A Black girl’s magic

Cal in Color

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Personally, I’ve always wished for magic. As a kid, I remember trying so hard to make something move with my mind, or make “Twitches”-esque sparks fly from my fingers. I’ve never been biased in which magic was better either — from the “Harry Potter” books to “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” reruns, there was always a little voice in my head that convinced me I knew something everyone else didn’t, and one day I’d wake up with powers ready to be wielded. 

But don’t get me wrong: As up-to-date readers will notice from my previous columns, I was a reasonable child. I knew that flying on broomsticks wasn’t realistic (ouch) and that talking cats only worked if a human was turned into one. But there were magical truths about the world I was sure were there, and I was excited to get older and discover them. 

As I grew, I came to terms with my magical ideology, accepting that it often served as a mist, hiding the cold realities of the real world. But despite my growing disillusionment, I was determined to remain in that bubble as long as possible.

One night, with my family sitting around the dinner table, I casually proclaimed my confusion about why I’d never seen a unicorn in the wild. 

“What did you say?” my mother asked, her lips contorted into a shape I’d never seen before.

My siblings all had the same half-smirk on their faces. “Yo, you know unicorns … aren’t real, right?” 

I thought it was cute how they were trying to trick me, and I’d laughed in a mocking tone. “I’m not falling for that this time.” I had been subject to their practical jokes before, but a truth as obvious as this one was blatant disrespect to my mature 12-year-old brain. I knew unicorns were real. I mean, come on, have you seen a narwhal?

But what was once our dinner table turned into an all-out debate, with our mother as the judge. Team Unicorn consisted of myself and my sister, who just loved to debate. (Bless her heart. I guess it all worked out because she’s now a Bay Area regional champ.) Everyone else was on the negative. After we gave our opening arguments, we had come to the cross-ex.

“What on earth made you think they were real?”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“I mean, I guess it’s possible?”

But in the end, the outcome didn’t matter. All I knew after that was the veil had been removed, and I was subjected to the harsh “real world” I’d avoided for so long. There were, however, upsides to waking up to the real world.

In fact, although magic wasn’t real, I found the need for wild imagination — especially amid some harsh realities — was profound. The summer before my freshman year of high school, I became a tutor at a summer camp for kids aged 6 to 12 in deep West Oakland (with a decade less gentrification), and I was immediately reminded of the importance of that magical phase. Kids believe effortlessly in magic, but their real-life aspirations, much like mine back then, were unbelievably limited.

Once, to get everyone’s focus back to the classroom after our outside activities, we started with a seemingly harmless question.

“What do you all want to be when you grow up?”

Their answers weren’t what I expected. These could not be the same kids who flew off in cardboard rocket ships just 10 minutes ago. 

“I don’t know, a mechanic?”

Their answers all echoed this in some fashion. As we went around the circle, I saw their faces change and contort. Either they didn’t know, or instead told me what their parents did, and followed that. It was like they were being forced against their will to think about how they would grow — and what that would mean. Seeing the same looks I’d had during that fateful debate, I tried to reassure them.

“Don’t worry, you can say anything. You can be anything you want!”

And just like that, we were back. They all started to speak at the same time, quickly throwing “superhero!” and “firefighter!” and “Olympic medalist!” into the mix of thoughts that had previously evaded them.

Black kids are so grounded in reality that it becomes hard to think outside the box, especially when it comes to their own lives. Before they’d even turned 12, they had encountered a very limited set of careers and ambitions — and noticed their skin had something to do with it. So instead of confronting real life, they’d embraced fantasy to defend against reality, just as I had done.  

Growing up in Oakland, it’s hard to see anything beyond the realities in front of you. Going to college, becoming president, working at NASA — such big aspirations seemed like fever dreams or fairy tales. On top of that, the murders of people you could identify with (always somehow deemed “thugs”) filled the evening news, while white society got superheroes and real-life presidents. 

It made it hard to dream about your future because those murdered “thugs” looked like you. It’s a harsh environment for fledgling aspirations when real life shuts you down at every turn. Encouraging these kids who had wild imaginations, who deserved to be told they could be anything they wanted, was something that I never expected to find so fulfilling. 

Black kids don’t get to be kids. And if they do, it’s not for long — so it’s something we’ve come to cherish. We gleefully share stories of young Black kids protesting racism and fighting injustice on social media, when that’s not their responsibility. They should get to be kids. They deserve a childhood. 

But there’s always that layer of reality programmed within us, and as many echo, we’re born with a target on our backs. We grow up seeing the world for what it is because we have no other choice. The dose of reality we must swallow is harsh, but not every side effect is harmful. 

For me, my increasingly realistic attitude contributed to my passion for working with Black and Brown youth, and I’ll strive to sustain that commitment in my time in college and long after. I’m grateful for my strong belief in magic, my strong imagination. It makes believing in the far-fetched a little easier. And hopefully, that’s the reality I showed to those kids.

Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]