If I don’t find some magical story about love— a black woman and a black man/ a black woman and a black woman— geared for children and young readers, I will have a coup on my hands in my classroom. If I am saying all this foolishness in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog or Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters represents exploitation and neglect, not love, and that young women have been bamboozled, my black female students especially will ask me to show them some love then.
I thought I found something positive for my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls with the Nutmeg Princess by Ricardo Keens-Douglas and illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko, but it was just another story where a little girl must prove herself. The little boy in this narrative is attentive and generous, unlike in Mufaro where men just need to be. However, the little girl literally saves the boy’s life, the final proof that she is as good as him. I like that the girl does the saving but why does she have to prove her goodness and worth and save a boy, while he has nothing to prove and saves absolutely no one? In the end, the nutmeg princess is revealed to both children and they inherit a nutmeg farm (they are not romantic though, but real partners and community members, which I like). I also looked at Aida— yes, as in the opera— that is also a children’s book with the story of the opera told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons. The artwork here is amazing and I love Price’s telling as well as her personal narrative at the very end. In Price’s performances of this opera, she is able to take Verdi’s imaginings and transform the entire experience into a powerful story with herself at center. The children’s book form, however, doesn’t manage to do this. The plot? Prob. Le. Ma. Tic. Neither of these books challenge male domination and female subordination for children. I will certainly keep collecting children’s books for my campaign and discuss them here, but I have some final thoughts now.
As for finding a radical fairy tale, black love story for children? That white supremacy requires such a stunning erasure of such a thing seems telling. So… I have decided that I will use history. Since I am planning a group activity for the class on the day when we engage what I have been calling my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, I will ask the visual artists, spoken word poets, and creative writers in the class to take on a specific task: create a real love story, adding all the magic they want, as long as the historical context stays the same. I plan to use a letter written by a slave that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has archived, a letter that Heather Andrea Williams features in her book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. The letter is dated one month after the Emancipation Proclamation (February 4, 1863), almost 150 years ago today. The man, living in Georgia, and his wife, living in Alabama, are still enslaved. It was always highly unlikely that black spouses would ever see each other again since no slaveowner was required, encouraged or expected to accept slaves’ marriage as legally binding. On top of that, the husband, James Tate, could not read and write so he had to rely on whites to write and read his letters to and from his wife, Olivia Tate, when they were separated and owned by different “masters.” In what is apparently his last letter to her, Mr. Tate tells Mrs. Tate that his master does not like him writing to her and wants him to marry someone else. Mr. Tate professes an undying love for his wife and closes his letter by telling her he will only contact her again if he gets married. While many read this as representative of slaves understanding that their relationships/marriages were short-lived, it seems Mr. Tate may be also telling his wife something else here, a message she would have understood. I’m going to ask students to read between the lines, to see what the husband and wife are communicating and planning, 250 miles away from one another, with whites reading and writing every word. I want them to construct a narrative from this real-life love story. As of 1870, according to Williams’s retrieval of their census records, the Tates were together again, with children, all living together in Fulton County, Georgia, a happy ending if there ever was one and a very rare one for newly emancipated African Americans too. Too many— parents, children, spouse— simply never found each other again after being sold off to different corners of the world.
Just because the dominant storytelling machines won’t give us the black, love stories so many of my students want does not mean we do not have the stories. So here will be some of the guidelines for students in this group to write their own fairy tale in class with Mr. and Mrs. Tate as very real characters:
- Students will read my summary and excerpts of the husband’s letter (they can go to the Schomburg to see the actual letter and/or to Census records on their own). So here you have a context where black people are not legally allowed to marry and are not legally allowed to read and write and, yet and still, you have two black people who are married, writing letters to one another. Who/what will we personify as evil here? How will we describe such seemingly insurmountable odds and such unyielding determination?
- The Emancipation Proclamation had just been signed at the time of this letter. Both Mr. and and Mrs. Tate would have known this so they would have had hope that slavery would be ending soon, especially seeing how many black men were enlisted in the Union Army. This couple is clearly planning something. What is their secret plan and how are they transmitting these secret messages to one another?
- Mr. and Mrs. Tate would have needed a strong bond and ability to really “read” one another since their every word in every letter is being monitored. Can we take magic all the way here? Here are some examples: the couple could have a family ancestor/GodMother deliver messages between them; the couple could be protected by Yemaya who is watching over them until thy reunite (In Yoruba, Yemaya was known as the river goddess but she became the Goddess of the Ocean during the Middle Passage when she nurtured the millions who traveled/died in the Atlantic Ocean.) How can we add a magical dimension to this love story that honors the history and legacy? Remember: it must be a story for children.
- The Tate family is finally re-united but this re-unionification does NOT come with the riches of a kingdom/empire. The only wealth here is being able to be with one another and finally get married under God and U.S. law. I want this point stressed given how in fairy tales, the girls are really my college student’s age and they all get over like a fat rat in the end (Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog, is an immediately wealthy entrepreneur at 19. Really?) Can we use The Tates to define wealth and love OUTSIDE of commodification and materialism, since this is what The Tates would have had to do anyway since they KNEW what it meant to literally BE the commodity and the raw material. What is the happy ending here? Or, rather, what is the beginning? What this will really mean is creating a male character who can forego patriarchy: i.e., NOT surrounding himself with women until he gets to be with his wife, ignoring his wife’s needs while focusing only on massaging his own self-esteem, or expecting a wife’s support and silence while he leads his own independent life/rules the kingdom. Can we imagine Mr. Tate as someone who can take what he knows about being treated as a thing and make sure he doesn’t turn around and treat Mrs. Tate as a thing?
- As newly emancipated, the Tates would not have had an inheritance from their parents to live on or a lifetime of money saved up from their work since their labor was clearly never remunerated. Students will have to be creative, as creative as the Tates, in even figuring out how they physically reconnected (given the constraints of travel and their financial situation) that could very well have involved routes similar to traveling the Underground Railroad. How are the Tates imagining a future and how are they sustaining the image? How can we push ourselves to imagine the success of their relationship as not resting on material accumulation?
James Tate is not saving Olivia Tate; they are saving one another. What would a mutually respectful relationship look like after all they have been through?
The Tates represent something different from Western tales where love is professed all over the place, all the time, right away, but never lived out as a practice. As naive and silly as it might seem on my part, I just can’t imagine either one of The Tates even having the time or energy for anyone or anything other than, mostly, each other and their work. To outsmart the forced separation of slavery and find one another again would have required them to be very mindful. It can’t be stressed enough that the very ability to focus on being together— given a context that had denied black folk legalized or self-sponsored relationships (for more than a century!)— would have been, in and of itself, radical. Neither one can be so self-absorbed in their own individualized worlds that they do not truly notice or support the other— they simply wouldn’t have achieved their outcome. I see Olivia and James Tate as people with a fierce, undistracted focus who get to exactly where they are trying to go, despite odds many of us can barely even imagine now.
That’s all I got right now as a fairy tale, black love story for my students— something we will need to write ourselves. What I am hoping is that students will actually experience how they will have to drop the dominant, Disney fairy tale/princess narrative in order to write this kind of black love story with this very real history in our focus, now 150 years later. After being at the bottom of everything, I want my students to see that black women do not come home and allow themselves to be at the bottom (or be objects) there too. The kinds of men and the kinds of situations that require this bottom-dwelling are just not worthy of us. The Tates actually remind me of an expression that I have always heard my grandparents’ generation say to younger people as a warning to wrongdoers (like a neighbor who had the time to be casually befriending a woman because he was emotionally neglecting his partner— well, former partner) or as a kernel of advice (for how you actually hold on to a valued partner, friend, or entity of value): you always take care of home. I was well into my adulthood before I understood that “home” here was not a place, a house, a possession, or a nuclear family system even; taking care of home is about being fully present, bearing full witness to the lives of the people you love, and, thus, livin/lovin right. Taking care of home isn’t always about romance either; it means fiercely recognizing and reciprocating all of the friends and supporters that have sustained you rather than neglecting them, runnin behind folks who do nothing for you. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the adinkra symbol, called the “power of love” (pictured above and right), defines home in a similar way: ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, which, roughly translated from the Akan, means “love never loses its way home.” I want to see the kinds of children’s stories/ fairy tales where black women are undoing men’s ongoing domination, indifference, neglect, and promotion of white/passive femininity and, instead, show black people takin care of home.
I plan to also muck up the heteronormative and cisnormative center of fairy tales with another activity: a story of two, young black women’s romantic love for one another. I have given up all hope of finding a children’s book like that, especially because I also want this story to move away from the white, male homonormative gaze that looks out on black women (read Edward Ndopu’s insightful analysis here).
I will look for another history here too and I will also look at some of the personal narratives and autobiographies my own students have written in my classes in the past. It strikes me that the young black women in love with other young black women have told/written loves stories that go so far past the white princess chokehold. For the young black women I have in mind here, in order for their love stories to survive, they have had to write a different script for their lives. That is where I am taking my reading and course planning now.
Like I said, if we do not have such fairy tales, we simply need to write them ourselves and in so doing, invent a whole new genre.
At the end of the day, I want students to confront these tricky narratives and ongoing emblems of white femininity that so many of them have bought into. I always tend to really overplay the first few days and early weeks of a semester because that is where the foundation is laid. By the middle of the semester, students have had their ideas shaken up and you can just flow and they will flow with you. I can let the words and lives of women like Ella Baker, Elaine Brown, Maria Stewart, and Shirley Chisholm do all the work. I don’t have to plan such counter-attacks on the dominant narratives that are holding their imaginations and ideological horizons hostage. In the beginning of the semester, though, before they have fully met the women on the syllabus, things are rough. Students often tell me that they don’t know what to make of the black women they are reading who simply are not very lady-like and are so political and, therefore, aggressive. I intend to start the class by questioning these definitions of womanhood and keeping new hopes high for this new semester.