In the midst of the recent elation (and flap) over the remake of The Little Mermaid and the casting of the lovely Halle Bailey as Ariel, I have been thinking about how much I love mermaids… and not just the 1990 movie, Mermaids, in which Cher floats the brilliant concept of only serving your family hors d’oeuvres for dinner from a cookbook called, Fun Finger Foods—a concept I tried until I discovered that decorative appetizers are WAY more work than fun. No, I am talking about mermaids in general, and more specifically, mermaids as the archetype for feminine mystique and oceanic power within African and African American folktale traditions.
That’s right, mermaids have a long and well-established place in the stories and the art of West, Central and Southern Africa, in the Carribbean and the Carolinas. Mami Wata (West Africa), Mboze (Republic of Congo), Mamiambo (S. Africa/Zulu), Yemaya/Oshun (Yoruba), Mmuommiri (Nigeria)—these are all centuries-old names for the water goddess, the Queen of the waters, and Mother Water—all versions of what we have come to know as mermaids. Although each of these water goddesses have their own unique variation, they are almost always represented in the way that we think of mermaids,—half woman, half fish, long flowing hair, ruler over the waters. She is sometimes bejeweled, but always beguiling.
I did not learn of the African tradition of the mermaid until I was an adult and a mother. I happened upon a children’s picture book, Sukey and the Mermaid, which is about a young Black girl who, suffering the cruelty of her step father, escapes to her hiding place near the ocean only to be discovered by Mama Jo, a beautiful brown-skinned mermaid who encourages her to leave her earthly troubles for the peace and beauty of the sea. I bought the picture book because the illustrations were breathtaking and I loved the idea of a Black mermaid story for my daughter, who was, very early on, drawn to water—always running fearless and adventuresome toward the surf, the pool or the bathtub-- even before she learned to swim, even before she spent hours at swim team practice.
The author’s note at the end of the book shares that Sukey’s story is based on a folktale from a 1923 book, Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina. The Author undertook his own research of African-American folktales, leading to those of the Caribbean islands uncovering the origins of Mama Jo, who was first Pretty Jo or Mama Dlo (derived from Mama de l’ eau, meaning “Water Mother.”) Eventually, he found himself among West African tales, including one about a young girl’s encounter with a female water-spirit. This is the historical basis of Sukey and the Mermaid.
So when Ariel showed up in 1989 in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, my daughter, already identifying as a water loving mermaid, had the opportunity to also soon thereafter learn of the Black mermaid tradition of the beautiful Mama Jo. We were able to root ourselves in our own fantasy about these mythical seafaring beauties.
The whole issue of Disney, fairytales and race—White Ariel versus Brown Ariel-- reminds me of my own childhood experiences with Black Dorothy—Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills in The Wiz, and that unknown afro-wearing sister who starred as Cinderella Brown, in the small all-Black adaptation that ran through Los Angeles in the Seventies. I loved those productions for their Black heroines and the cultural tweaks (music, dance, language, campy costumes) that made them feel like my own. Long before the movie premiered, my brother and I went to see the play The Wiz, five or six times, and we knew every song by heart. It was so important to us to see ourselves onstage. It was food for our souls.
But I feel like Brown Ariel in this new The Little Mermaid is something else. She is not a Black appropriation of a White story. She, purposely or not, is an acknowledgement that the beautiful, beguiling, rebellious, faithful, long-suffering water nymph character of the mermaid exists in many cultures. And this time around, we get an Ariel who embodies a young Mama Jo.
So this Ariel does not have to be your Ariel.
She will be this girl’s Ariel--
and this girl’s Ariel—
and this girl’s Ariel—
If she is #notyourariel, you can sit this one out.