It was a cold day in Brooklyn, one of those days that’s so freezing you want to kiss a stranger on the subway just to warm your face. It was Valentine’s Day, after all, so maybe this would have been permissible but I kept my lips to myself as I chugged along on the L train. I went to Love Potion #5, a Black Girl Magik workshop, alone and without knowing a single person in the room. All of us introverts and socially awkward types know about those parties where we feel weird and lonely because we don’t know anyone. And the very thought of trying to start a conversation sounds like a day at the dentist. I strolled into Love Potion teary-eyed from the cold and a half an hour late from getting lost. When I walked in, the first people I saw was a group of young white hipsters who took one quick look at my befuddled face before saying, “It’s over there.”
The workshop was in a room connected to a bar. A young and radiant-looking black woman at the door took my name and gave me a crystal as a sort of entrance ticket into the marvelousness upon which I was about to embark. I immediately felt at home as I walked into this room that carried the loud and pleasant hum of social exchange. There were small clusters of black and brown women chatting it up, and I politely inserted myself into one of the conversations with perhaps the most ease I’ve ever experienced in a social space. The women were smack dab in the middle of what seemed to be some sort of compliment-giving exercise. I cheesed heavily as the women told me all about my cuteness. I was surrounded by three genuinely smiley brown faces, eyes, and ears.
There has been some confusion as to what Black Girl Magik (BGM) is, exactly. In 2013 CaShawn Thompson began the hashtag Black Girls Are Magic to articulate the often misunderstood or unseen brilliance of black girl- and womanhood. In a Huffington Post article, Julee Wilson described it as
a term used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of black women. It’s about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves.
I think that there is a distinct difference between #Blackgirlmagic and Black Girl Magik. To my mind, Black Girl Magik (note the difference in spelling) refers to the social and political formation of black women who gather in a physical space to engage in a practice of love, self-care, recognition, healing, and professional exchange. Black Girl Magik names the process through which the magic is made. It speaks to the spaces where black women have and continue to congregate.
BGM was started in May of 2015 by Shydeia Caldwell, and it began as a meet-up for women of color residing in NYC. Since then, BGM meet-ups and workshops have been growing; most recently there was a workshop in Boston. On the particular evening I was at the workshop, there were women from places outside of NYC, including Paris and North Carolina. We can think of BGM as representing a new form of black women’s activism rooted in an ethic of collaboration, self-care, and professional development. BGM meet-ups and workshops are growing through the interest and demand of women. They are happening on college campuses, in bars, and in parks. BGM is primarily a youth-driven entity; there was a range of ages present but most of the women appeared to be in their twenties and early thirties.
After the compliment-giving exercise, we moved on to a whole group discussion where we addressed two questions: What do we need to do in order to better practice love in our community? What are the things that you do to take care of yourself? During this discussion we talked about the need for more safe and welcoming spaces of exchange for women of color. This was an important point that came up more than once. Young black women expressed the desire for more openness in our conceptions of liberation; in other words, there was a felt need in the room to extend our invitations to each other as black women more often and across wider social networks. Some women brought up the ways in which cliques and unhealthy competition are a barrier to the practice of love. Words like inclusion, collaboration, and vulnerability buzzed throughout the room.
One woman stood up and poignantly stated, “People always say they love black women because we are strong.” She continued to break down the ways in which this inability to conceive of black women’s pain and emotional vulnerability is problematic and limits people’s perceptions of our humanity. She was answered by a chorus of mmhmms and yeses. At one point during the discussion, a woman spontaneously called for a group meditation and gracefully led us through it. The timing was right and it helped to keep us in flow.
At Black Girl Magik we were also engaged in the practice of seeing each other. I use the word “practice” deliberately to emphasize the emotional labor involved in seeing and being seen. Seeing and being seen are acts that we labor toward, they demand that we be vulnerable and attuned to the needs and desires of those beyond us. Seeing others is a way of walking in the world, and it takes practice, a concerted effort. At BGM I was seen, literally. We did an eye-gazing exercise where each stood across from another woman and approached her slowly without breaking eye contact. We had to use our eyes to coordinate each movement towards each other since there was no talking involved. It was at once uncomfortable, exhausting, joyful, and rewarding. We did the exercise more than once and it seemed to get easier each time. Practice.
My experience at BGM’s Love Potion #5 reminded me of the ways in which black women coordinate on daily basis. Not only do exercises like the eye-gazing one described above call for physical coordination, but there is the logistical and financial coordination necessary to bring so many black women together into a space. The workshop followed a set of exercises that are consistent with what happens in other workshops and meet-ups, but there was still plenty of space for improvisation based on our multiple and changing needs as black women in the room. Moments arose during the evening that were saturated with emotion—sadness, pain, joy. When called for, we gathered our bodies around those in need and provided them with affirmation. This is a model for the practice of black feminist love; it needs to a flexible thing that can wrap around various bodies and experiences.
The evening ended with black girl joy at its finest. There was a version of Beyonce’s “Love on Top” spun to the beats of LL’s “Doin’ It.” We twerked, sipped red wine, laughed and talked to each other as the sun set. By the end of the evening I had forgotten about the freezing cold and my initial social anxiety.
At BGM, I felt myself in a space that upheld the flame of radical black feminist love like none other I’ve entered. The workshop taught me a great deal about formation as a way of envisioning black women’s collective resistance. One way we can manifest that formation is through a black feminist politics of vulnerability, which means engaging in a practice of seeing and letting ourselves be seen. What formation is not is cliquishness or a performance of political consciousness. Instead, it’s genuine connection. It means strategically building accessible and welcoming spaces for black women across difference. Indeed, BGM formation is also structural (it is comprised of women who come together and work on things like event planning, fundraising, and promotion), but it’s also captured in the affective energy that binds us together. Formation was the basis of our speech, our willingness to work together and our support of each other. This is the work that sustains us as black women feminists and ties us to each other. This is the work that enables us to werk. It’s magik.