” are largely those of a certain pedigree.
It’s a fact clearly apparent and keenly painful to Thompson, who now feels erased from a movement she propelled—ignored not only as an architect, but as a desirable archetype. Thompson is a D.C.-based, self-proclaimed creative and feminist employed as an assistant teacher at a preschool for families experiencing homelessness, as she also did as a young mother. When asked about her initial impetus for using “black girl magic,” Thompson says she wanted to introduce a counternarrative to what she perceived as a “wide-ranging bashing of black women.”
“At the time that I put this on social media, we were being inundated, so to speak, with all these negative stories about black women,” she said, referencing Psychology Today’s now-retracted 2011 op-ed by psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, “Why Black Women Are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women,” as well as extensive media reports about black women being unmarriageable, and attacks that persist to this day on the attractiveness and femininity of Serena Williams.
“We were just being bombarded with negative things about black women, and it was bothering me,” Thompson continued. “It just pissed me off, and I tweeted ‘I don’t know who they’re talking about, but black girls are magic.’”
Spurred on by her followers, Thompson began using the hashtag “to celebrate any accomplishment I saw any black girl making,” she said. “Anything—it didn’t have to be a famous woman, it didn’t have to be a rich woman, it didn’t have to have any of those quote-unquote markers of ‘black excellence,’ you know what I mean? Because that’s not what I think of when I think of it.”
What was Thompson purportedly thinking of? Being the product of an all-female household and thinking—at 4 or 5 years old, with fairy tales and fantasy as her frame of reference—that the women in her family were capable of making magical things happen.
“My real-life experiences were about women who took the bus to work, and grandmas who stayed home, and cousins that could cornrow, and moms that had a baby on the hip and one in the belly, and going to school and working low-paying jobs,” she said. “That’s the black girl magic that I knew about.”
Thompson has consistently been vocal in her anger over what she perceives as her erasure from the black girl magic phenomenon. In doing so, she has faced a significant amount of social media scrutiny from those who accuse her of simply being bitter over her lack of business savvy. But while it may be easy to dismiss Thompson as an “angry black woman,” speaking with her, I also perceived profound and understandable hurt.
“Because women like me have always been erased or taken out of stories, one way or the other,” she said. Pressed to explain what type of women she meant, she exclaimed, “Women like me—poor women, poor black women; women that—like I do—work at daycares, women that work at CVS; women that wear their hair a certain way, women that talk a certain way; women that didn’t go to college, or didn’t finish. You know, those of us that exist on the margins, even within black communities; those of us that aren’t traditionally looked at as ‘black excellence.’”
Thompson referenced messages she’d received from black women who felt “left out of black girl magic, because they didn’t fit that narrative.”
“Like, ‘I’m not Michelle Obama, I’m not Tracee Ellis Ross, I’m never gonna be her. I’m [an] around-the-way girl, I’m a hood chick—but this is what I do, and this is how I exist, and this is how I live, and this is how I love,’” Thompson recounts. “And I hate that they felt that way, because that’s me. That’s me, that’s my family, that’s the people I love. That’s how I learned, and how I was raised, and how I love. ... Not only did [Google] leave me out, they left us out. ...
“There are more women like me in the world than there are of anything else,” Thompson later adds. “Opportunity is not evenly distributed, but you know, talent is. Greatness is. Black girl magic is all over the place ... For us to be completely alienated from the concept because it doesn’t look good on the internet, it pisses me off. You not going to deny us or who we are because you don’t value the aesthetic; because you’re performing for the white gaze or black respectability. I don’t get down with none of that shit.”
Explaining Google’s recognition of black girl magic, Creative Strategist Shea Jackson McCann, who was involved in the creation of the spot, wrote on the company’s site:
As black women, it’s rare to see our own, varied images reflected back to us in media and pop culture. But this film celebrates women—past and present, famous and unknown—who have broken down barriers in many fields and industries. It reminds me that whether you’re getting your diploma, winning your 23rd grand slam, or simply putting one foot in front of the other, you’re making magic.
And yet, the montage of women Google included not only excluded Thompson and Bond, but seemingly, any non-professional, non-polished, non-accomplished, average or non-traditionally aspirational women. It’s a point not lost on Dr. Yaba Blay, who has also created a brand out of elevating black women with Professional Black Girl, described on its site as “a transmedia project created to celebrate everyday Black Girl Magic, because yes, round-the-way girls got magic too!”
Speaking on Google’s traipse into black girl magic territory and the exclusion of Thompson, in particular, Blay acknowledges much of the positive response to the spot is due to the fact that black women remain so “thirsty” for mainstream recognition and praise. And yet, she finds Google’s motives—and ours—suspect.
“I’m watching trends, that’s all I’m seeing. I even think ‘black girl magic’ is a trend. I don’t even think black people using ‘black girl magic’ actually believe that black girls are magic,” she admitted. “I don’t think we believe it ... not even black women. I think that we are going with the flow, and now, Google has given us all permission to use it, because we’re still following mainstream and white leads. So now, Google says ‘black girl magic,’ and now it’s okay? I just don’t trust us, and I don’t believe us.”
Like many, Blay takes issue with any one person claiming ownership of black girl magic, legally or otherwise. “Every last one of us is magic; how ‘bout that?” she says. “Black girls own black girl magic.” Speaking on the debate and contention it has spawned, she says, “It’s a problem, and this is anti-black women’s work.”
Blay also agrees that the designation itself has become elitist in its evolution; a marginalization that lies primarily in the hands of black women. Admittedly, it gave me more than a bit of pause when considering my own use of the phrase and maintenance of a black woman-centric platform.
“Again, this notion of black girl magic; you really mean certain black girls are magic. We’re still dealing with cliques, and in-circles and all of it; even when we talk about the space of ‘the work,’” Blay said. “So, what magic are we talking about? How is that magic reflected in our lived experiences? ... What do we do in real life? Do we support each other?”
“What you value, you do,” she continued. “And so, it’s the same thing with Google, and it’s the same thing with black girl magic. What does it look like beyond the hashtag? Because you can say the hashtag, and not have any functional, loving relationships with black women. ... There’s always an opportunity for us to check ourselves, and check each other, and ultimately, step off of the [social media] timeline. ... Step off the grid and tell me what black girl magic is.”
What black girl magic is not, in Blay’s opinion, is Google pandering to black women with a one-minute cheerleading routine without offering visible tangible support.
“Okay, you gave us a video. What’s the initiative? Is there some initiative that also aligns with this celebration that you’re doing? Or are we just going to get this video in March and keep it pushing? Are there more black women being hired at Google? What’s their interest and investment in doing this?” she asked. “If you value black women, I would know it in your policies and your practices, not just a one-minute video for social media for sharing. ... This is not about just putting forth your magical Negroes.”
Blay highlights a significant point, and one Google was forced to confront in its 2018 diversity report last June, which revealed only 1.2 percent of its U.S. workforce is comprised of black women. The 2019 numbers have yet to be released, but following the bleak findings, the company pledged to focus its diversity push on recruiting more black and Hispanic women, as reported by USA Today.
Like Thompson, Blay receives hundreds of messages from women thanking her for her work on Professional Black Girl, because they see themselves in it.
“To me, us saying ‘black girls are magic,’ it is to say knowing what we know—about the historical, the social, the economic, the political conditions—we look at black women at the bottom of the totem pole in a lot of ways. And still, we find a way to do what we need to do, look good doing it, and enjoy ourselves—and that can be seen as magical,” Blay says. “So the movement, I think we all have different perspectives and different lenses, given who we are. ...
“That’s the thing that’s frustrating to me with most black women-centered platforms,” she later adds. “Who are y’all celebrating, and who are y’all trying to connect to? The average black woman is going to look at who y’all celebrate, and it’s still aspirational—she still don’t see herself.”
And for Thompson, who can’t see herself in a movement she helped create, the question remains: What does she want?
“Do I want a dime from Google? No. That wasn’t what I was looking for,” she says, though she admits that “some coins” would be nice. “You could just cite a sista. You could acknowledge that I exist, and that I put this out here, and that I contributed to black women’s history.”
“I just want the trend of women like me—women who exist in the margins, for whatever reason—stop taking our shit, and leaving us out of the conversation, [and] leaving us out of the picture,” Thompson said. “We matter, too.”