Read an excerpt from the new essay collection Sure I'll Be Your Black Friend
In EW's exclusive excerpt, Ben Philippe opines on what it is to be a friend to a Black woman (and much more).
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good white person of liberal leanings must be in want of a Black friend," Ben Philippe writes in his new memoir-meets-essay collection Sure, I'll Be Your Black Friend, which tackles wide-ranging topics like Beyoncé, the Black Lives Matter movement, and his immigrant childhood all told through the guise of being the reader's new Black friend. In this exclusive excerpt, Philippe opines on what it is to be a friend to a Black woman (and much more).
Black Girl Magic. You've probably come across the term at some recent point in your life. Ten years ago, most guesses as to its definition would have included the word voodoo, but as one Be- yoncé Giselle upgraded from musician to Destined Child That Was Promised, Bringer of Black Light and Azor Ahai for an entire generation of Black people, the definition of Black Girl Magic got a parallel media boost. Instagram posts, throw pillows, The Real Housewives of All Over drunkenly slurring it while twirling in their reunion episode gowns . . .
The Document of Record for all that American Black culture that I always found myself a few steps behind is the website Urban Dictionary. It's as valid as the Oxford English Dictionary as far as these things are concerned, constantly updating itself with thousands of votes on slang and entries as varied as wypipo (white people) and definitions of first names written by horny teenagers with too many feelings about said first names.
(I have a particular fondness for the definition of Ben: An amazing guy, one of the sweetest you'll ever meet. He is quiet though, until u get him alone and he becomes the funniest and cutest guy ever. He gives the BEST hug!! . . . Poor bastard was definitely openly sobbing while typing this with one hand.)
Their definition of this Black Girl Magic is:
The art of pure, unadulterated dopeness that every Black woman exudes, which beholds not only her internal and external beauty but demonstrates the glory of God the creator.
Example: That girl's dark skin is so beautiful, nothing but Black girl magic!
Usage in popular culture: Most Real Housewives of Atlanta and Potomac describing themselves at one point or another. Apologies: I don't mean to further politicize an already fraught book about race identity in America by bringing up The Real Housewives of Potomac (... but I never trusted Monique and Candiace had it coming; there: I said it).
Everyone loves themselves a good BGM moment these days. I don't remember where I first learned it, but I do remember the first time I shared its definition to an unimpressed audience while making the bed of my old room.
I'M TWENTY-TWO and it's senior year of college. I've gone up to Montreal for a spur-of-the-moment weekend visit. Subtext: I just had a sort-of breakup, the Greyhound from Port Authority to BerriUqam station in downtown Montreal is nine hours and $69, and I miss my mom. She insists that the perfectly made bed "sat too long" since my last visit three months prior so we set to remaking it with fresh sheets from the dryer. There's a béchamel potato casserole in the oven that I'm already counting the calories of—just the right amount of a lot for the occasion. She is happy I'm home, as she never fails to be. As for the Black Girl Magic of it all, the whole thing amuses her when I bring it up as the latest bit of pop culture happening in America these days.
"That's adorable." She snorts, tucking sheets on her corner and passing her hand over it like a diligent iron.
"It's not adorable, Mom. It's about resilience!" I say. To me, it's still a pearl of wisdom from the edges of social media that is not yet on T-shirts in Walmarts across the continent. "Like, that special resilience Black women have, to go through the world of sexism and racism and come out the other side without showing any flaws."
It's not only Urban Dictionary, a website curated by fourteen-year-olds; my overall liberal arts higher education is paying off at this point. I've read, studied, and SparkNoted Angela Davis and bell hooks now. The situations in which I will abstain from bringing up the fact that I've read, studied, and SparkNoted Angela Davis and bell hooks are few and far between.
"So, am I Black Girl Magic?" she says, pretending to throw a long mane of invisible silk hair over her shoulder.
"Not with those edges," I say and subsequently receive a duvet to the face. There are brief moments of equal-footed friendship between us now.
"In my days, you went home crying, screamed into a pillow, tore off the page from your notebook they wrote on, and started all over again the next day but now it's Magic. That's cute."
There's no bite to the cute. See also: inoffensive, sweet, and delightful. The weariness in her voice is something I won't soon forget. The way she says cute wearily makes me think that she's recalling a memory. It is dripping with personal experience. In the grand scheme, I know it wasn't that long ago—a couple of years at most—that she was in a Canadian classroom where something like that could have transpired as she had to relearn all of her skills in the exact same language she had mastered them in in Haiti, simply to prove that she could keep doing her job as a nurse, only now to white Canadians. All the while, I was probably in my own high school classroom, fetishizing vague notions of a brighter life in the United States. (And yes, I'm aware that my mom is awesome and that I very often don't deserve her. Hush up.)
To this day, it's hard not to see Belzie's point. The effortlessness that the term demands of people, women, whose existence is at the intersection of sexism and racism, struggle and oh-screw-you struggle, feels like a bucket of cotton candy while your stomach is growling for dinner. After that conversation, it will take a few more years of walking around the world with a dick for me to come close to understanding—and by this I mean, not very close at all—the width of the chasm that separates Black men and Black women in America.
Now, if you happen to be a Black person reading this book, you will, I'm sure, have picked up on an absence by now... a gaping hole that may in hindsight explain a few things. Because, save for a very patient mother, where exactly are the Black women in this strange sheltered boy's life?
A side effect of attending primarily white schools in my early life is that there were no tables at the back of Saint-Esprit elementary or Seminaire Salesien at which to find a bunch of Black kids whose lunches smelled like mine.
When that first table of Black kids eventually became a presence in high school, with kids in homemade dreads, hoop earrings, and a growing understanding of the hip-hop culture thriving a few hundred miles south in America, I no longer easily fit with them. I wasn't another Black kid approaching them, I was the corny Oreo, which was in many ways as foreign as Leo. Worse, because it was a choice I was making in their eyes: a judgment being passed on them from a kid with good grades who goes directly home after school. The girls at that particular table were particularly unimpressed with my being—and the quizzes were vicious.
"What's Kanye's album's name?" "College Dropout."
"Do you even know the difference between Kanye and Fitty?" "Yeah, I know Fifty."
"Ha! It's Fitty," Angela corrects. Her lipstick is purple, and she's well on her way to giving exactly zero f---s, sometimes throwing a middle finger behind a teacher's back in class to make her friends laugh. "Not Fifty; Fitty."
"I bet you he knows Celine's last album, though," her friend Karine adds. "What was Celine's last album, Rubeintz?"
"I don't listen to that crap." "Bulls----!"
Celine Dion's last album at that time was the conceptual bilingual Miracle, by the way, featuring the single "Je Lui Dirai" or "I Will Tell Him." She's cradling a green-haired baby on the cover, which was kind of weird. Good stuff, but the 2007 followup D'Elles is where I'll really feel it, y'know? (Get off my jock, all right: Celine has bops.)
Mind you, there should be no shame in having known that, but there was. Deep shame. As it turns out, that table of people who look exactly like me was just another place to perform under duress for social oxygen. After a few weeks of trying to sit on the edges and already worrying about my growing man-tits, I stayed away from that impossibly intimidating table of young Black people with the confidence of outraged women, ready to pop off if tried.
Instead, I listen to Black podcasts alone out of an ill-formed need for Blackness I can't quite put into words yet at that point in my life. Blackness I can soak up from the outside, without eyes turning my way. I browse through the Blacker corners of social media and YouTube, like a student who missed the first week of class, hoping to catch up by taking diligent notes and raising my hand high each time. I'm an Oreo that aspires to be chocolate flavored.
It will take college and the easy lowercase diversity of New York City for a few key Black women—who I'm not related to—to make strong lasting imprints on my life. I don't meet them all at once, but one by one they trickle into my life as if they had all been in a waiting room, dreading the work to be done when they would be called to bat. In short succession, I meet the first two Black women I can call "sis" and mean it. And these relationships are game changers in many ways.
The first real one is Nina. I'M NINETEEN when we meet. She is bright and friendly and to my everlasting luck, after trading a few emails in a creative writing workshop, she has simply decided that we will be friends. I know this because she knocks at my dorm room door one night with two cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery in hand, and she says:
"So, I've decided," she says, brightly. "We're going to be friends."
And just like that, we're friends for the better part of four years. We study and write essays together in empty classrooms when the campus libraries get too crowded. I nag her to come with me to my favorite twenty-four-hour grocery store for late-night runs, which is my favorite time to do groceries. She texts me to drag me out of bed and come escort her home from a bar when walking half a mile home at 3 a.m. in possession of a vagina and tipsy is too reckless of a choice. I groan and kick off my covers and head out in flip-flops, knowing my "Black guy in a hoodie" bubble leaves me safer, if not impervious. It's what you do for a sis.
Nina and I are never roommates but she keeps a lamp in my room because my bedroom has horrendous neon overhead lighting and she needs good lighting to study. Around campus, she is far more popular than me. A side effect of being friendlier, I imagine. She is the people-person to my usual gargoyle used to crouching in the shadows and jolting away the moment people get too close for my liking. I'm happy to be her plus-one at parties I'm not invited to and through her, I dip toes in the Intercultural House where Nina lives. It's one of Columbia's would-be cultural fraternities—a gateway for politically active POCs. (Think Disney World's "It's a Small World" but make it an Ivy League townhouse turned dorms in the middle of Frat Row.) Through them, I learn to use People of Color instead of Black in greater societal discourse in which other minorities might intersect.
"What's tonight again?" I say, peeking outside her dorm room to the alley rumbling with activity and international food trays. There's an open house tonight. "I was hoping to write."
"What's the word count for watching The Social Network for the eighth time?" Nina asks, getting ready in her bathroom, ironing her hair in a bra.
"Seventh," I defend.
"We're mixing with the larger community." She sighs. "We were all supposed to bring friends who aren't members. Jewish organizations, Asian organizations, Caucasian classmates. They said that: Caucasian classmates. Sounds like a ska band."
"Aren't you kind of phoning it in by just bringing me, then?" I say, wrapping her scarf around my head for no reason, antsy as I always am when there's a large social event ahead.
Nina's head pops out of her bathroom, eyes wide with embarrassment and a hand to her chest. "Oh my god!"
"This is so embarrassing! Are you not white?" she whispers. "I hate your ass."
She laughs, and it's the same laugh that will have Alfie, an offensively tall Peruvian senior, follow her around all night and give me the stink eye when I drape myself over Nina, exhausted by the bursts of fifteen minutes of small talk I can manage. Nina and I have never dated, let alone hooked up. Occasionally, we hold hands for no reason walking around Union Square or even College Walk, which only serves to baffle the guys and occasional girls who are also drawn to her brightness. She's more of a sister, and if she didn't look exactly like the father in the photos on her dorm walls, I might swear Robert's seed had made a pit stop in Chicago where she hails from.
Intimacy with a Black woman is... not deeper, but simpler—safer in a way that can't be undone from the outside. I don't talk to Nina much these days. (Tell-some, not tell-all, remember?) There's no resentment there. Sometimes people are measured by their effect in your life rather than the accumulated time, and it's safe to say that Nina changed me from feral to at least socially housebroken, no longer scared to approach these tablefuls of Black people who might find me lacking, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Around the time of meeting Nina, Morgan also comes my way. Struts, rather.
I'M TWENTY-ONE when she walks into my seminar on Japanese Monsters and Mythology, catching the eye of exactly everyone. Even the professor, a gregarious gay man, cannot help himself: "That is a look!" he exclaims. It might be inappropriate if the entire classroom didn't agree. Dreads, wigs, silver, black, or pink, or long hair that poofs on high when kept natural, Morgan is striking, to say the least. Morgan doesn't wear clothes; the woman has looks, lewks, and takes slow steps everywhere to make sure her six-inch heels don't waver. After class, Morgan and I end up walking toward and into the same building. She gives me a curious look at every light where one of us expects the other to break away but doesn't. This lasts into the 600W dorms' elevators at which point we're getting off at the same floor. We're floormates, as it turns out. "I thought you were creeping and following me home. I was ready to mace your ass," she'll later recall, munching on fries and never gaining any weight that a lap around the park won't melt off.
(Yes, she's one of those. It offends me, too.)
I've tried to imagine my life without this chance encounter and in many ways, I can't. Morgan is so many things, foundational among them.
I've tried to write her into YA novels, and my approximations of her never feel right; too many contradictions that end up feeling fictional when stacked up together. She will set the grading curve in that Japanese Monsters class while also partying all over New York City. Her birthday celebrations happen at warehouses where circus performers twirl all night. Her dorm room is a truly upsetting battlefield, and she drags boxes and boxes of clothes back to Jersey at the end of every year. She'll fish into a pile of clothes, pull out a bottle of room-temperature juice, and chug while coding a website and listening to K-pop at insane volumes. I won't believe she actually turned down Harvard University because the campus was "creepy" until I see the crumpled acceptance letter in her files while helping her move.
Her vacations are hyper-researched, highly curated affairs, pulled off on a $1,000 budget, disappearing to Europe for two weeks, knowing every leg of the vacation by heart. Her friends don't like me, and I never warmed up to them. She makes no show of pretending to like mine either.
"Why are all your friends white, Ben?" she says, aghast, one day after I part from a study group on the steps of Low Library and she struts my way, large sunglasses on. "Who hurt you?"
"White people like me." I shrug.
"They're not known for their taste, babe." She snorts, sitting down next to me.
"Why are all your friends Black?" I push back, grabbing the melted Venti concoction from her hand and taking a sip from the wet straw.
"I f--- with some white people," she says eventually. "But you have to feel safe to be friends with someone. You in danger every time I see you, girl."
This life philosophy lives in the unwavering stare and hardened features she reserves for the gaggles of frat bros that ogle her at bars and whisper something to one another. It's admittedly pretty cool to see an entire swim team look away like ashamed toddlers.
Morgan is still in my life nine years later, which neither of us expected at the time of graduation. She'll agree to dog-sit for me for a weekend while I'm traveling and stay for fifty-one extra days when I return, becoming a de facto roommate. We won't see each other for months, and then a text request and money transfer into her account and she'll begin to design my website out of nowhere when I need one, another skill she just happens to have. Along with proofreading, interior decorating—the advanced kind, with color swatches—and the all-around uncanny ability to live a lifestyle several rungs above her income by extensively planning. The woman is vexingly good at every last thing. The cover to this book? She designed it. No, really. Conceptualized it out of nowhere as a favor for my book proposal and nailed it so hard that HarperCollins looped her in. It's not all praises either, mind you. Morgan is also—and I say this knowing full well she is reading this exact excerpt of my book and not a page more because my writing "ugh, sounds so Ben Philippey"—just the rudest woman alive to me. Occasionally, I feel emboldened by this. If Nina was a soul sister, Morgan is the type whose pigtails I enjoy pulling.
"Do you ever think about the fact that all the men you date are punks?" I declare one day out of boredom, falling back onto my guest bed, watching Morgan get ready for a date during one of her extended dog-sits at my place. She swipes left on 99 percent of men of all ethnicities because she knows she is stunning and doesn't need the seemingly never-ending column of "gorgeous, heart-eye emoji" they all seem to provide when I glance at her matches. Occasionally, like tonight, a chiseled pleb or square-jawed gym owner will pass muster, taking her to some exclusive club in Tribeca.
Morgan is occasionally a fun stovetop to touch.
"You date punks," I continue, sounding out each word. "Those poor idiots try so hard for someone who is going to save them as initials on her phone?" I continue, knowing I sound like a whiny little sibling who wants attention. "Poor little punk asses."
"I see . . . Do you want to rephrase that?" She chuckles. "I just did my eyes: I'm giving you a chance here."
"No, Morgan: I do not want to rephrase that." I have no plans tonight myself. "I said punk ass. Punk from the Latin punkerus and ass from that thing you don't wash."
I never feel any real sense of danger in annoying Morgan until I've annoyed Morgan. Her nails, for the record, are real; which I know from the numerous times they've dug into my flesh.
"OW! Uncle . . . uncle!" I say, muffled and in pain after ten minutes of thrashing. "I can't breathe, you mare!"
"You talk so much," she says, after releasing the arm twisted behind my back and letting go of my head for a merciful gasp of oxygen. "Your life would be so much easier if you were mute. Ever think of that?" she adds with a sigh and not a single hair out of place. Freaking She-Hulk. "See you tomorrow morning!"
"Remember! He's lying if he says he's out of condoms!" I defiantly shout as the front door shuts, watching my dog tail after her toward the door because she too gets entranced by Auntie Morgan. I suppose there's maybe just a bit of magic on occasion.
SURE, I'LL BE YOUR BLACK FRIEND. Copyright © 2021 by Ben Philippe.
Reprinted here with permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers