An Analysis of ‘My Father Is A Retired Magician’ By Dr. Ntozake Shange

In this blog post, an analysis of the poem ‘My Father Is A Retired Magician’ will be made. The poem commence with this:

my father is a retired magician
which accounts for my irregular behavior
everythin comes outta magic hats
or bottles wit no bottoms & parakeets
are as easy to get as a couple a rabbits
or 3 fifty cent pieces/ 1958

From this opening we can deduce that the father’s occupation affects the narrator’s behaviour. The writer describes what the profession entails as ‘everythin comes outta magic hats and bottles wit no bottoms’. This typically would be classed as ‘white magic’ but we know the writer’s father is a black magician because of the sociolect of the poem which resembles the Southern twang in America in which Shange often writes in. There is also a subtle device in setting the scene. The writer wants us to know to that this piece is set in America in ‘1958’.

my daddy retired from magic & took
up another trade cuz this friend of mine
from the 3rd grade asked to be made white
on the spot

In this next aspect of the poem, I have two interpretations.
The first interpretation is that it shows the severity of racism and how children as young as the third grade are aware of race structures. It highlights that even children can recognise the ‘dominant’ race.
The second interpretation to this is that only magic can transcend the impossible. This means the child making the request believes magic will change things and make what is impossible (changing race) to possible. This shows her faith in magic can break that racial barriers. However, we know the magician cannot do this as this is the very reason he has retired.

 

what cd any self-respectin colored american magician
do wit such a outlandish request/ cept
put all them razzamatazz hocus pocus zippity-do-dah
thingamajigs away cuz
colored chirren believin in magic
waz becomin politically dangerous for the race
& waznt nobody gonna be made white
on the spot just
from a clap of my daddy’s hands

The next part of this poem acknowledges that it is a ‘outlandish request’. However as the poem progresses, this is a common problem. This is expressed in the line ‘colored chirren believin in magic’. This suggest that this mentality that it takes magic to overcome racial adversity is something that is common but also ‘politically dangerous for the race’. However, this begs the question of is it dangerous for all races? Or just the black race?
Personally, I believe it was gravitating towards the latter because ‘nobody’ black will be made ‘white’ by the clap of her father’s hands.

& the reason i’m so peculiar’s
cuz i been studyin up on my daddy’s technique
& everythin i do is magic these days
& it’s very colored
very now you see it/ now you
dont mess wit me
i come from a family of retired
sorcerers/ active houngans & pennyante fortune tellers
wit 41 million spirits critturs & celestial bodies
on our side
i’ll listen to yr problems
help wit yr career yr lover yr wanderin spouse
make yr grandma’s stay in heaven more gratifyin
ease yr mother thru menopause & show yr son
how to clean his room

The influence of the narrator’s father is highlighted in this part of the poem again. There is an element of blame that her father made her strange, weird or rather ‘peculiar’. The narrator realises that everything she does is coloured. It is a ‘now you see it/ now don’t mess with it’. This highlights the intensity and seriousness of black magic. The genealogy of the narrator is also revealed which suggests she is accustomed to magic especially with the ’41 million critturs & celestial bodies’ on our (black people) sides. This show how often we need number on our side.  More importantly, with her black magic, she lists the problems of the community which are: unemployment (help wit yr career), love, wanderin spouses, death, womanly issues and family.

YES YES YES 3 wishes is all you get
scarlet ribbons for yr hair
benwa balls via hong kong
a miniature of machu picchu

In this section, we get a reference to Asian magic through mention of ‘benwa balls from Hong Kong. As well as a South American mention of ‘machu picchu’. The belief of magic is universal and worldwide through the narrator’s eyes.

all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
Spell #7 from Upnorth-Outwest Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People

The final aspect of the poem finally reveals the mesage that the magic lies with being black. Being black and coloured all your life should be what you love and appreciate. She adds a juxaposition of humour and reality to the line ‘Spell #7 from Upnorth-Outwest Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People’ to show that being black in Africa is more difficult and stressful in comparison to their African-American counterpart. This simply illustrates that the situation ‘could be worst’.

 

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