The Mastery and Magic of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Toni Morrison dancing at a disco party in New York City in 1974. "She wasn’t born Toni Morrison. She had to become that person," writes Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in her 2015 New York Times Magazine cover story on the author. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.

Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.

This kind of thinking has dangerous repercussions. I’d consider my own black, southern family a matriarchy by default, because the women are the ones who stayed. But I’d also say that the men among us are afforded so much more  — more second chances, more space to stretch and fly, more space to be flawed and yet loved.

R. Kelly continues to have a career, despite years of on the record predatory behavior towards young black women, because of a difficult calculus that makes it hard to imagine black women as worthy of being rescued or avenged. It’s a cliché, but representation matters. If there were more fleshed out images of us, more of us with control of our own narratives, how language and images of us are constructed in general, maybe the consequences of focusing on the extraordinary would be less dire. Then, of course, we wouldn’t need any affirmations at all.

And yet, when I read the work of essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, my mind stretches beyond the logic of my own skepticism, into the space of the ineffable, where affirmations have free reign. Ghansah is an unparalleled architect of the profile. She can strike an ideal balance between scene and exposition, lyricism and plot. She can bring a subject to life with fresh insight, and keep herself in the narrative in a way that is unobtrusive and necessary. Because she is obsessed with beginnings and origin stories, she never fails to account for a sense of place  — the sights and smells and sounds of the space her subjects take up — giving her work an exciting viscerality. The subjects she has often chosen — among them Dave Chappelle, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Beyoncé — have been arbiters of black excellence, geniuses who, in Ghansah’s work, exist not in a vacuum, not as exceptions, but in a community that has incubated the genius.

Ghansah, for me, is a wonderful writer, perhaps the best American essayist working today. Great art should give you goosebumps, raise hairs, feel transcendent; I think Ghansah channels an ancient knowing, conjuring, as she does, black dignity on the page. Her work is the embodiment of every affirmation that black lives have value. She is excellence as resistance, but because she is so skilled, because of her mastery of language and form, she doesn’t need to forgo vulnerability. She brings it into the story, wresting it to do her bidding.

This reading list includes some of Ghansah’s most popular pieces, including the National Magazine Award-nominated profile of Dave Chappelle from The Believer, and also a few deep cuts that draw out her style and the essence of what makes her great.  Perhaps the temerity to tell stories, in Ghansah’s words, “about black people”— long, complicated stories with many ideas and layers and points of entry — is what it will take to turn every stereotype inside out.

1. “When The Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative,” (Los Angeles Review of Books, January 2013)

Before the Grammys in 2014, when Kendrick Lamar lost the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore and a wave of think pieces and conversations about appropriation began circling the internet, Ghansah profiled Lamar, situating his work in the lineage of black memoirists like Richard Wright. 

Kendrick Lamar is close enough to Watts in proximity to understand its despair, close enough to the civil disobedience of the 1992 riots to understand their rage, to understand that there is no exit. He is young enough to idolize the golden age of hip-hop, innocent enough to engage in shameless hero worship, a fan enough to put Mary J. Blige and MC Eiht on his album. But he is also old enough to know that nobody followed Tupac’s body to the morgue. That a bullet fractured one of Tupac’s fingers, fingers often used to so brazenly flip off the world. Lamar is wise enough to know that, in hip-hop, the jig is up on a lot of things (overstated capitalism, the battering of women), and he isn’t flashy — he calls himself the black hippie. His abundance is his talent. And yet, because of his murdered uncle, his fretful grandmother, and the gang-raped girl whose voice he occupies in the same way De La Soul did Millie’s, Lamar is not just a wandering preacher in town to be angry at the locals and their chaos. Nor is he salaciously telling their stories, hoping to give people an angry crime fantasy so that he can bait and hook anyone who is susceptible. It is not that Lamar’s album is perfect, either. At times it is uneven: the song with Drake is annoyingly schmaltzy. But Kendrick Lamar has made a third way, and by the end of his album, one cannot help but feel excited for him.

2. “How Sweet it is To Be Loved By You: The Beyhive” (NPR, March 2014)

The next year, Ghansah wrote about what Beyoncé means to black women.

Not everyone at the concert was a woman, and not everyone was bedazzled, but it was pretty remarkable how many of them were. At a Beyoncé concert are swarms, literally swarms, of women. There are some men there too, of course, but the women, and by this I mean every kind of woman you can imagine, they come invincible. They stride four abreast. They henpeck and flirt with the guards. They twerk in front of food kiosks while they wait in line to order snacks. They wear their best outfits — baggy vests and baseball caps, to dresses tight enough to look like bondage. They feel it. A Beyoncé concert is like one epic Beyoncé video. One can’t help but get into the fantasy. It is about the community. And even though it was a hot night in the city, inside Barclays the women were being nothing short of congenial. In the elevator going down to another level, I danced with two supersassy Delta sorors to “Blurred Lines” as it played over the loudspeaker. They high-fived me when we exited. In another concourse, I watched a rambunctious group of blonde women in six-inch heels buy shots and eat huge hamburgers under unforgiving stadium lighting, totally not giving a f- – – about their appetites or their table manners because at a Beyoncé concert absolutely none of that matters. If you wanted to evade security and crash a section that was closer to the stage, it was all good. If you couldn’t make up your mind about whether you wanted that really expensive T-shirt with a half-naked, bent-over Beyoncé emblazoned on its front, you could take your time because chances were the person behind you was giddy with the same excitement and indecision too. There was no judgment, because a Beyoncé concert is a world run totally by girls, and by that I mean women.

3. “We a Baddd People.” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2014)

In this deep cut, Ghansah tells the story of her grandmother’s love for her grandfather, a live wire of a man who left Louisiana for Los Angeles. 

4. “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You: The Roots are One of the Most Respected Hip Hop Acts In the World; Why Can’t They Leave the Sad Stuff Alone?” (Politico, December 2011)

Ghansah wrote The Roots’ origin story upon the release of their album Undun in 2011. It’s an insider’s view; she’d worked for the band while taking off time between high school and college.

5. “The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin.” (Buzzfeed Reader, February 2016)

In this piece from Buzzfeed that was also anthologized in the volume The Fire This Time, Ghansah manages to tie together threads on imposter syndrome, James Baldwin’s literary career and love for his family, and the strivings of her grandfather.

In the 21st century, black history must shirk any oversimplification. What I unfortunately realized late in the game was that I had allowed myself to understand Baldwin through a series of abstractions, one that was principally based upon how strangers, outsiders, and gatekeepers had interpreted his life. In their telling, I had never heard how Baldwin had felt like he could make peace with his old friend Richard Wright, but it would take a big bottle of booze and a whole night of talking in that garden in Saint-Paul. They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith. Or how he had met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to press the government about its callous response to the civil rights movement. No one had ever told me to study with care the Harlem in the way that he could keep a cigarette dangling from his lips, just so, balanced between a Blood’s deep blues and a 125th Street cool.

They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith.

“The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves,” Baldwin wrote in a forward to Angela Davis’s book If They Come in the Morning. He signed the letter Brother Jimmy and addressed Angela Davis as Sister Angela. When I was younger, the way Baldwin explained the conditions of “Negroes” to others made me question his devotion, but as I held his copy of Davis’s book in my hands and re-read those words, it was evident that America had never triumphed over James Baldwin.

6. “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison.” (New York Times Magazine, April 2015)

On the eve of the publication of Morrison’s latest novel God Help the Child, Ghansah profiled the author, reckoning with her legacy as the only African American Nobel laureate for literature, and the work Morrison did in the literary world before the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. 

Often, in black literature, it seems as though the author is performing two roles: that of the explorer and the explainer. Morrison does not do this. Morrison writes stories that are more aesthetic than overtly political, better expressed in accurate Tolstoyan detail than in generalizing sentiments blunted with anger. Most important, she is an author who writes to tease and complicate her world, not to convince others it is valid.

“What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze,” she told me. “In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”

7. “If He Hollers, Let Him Go: Searching For Dave Chapelle Ten Years After He Left His Own Show.” (The Believer, October 2013)

Ghansah places Chappelle in context, on the shoulders of Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, as she tries to understand why he left Comedy Central at the height of his fame. It’s a profile written without an interview from the subject.

Before Dick Gregory, there were no elegant black men in comedy. The generation before Dick Gregory’s grew up on Stepin Fetchit, the stage name of a black actor named Lincoln Perry and one of America’s most famous black personalities for more than twenty years. These days it is difficult to find clips of Stepin Fetchit and the existing films are rarely shown. Stepin Fetchit acts like a shuffling, befuddled fool, and because of this many of Perry’s films have been deemed offensive. Little remains to show his enormous influence on- and off-camera: he was the first black A-list actor, a millionaire during the Great Depression; he owned a fleet of limos and sports cars and he employed a retinue of Asian maids and butlers. He carried guns, he wrote essays for black newspapers, he was handsome, he was a Hollywood outlaw—but none of that mattered on-screen. On-screen he stooped his neck, and dropped his bottom lip, and acted as shiftless and stupid as possible. Stepin Fetchit is the id figure, in characterization only, that sits on Chappelle’s shoulder in one of his skits and demands that Chappelle make himself happy and order chicken during a flight. It is not the chicken that is the problem, it is the familiarity of the characterization. That whether Chappelle liked it or not, whether Dick Gregory liked it or not, this was the precedent.

8. “Their Eyes Were Watching the Stars: How Missy Elliot Became an Icon.” (Elle, May 2017)

When Missy Elliott dropped her debut album exactly 20 years ago, she altered the spectrum and the range of hip-hop. She made it wild and hyperdimensional. Suddenly, we could all see and hear more. The first rap album I ever purchased was Supa Dupa Fly. And the most important video in the story of my life is “The Rain.” On “The Rain,” she raps about what still sounds like a perfect day: some light precipitation that clears, smoking some weed, driving to the beach, and dumping an undeserving man. It’s a simple enough narrative, but she made it sound strange and wonderful. This was what hip-hop would sound like if it were conceived inside of the calyx of an African violet, unfurling and wet.

I remember seeing that video for the first time in Atlanta at my cousin’s one summer in 1997. I was 16. We didn’t have cable at our house, so my sister and I stood in his basement and stared at the screen as a woman in a bubble suit that seemed to be filled with equal parts helium and black cool wobbled and bopped. These were lyrics we got intuitively even though we usually didn’t understand a word. The vertiginous beats, the cacophony of thunderclaps, and her movements—both fluid and staccato—put me on the floor. I lay there, sweating in that Southern humidity, wondering what I had just seen.

9. “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” (GQ, August 2017)

Ghansah says that for her latest piece, she planned to write about the victims and families of the Charleston church shooting of June 2015. Instead she turned her lens on the assailant, Dylann Roof. Ghansah refuses to ignore or understate the racism of the community that made Roof. The story came out less than a week after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and it is prescient work.

The last time I saw Mother Emanuel was a week before Christmas. I’d been in town for weeks for the trial and was walking back to my hotel from the dry cleaners. It was raining, I was overdressed in a wool sweater, and the combination of the dank air and the heat and the wool was making me feel sick. The church, though, shone in the evening light and the shadows. The large white cross out front and the blooming camellia bush were set against the church like a cameo silhouette. Near the gate, a man I hadn’t at first seen yelled out to me. “Why are you out there in this rain, staring? Come on in, girl,” he said. In any other situation, I would have declined, but the sickness, both for home and the feeling of coming fever, made me want to go in. I felt vulnerable and alone in a new city. I wanted to be around the familiar, my people, so when the smiling man pointed to the doors, the same doors that had let the murderer in, but also ones that were still flung open to the world, I walked in. “Tonight,” an old woman inside patted my hand and told me, “you are Rachel, but you are also our special Elijah. The stranger who is always welcome.”

 

What Roof didn’t understand when he walked into that church was the genius of black America’s survival and the nature of our overcoming. Nothing in his fucked-up study of black history had ever hipped him to this: The long life of a people can use their fugitivity, their grief, their history for good. This isn’t magic, this is how it was, and how it will always be. This is how we keep our doors open.