Finding Black Girl Magic with Niobe and Amandla Stenberg

Earlier this month, I was on a mission to find the latest Teen Vogue issue—the issue featuring Amandla Stenberg. I wanted it for two reasons: 1) The cover is stunning. And 2) it would make a great companion for discussing Stenberg’s comic, Niobe: She Is Life, that she co-created with Sebastian A. Jones (co-scripter), Ashley A. Woods (final art), and Darrell May (layouts).

Teen Vogue. Amandla Stenberg. February 2016

This Teen Vogue issue in general is about feminism, but it also takes the time to celebrate the black girl in its February issue. Stenberg is our cover story, and she’s interviewed by musician and actress, Solange Knowles, whose Twitter account I recommend following (and whose sister recently released a fantastically black music video). There is a section on ways to rock rich makeup shades on dark skin and a reader essay from Tayler Montague on embracing her brown skin. Model Adwoa Aboah is interviewed by her friend Cara Delevingne on overcoming addiction while the last look is all about Black-ish star Yara Shahidi. That’s a great array of content but what stayed with me was Knowles’ introduction to her interview with Stenberg:

There’s a secret language shared among black girls who are destined to climb mountains and cross rivers in a world that tells us to belong to the valleys that surround us. You learn it very young, and although it has no words, you hear it clearly. You sense it when you walk into rooms with your hair in full bloom, each coil glorious, your sway swift and your stance proud. You feel it like a rhythm you can’t shake if you even dared to quiet the sounds around you.

This is black girl magic and it’s evident in a Niobe: She Is Life #1, which I picked up at New York Comic Con. I got to talk to Sebastian A. Jones about it after stumbling on the Stranger Comics table (as I was killing time before a different interview). He was very passionate about the endeavor featuring the first ever combo of a black female lead, a black female writer, and a black female artist on a comic being distributed nationally, and he got me enthusiastic about it as well. I got my convention exclusive copy (cover by Hyoung Taek Nam) and had it signed by the team, including Stenberg and Woods who were lovely with their fans, and I dove right into the world of Niobe.

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Photographed by Tonglé Dakum. Unsplash.

Black Girl Magic is a state of mind, an identity, and a truth.

Personally, I’ve been exposed to more and more of it recently than I have my entire life. Even though I’m a black girl, I’ve had moments where I didn’t feel black enough. That’s the funny thing about race, isn’t it? I’m black enough to be discriminated against, because that ignorance and hate is rooted in stereotypes and generalizations. It makes blackness an shared experience. However, black people beyond that aren’t a monolith. I’m a Somali-Canadian, which means the things that media has deemed “universally black” doesn’t always register with me. So, sometimes I feel oddly removed from the discussions of blackness even in celebration. I often feel like I’m straddling identities, and as I get older, the more I begin to realize that it’s okay. It’s expected as a Black. Muslim. Woman. And this is what I infuse into my reading of Black Girl Magic. I can be all of these things.

Lately, I’ve been listening to podcasts created by black women (Nerds of Prey, Another Round), read sites by black women (Black Girl Nerds), empowered by songs by black women (Formation by Beyonce), devoured books by black women (Citizen by Claudia Rankine), and seeing black women on television and magazines racks. This feels like a magical moment. Right here. Right now. It’s a moment that’s making my whole body hum in excitement for seeing myself, outside of myself…

…beyond myself.

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Written by Sebastian A. Jones and Amandla Stenberg. Art by Ashley A. Woods. Layouts by Darrell May. Stranger Comics. 2015.

She’s this rad black girl elf. It’s interesting because it is fantasy, but it’s also really kind of self-reflective. She’s finding her faith and finding her identity. And she’s going to keep growing until she becomes this warrior destined to unite the human world and the elf world.

Amandla Stenberg, Teen Vogue Interview

At 17 years old, I was still getting used to the idea of being a writer. More accurately, it was four years since the idea that I could be a writer and the desire to write creatively filled my mind, like I was being submerge in water—not suffocating in it, but surrounded and immersed in it. Stenberg helped bring a comic to life at 17 years old, but before Niobe’s announcement, the actress became a viral hit with her video: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows. It was obvious that this young woman has things to say and that the creation of Niobe played a role in that.

Niobe: She Is Life #1 is first and foremost stunning. The colours offer a depth to the art that grabs hold of your attention, and it flows from scene to scene and panel to panel. It’s bright and bold, yet retains the ability to insert cold and looming moments.

Written by Sebastian A. Jones and Amandla Stenberg. Art by Ashley A. Woods. Layouts by Darrell May. Stranger Comics. 2015.

In the issue, Niobe Ayutami is on the run. She is being hunted by people who want to return her to the King. There’s a moment where Niobe jumps down a waterfall, and it nearly takes up the whole page, save for a small rectangular panel at the bottom. In that panel, Niobe has hit the water, but given her wound, the blood creates the shape of a clawed hand that looks to be reaching down for something. There’s a text box with the words “only the Devil who holds us.” There are a lot of references to the devil and sin throughout this comic, both in regards to what Niobe has done (we don’t know what that is yet) and those who want her.

Written by Sebastian A. Jones and Amandla Stenberg. Art by Ashley A. Woods. Layouts by Darrell May. Stranger Comics. 2015.

Niobe was described to me as a Luke Skywalker type character, who is destined to save and unite her world. A magical place isn’t just a home for a Skywalker but also a place for someone who looks like me. It’s great to see a woman of colour in a role like this and that a little black girl has someone to point to in media.

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As this Black History Month comes to a close, I like to think of the great programs, events, and initiatives that have been going on all over. There are amazing black women behind some of these including @princessology who created 29 Days Of Black Cosplay and @MizCaramelVixen who’s behind Black Comics Month for the second year in a row. So, I’m taking this time to say thank you to my fellow black girls and to never stop practicing that magic.

Keep creating.

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.