It rolls off our tongues and through our fingertips onto our social media TLs so effortlessly — those three words: Black. Girl. Magic. But where did the hashtag even come from? Read on to find out.
When CaShawn Thompson tweeted “Black girls are magic” in 2013, she couldn’t have imagined it would be thrust into the cultural zeitgeist and become a massive multigenerational movement with the names of songs, books, a Sesi column, award shows, and even adult beverages proclaiming it. CaShawn, who at the time was a 38-year-old preschool teacher and avid Twitter user, just wrote her truth — that Black girls are magic — to combat the messages Black girls and women were receiving through the media, social media included.
But that wasn’t the first time she’d thought of Black girls as magical: As a 4- and 5-year-old, watching the girls and women in her family do things like cornrow and navigate the rich culture of Blackness in her home city of Washington, D.C., she thought they had superpowers. To be able to effortlessly manipulate curls, coils, and kinks into braids, twists, pressed hair, and other styles does have a sort of magic to it. “I really believed in literal magic because of my understanding around fairy tales and how things worked in the fantasy world and that kind of thing. And my parents would read us the old ‘Once upon the time’ stories with witches and warlocks and magicians and all that kind of stuff,” CaShawn recalls. “What I knew of womanhood was Black, and I thought that was magic.”
When #BlackGirlsAreMagic left CaShawn’s fingertips and landed on Twitter, it no longer belonged to her. It became the Black girl-specific alternative to #BlackExcellence, a term often used to highlight the career and academic achievements of Black people but sometimes viewed as classist and elitist. This new phrase she’d created to empower Black girls and women started being used against them. “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. It was a couple years in, maybe three years in, before I even realized that it was being weaponized against Black girls,” CaShawn says. “Black girls like me: hood Black girls, Black girls who didn’t finish college, Black girls that had babies early, Black girls that worked low-paying jobs, Black girls that didn’t have a line sister.” Not only did this disrupt the group of people #BlackGirlsAreMagic was supposed to lift up, but her original term was truncated, too — to #BlackGirlMagic due to the number of characters Twitter allowed at the time. “It became a thing and so much easier to commodify, to take away and stratify.”
And she learned real quick — but ultimately, not quick enough — what can come from that. Like many other Black creators who share their brilliance and humor online, CaShawn didn’t expect her hashtag to blow all the way up, to become such a cultural phenomenon. So, trademarking her words? Didn’t even cross her mind. And when it became clear she should, it was something that felt out of reach for her monetarily and procedurally; the process itself can feel hella confusing and intimidating.
Meanwhile, her creation continued to go viral. Online and off, #BlackGirlMagic was being used practically everywhere — emblazoned on merch, from Amazon to Etsy. It had very quickly fallen victim to genericide, a point when a word or phrase becomes part of our regular language and can no longer gain trademark protection. It was now a term without a creator.
In some ways, it’s a compliment that CaShawn could fill such an insurmountable need with the stroke of her fingers, and in other ways, it’s heartbreaking to know that so many people benefited financially from the use of the term, while the one who thrust it into the universe went unrecognized and uncompensated.
Same Script, Different Decade
There is a long history of Black girls and women not being properly credited for their creations –– or not being in the position to trademark what they create –– but in the digital age, it has become even more pervasive. When Kayla Newman (aka Peaches Monroee) was 16 years old back in 2014, she flaunted her freshly done eyebrows on Vine and quipped, “Eyebrows on fleek.” The term took over: It was used in songs, slapped on clothing, tweeted by brands, and Kayla couldn’t cash in on any of it.
In 2019, for then 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon, creator of the TikTok dance craze “the Renegade,” it was the same story. The routine went viral on Insta, was picked up by TikTokers with large followings, and exploded in popularity from there, co-opted time and again with no credit given. And when producers of TV and live performances began calling on TikTok influencers to perform that dance on air, they were white. Jalaiah was nowhere to be found when professional cameras were rolling –– and neither was the sauce her original choreography had when she first posted the dance as a virtual collab with Twitter friend Kaliyah Davis, then 12. Only after Black Twitter called these incidents out, highlighting Jalaiah as the true creator, did she begin to get the recognition she rightfully deserved.
Getting Her Due
CaShawn eventually got the credit owed her, too, when a representative for Rebel Girls –– a digital media company and publisher of empowering children’s books featuring women across the globe –– reached out to her in 2020, inviting her to participate in their new children’s book highlighting Black girls and women. As she sat there on the floor of her job as a preschool teacher putting a little Black girl to sleep, it was finally happening. She was finally being brought on board of a project illustrating Black girl magic. “We talked about this book they wanted to create and how they felt like they could not do it in an authentic way, in a way that mattered, if I wasn’t involved,” CaShawn says. “[My co-editor and I] had our hands on every part of this book. We approved every illustration, we approved every story, the quotes, the cover. I basically designed the cover. I picked the color, I picked the title of the book.” Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic was published in 2021.
While CaShawn eventually recaptured some of her due, so many other Black girls and women whose creations break the internet don’t get that chance. And even though she can’t exactly change their experiences, she can make sure she leaves a legacy that honors them.
And she’s clear about what she wants that legacy to be: “I want … it to be that all Black girls know that they are [Black Girl Magic], not that they have [Black Girl Magic],” CaShawn says. “The legacy to me is that there’s some kind of way that the A-R-E fits back in it, so Black girls everywhere … understand it’s not about what you can achieve, it’s not about what you can acquire, it’s not about what someone bestows upon you, it’s not about what someone tries to take away from you.”
And that’s on period. “Even in your strength,” CaShawn continues, “You are precious. You are delicate. You are soft. You are all of these things that are just usually reserved for white girls. You deserve protection. You deserve everything.”
Main collage (from L to R): Stephen Chabala/Pexels; Cottonbro/Pexels; and Dalila Dalprat/Pexels