‘A part of who we are’: how a Black queer magician is carrying on a long tradition

<span>Nicole Cardoza performs magic at The Deacon in Philadelphia on 29 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Torian Studios</span>
Nicole Cardoza performs magic at The Deacon in Philadelphia on 29 February 2024.Photograph: Torian Studios

Within seconds, the two silver coins that Nicole Cardoza pinched between her fingers had multiplied to four. In front of a mostly Black audience at Philadelphia’s the Deacon, a former First African Baptist church, the magician stood with her dress sleeves rolled up to show them that nothing was hidden there. Cardoza later pulled the coins from behind stunned participants’ ears as she shared the story of Ellen Armstrong, the first known headlining Black female magician. Armstrong and her father performed similar illusions in the same historically Black church in the early 20th century.

Related: The rockers putting their Blackness at the fore of hardcore and punk

About 100 years later, Cardoza is one of the US’s only Black female magicians with her own touring show. Her Black Magic Tour blends stage magic and storytelling that highlights the Black illusionists who came before her. She said she prioritized performing in former and current Black churches as a means to “honor the magic that’s in how we gather as Black people, in how we hold space for one another”.

Cardoza is part of a long tradition of Black magicians in America who have used illusion to inspire a collective change in mindset. Through her performances, Cardoza hopes that her audience will begin to see what makes them extraordinary: “Holding space where we can challenge and question what’s real and what’s possible is a magical practice,” she said. “Marginalized communities have been doing that their whole lives. This is just a part of who we are.”

Holding space where we can challenge and question what’s real and what’s possible is a magical practice

Nicole Cardoza

As a young Black queer woman, Cardoza said that her magical practice has caused a perspective shift in her own life. “A lot of Black women … have to carry so much, we’re responsible for so much,” she said. But learning how to make a coin appear as if it’s moving through space allowed her to “tap into my childlike sense of joy and wonder, to honor visioning and imagination around other disciplines that we learn”.

She views magic as a revolutionary tool with the potential to drive change. “Suspending disbelief is reckoning with the internal boundaries and barriers that we hold around whether or not something else is possible,” she said. “And that is a practice that we all collectively need.”

The little-known legacy of Black magicians

In 1849, Henry “Box” Brown shipped himself to freedom. With the help of a white shoemaker, Samuel Smith, and a free Black man, James Smith, Brown, who was born into slavery, was placed into a 3ft-long wooden box that was then shipped through a private mail service from Richmond, Virginia, to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Brown survived the 27-hour long journey on steam boat and train by carrying some water in a cow’s bladder and breathing air through a small crack in the crate. Later, he would bring the box on stage as he performed magic and used his platform to advocate for the end of slavery.

According to Cardoza, Brown’s box trick served as an example of transposition, the illusion of switching the location of two objects. In a nod to Brown during her Philadelphia show, Cardoza asked two participants on opposite sides of the room to write a message on playing cards that they then folded in half and held in their raised fists. Walking from one participant to the other, Cardoza traced an invisible line in the air with her finger to illustrate the route that the messages would take to get to the other side of the room. Participants’ mouths were agape in surprise when they opened their cards to find the other person’s message in their hands. Cardoza saw the trick as a way to honor Brown’s legacy.

Almost a century after Brown, in the 1940s and 50s, Armstrong would helm her own legacy by bringing her magic show to Black audiences throughout the south, pushing back against expectations that Black women be subservient and invisible. Armstrong, who was from South Carolina, spent her childhood performing magic at Black schools and churches on the East Coast with her father, J Hartford, a magician who toured alongside his relatives for several decades. When he died in the late 1930s, Armstrong inherited his show and became the first known touring Black woman magician in the mid-20th century.

Because of the racism in the US, it was more favorable to be exoticized than it was to be a Black magician

Angela M Sanchez, magician and magic historian

Armstrong and other Black magicians who came before her used stage magic “not just to surprise and delight”, said Cardoza, but also “to challenge and reckon with the systems that oppressed them”.

Once, J Hartford had been removed from a show’s lineup when the white men who booked him learned that he was Black. “Because of the racism in the US, it was more favorable to be exoticized than it was to be a Black magician,” said Angela M Sanchez, a Los Angeles-based magician and magic historian. When the fetishization of Asian cultures was at its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Black magicians, for instance, had to pretend to be South Asian or Arab conjurers. Still, the Armstrong family proudly embraced their Blackness during an era when many other Black illusionists disguised their race for survival.

Whenever Cardoza feels the weight of performing solo throughout the nation, she thinks about Armstrong traveling around the South during the Jim Crow Era for her solo shows. It reminds Cardoza that she’s not alone.

Creating a pipeline

Cardoza first fell in love with the craft when she saw a rabbit being pulled from a hat during her first magic show at five years old. But she didn’t begin practicing until about 20 years later, citing a lack of representation that hindered her ability to see herself in the performances she loved so much.

Due to the lack of data collection in the illusionist industry, Sanchez said, it’s challenging to address inequities in magic societies, social clubs where magicians network and sharpen their skills: “Institutionally, magic is racist and sexist, and no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room.” Some magic societies also require sponsorship, she added, which breeds homogeneity.

Bias in the industry is also influenced by public perception. A 2019 study showed that the quality of magic tricks performed by women are perceived to be worse than the same ones done by men.

Magic books also tend to cater to male performers by referencing men’s clothing, such as suit breast pockets. And magic kits for children often feature pictures of white boys on the cover. A hollowed thumb tip made from plastic, a common prop in kits that can be worn to hide objects, usually resembles the color of a white person’s finger. “Representation is so huge,” Cardoza said, “because people don’t think they can be things unless they see them.”

For Cardoza’s part, she plans to make magic more accessible to diverse practitioners and audiences. She launched a Kickstarter campaign to create an inclusive magic kit for children that recently met its fundraising goal. The kit will include a digital app where a diverse group of magicians will teach tricks and the etiquette of stage magic, such as asking for consent before touching a participant.

Later this year, she plans to host virtual and in-person workshops for adults called Magic Hour, where they’ll learn illusion basics. And she’s currently filming a documentary about the role of Black women in stage magic, which will focus on Armstrong.

More than anything, Cardoza hopes that attendees walk away from her shows with a renewed sense of possibility. She wants them to view magic as a practice of envisioning other futures and addressing social issues, such as the over-policing of communities of color, just as magicians in the past challenged slavery and discriminatory policies. “I’d love to see more magicians be considered as movement workers and not just entertainers.”