Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1999 film, The Girl Who Sold the Sun opens with the violent assault of a mad Black woman. The image of this lone woman yanking her way to freedom after being accosted by the patriarchal police state was all too familiar. While It is unclear if the woman experiences madness as rage, madness as psychic duress from experiencing a non-consensus reality, madness for shirking social norms, or all three, her raging ramblings focalized through the thick metal bars of the holding enclosure too easily recalled how the prison often doubles as a provider of psychiatric care through containment. Quite significantly, the film, by juxtaposing the violence the young man in the wheelchair experiences with that of the woman accused of thievery, centralizes disabled people in conversations about state-sanctioned and enacted violence. Despite this crucial representational intervention, I tensed. I inhaled deeply. I braced myself to open myself to 50 minutes of Black women’s trauma. As the film continued on, I realized The Girl Who Sold the Sun tells that story, but it is not just that story or even primarily that story. The Girl Who Sold the Sun is mostly a story of #DisabledBlackGirlMagic.
I recognize the rocky terrain that is #BlackGirlMagic. While Black femmes, women, and girls around the world have used CaShawn Thompson’s hashtag to share and celebrate our often erased and un-or-under appreciated successes, #BlackGirlMagic is not without its problems. For one, as scholar of African American literature Dr. Linda Chavers has pointed out, #BlackGirlMagic too closely teeters the line of harmful, dehumanizing stereotypes about Black women as strong, indifferent to pain, and unassailable so therefore able to take care of ourselves; it seems we don’t need community or legislative protection or political redress. However, I agree with Black feminist writers who counter that #BlackGirlMagic actually “encapsulates the grand and heartbreaking experience of being a Black woman in this world.” #BlackGirlMagic captures our Black girl, woman, and femme aliveness as we inhabit a whitecisheteropatriarchalablebodied world that reminds us, by violently transitioning our girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, aunties, mommas, and leaders into the afterlife, that it is dead-set against us. I do join Black feminist voices like Janelle Hobson who admonish us to contend with the privileging of wealthier, traditionally beautiful, and ablebodied Black femmes, women, and girls. Where’s the magic of the Black woman rambling and railing against a system that calls her magic theft? We need #DisabledBlackGirlMagic.
That’s why I exhaled, and my heart and soul rejoiced when The Girl Who Sold the Sun pivoted from the violent din of the initial scene to a shot of the city with a person asleep on the ground underneath a statue, to the narrow alleyways of Shanti town, and finally to the determined, ambling gait of Sili Lan in her knee-length pink dress that shows her earth-dusted legs, one of which enveloped by a brace and swaying just above the ground as she uses her red forearm crutches to balance the weight on the other. Throughout the remainder of the film, Sili proves that she is determined to subvert the sexism that ousts Black girls from paid-labor in order to provide care and sustenance not just for her family but other dispossed people around her. The film displays Sili’s ingenuity traversing spaces that are physically inaccessible and socially hostile to her femme presence: from using a tote to carry The Sun papers she sells to climbing the backs of gentle and caring Black boys as other street kids attack her girlhood through her disability, Sili makes due (and accessible) with what she has, but she also makes it unequivocally clear that the world needs to do better by her and those around her. Like Black girls around the world, Sili speaks her voice. She is audacious–womanish–in the best ways. She not only mouths off at the bullying street boys, but she also speaks to and against the police presence that alchemizes #DisabledBlackGirlMagic into criminality. Aagainst all odds, and with Mambéty’s Africanfuturist magic, she shields herself from incarceration as a theft as well as liberates the woman from the opening scene. Moreover, with strategic manipulation of ableist pity–once again, pure #DisabledBlackGirlMagic–she earns money. And rather than hoard it, she shares. She quite literally covers her blind grandmother and guardian as she tells stories in the street. She hands out coins to the women and children nearby. All the while, Black boys and young men–disabled and not–stand by (or underneath in assistance) in their quietude and respectfully cheer and witness.
One of my favorite scenes of the film is Sili dancing down the street–much as I imagine the elderly Baby Suggs (perhaps an accosted ancestor?) danced with her “twisted hip” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved–flocked by three other Black girls. This scene, captures how Mambéty took the broken pebbles of Black girl life, and conjured a path, perhaps, not quite yet, but can be soon to come, of stepping stones towards diabled Black girl futurity. Simply #DisabledBlackGirlMagic.
By Dr. Anna LaQuawn Hinton