The “magic negro” is a racist archetype which appears in literature and film, primarily in the United States, where many people struggle with racial issues and the legacy of slavery. “Negro” is in and of itself a rather dated and offensive term used to refer to people with African ancestry, highlighting the fact that the magic or magical negro is a dated stereotype. Critics of film, literature, and other media started examining and questioning this archetype in the late 20th century, but it continues to appear as a plot device in a variety of settings.
Classically, the magic negro is a character of low social caste, such as a janitor or bus driver. This character is usually male, and no back story or history is provided, with the typical magical negro being relatively benign, although the character may embody other racial stereotypes, such as a lazy attitude or an inability to speak standardized English. The character usually has no friends and family, appearing as a standalone individual in the story who has been stripped of sexuality and personality.
The key feature of the character is that he or she has mystical abilities and an air of sage wisdom. These abilities are used to help the almost always white protagonist get out of trouble, with the magic negro guiding the white hero to a greater understanding of the world, and swooping in to save the day whenever necessary. This stereotypical character will make any sacrifice necessary to save the white character, making the magic negro rather paradoxical, as he or she has supernatural powers, but is still servile to a white character.
This character appears again and again in American literature and film, from Uncle Remus to Morpheus in The Matrix. As with many other racial archetypes, the character has such a long history that many people are unaware of how prevalent this character is until they start to examine the roles of black characters in books and films. People may not also be fully aware of how racist this archetype is, an issue which has been brought up by many cultural critics and sociologists.
Although some people might assume that the magic negro archetype is on the wane, they might be surprised. In 2008, a leading Republican official attracted a great deal of commentary when he circulated a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” a parody of the first black President of the United States. He claimed that the song was meant as a harmless satire, but many of his opponents felt differently.