Black Girlhood Stories: Love, Emancipation & Final Proclamations

Illustration from the children's book, Aida, told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons

This is an llustration from the children’s book, Aida, as told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Leo and Diane Dillon.

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.

I.

African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, GeorgiaThis monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: "We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy."

African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, Georgia
This monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”

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?
  • yemayaThe 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?
  • The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

    The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

    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. odonI 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.

II.

*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.

 III.

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.

Black Girlhood Stories: Knowing Haints & “Her Stories”

SAMSUNG“I was the child who listened closely to grown-up women talking.  To this day, I remember how my grandmother, my aunts and great-aunts and elder cousins looked when they talked. I’ve never forgotten how they move their hands and gestured with their arms.  The sounds of their voices and much of what they said stays with me.  When I was a child, I heard stories told by women…”

These are the words of the renowned storyteller/folklorist and children’s author, Virginia Hamilton, at the close of her book.  I want to incorporate Hamilton’s text into my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, not just for the stories themselves, but because of Hamilton’s prominence in this literary world and for Hamilton’s description of her original desire to do this kind of storytelling archive to connect/hear the women in her family.  37223115So today I revisited  Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories.    The two stories most relevant to my “campaign” here are “Malindy and Little Devil” and “Woman and Man Started Even.”

Both stories have black women tricking the devil.  The first story (from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) is about a little girl and revises the story of Faustus, the magician who sold his soul to the devil; the second story (from Tennessee) makes women the fallen angels but revises women’s usual partaking of the fallen apple.  I point back to my last post about Dr. Facile in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog in comparison to these actual folkways in which spirits, magic, and demons would have circulated in black communities’ orature.  Both tales are quite funny and offer completely different kinds of black female heroines.  I’m not one to turn my back on a good story with some magic and I have always loved a good story about, what my family calls, haints.  Every princess fairy tale has spirits and witchcraft, which are also always already cultural forms and stories too.  Since black orature might be the only space where black people are not THE DEMONS or DEVIL itself in such tales, seeing where black women figure in this tradition is important.

1Malindy is a little girl who loves to sing and dance: “everywhere she went, she sang about it… and she would sway this way and that, to and fro.”  The way the story is set up already makes me laugh—it just sounds like a description I have heard and a little girl who I might have met.  Well, apparently, Malindy would sway “to and fro” just a little too much and so one day she dropped her pail of milk on the ground and all over herself.  Crying and too scared to go home with no milk and a ruined dress, she sits on the fence and cries until the devil comes along, a wee little furry thing with a long tail, “no bigger than a minute.”   The devil is “just starting out with his devilment” and it’s his first case with a child so he makes a pact with Malindy: he will receive her soul when she turns 29; she will, in return, get a new pail of milk and a clean dress. The devil gives her until she is 29 years old to live and returns to collect her SOUL.   When he knocks on her door asking for her SOUL, Malindy takes off her shoe, tears off one SOLE, and gives it to him and him, not knowing any better, thinks he has the real thing.  Sometimes, to win in the end, you just need clever word-play!

“Malindy and Little Devil” dates back to the 1890s and highlights the kind of humor and love of language play that shapes how I understand African American rhetoric, language, and literacy.  I like this fusion of pleasure and politics.  There is a kind of joy in telling and hearing these stories, much like what Hamilton describes when she talks about her memories of women’s stories, both in how they sounded from women’s mouths and in the gestures that corresponded.  Joy and ongoing participation obviously do not come here from the paraphernalia/brand that you buy.  The point of such language play, however, is not merely to just be clever.  I can point to numerous examples of creative wordplay in black language, like Lil Wayne’s lyrics for instance.  Clever lyrical displays, however, without meaningful content/message mean nothing.  It’s the content of the wordplay and what you make it do that matter.  Even the meanest and evilest of things, in this case the devil, can be reduced to being “no bigger than minute,” which made me laugh when I first heard it.  Telling this kind of story that reduces even the devil to smallness is a rhetorical imagination that seems HUGE to me in the context of Post-Reconstruction, the time frame connected to this story.  And even though Malindy did a foolish thing that endangered herself, her life is not over.  She can always go back in her head, remember what happened in the past, and then re-cast that history for the present and future, even when the devil comes back.

2In “Woman and Man Started Even,” we learn two things about these two characters: “she couldn’t win over him, and he couldn’t beat her. That was the way it was. Just level.”  Well, Man just couldn’t stand this.  He couldn’t stand the idea of a woman being around that he couldn’t “whip.”   Yes, that is exactly what the story says, now if that’s not signifying on men, then I just don’t know what is!  So Man went up to God and asked for more strength so he could be better than Woman and was granted his wish.  Woman asked God to reverse this but was denied so she got highly upset.  In her rage against God, she opened herself up to the devil’s presence who she told her woes to.  The devil encouraged Woman to go back to God and ask for the “keys hanging by the left pearly gate.”  When she got the keys, she commenced to locking up all of man’s stuff and every place he liked, like the kitchen and bedroom.  Even though he was so much stronger now, he couldn’t unlock anything Woman didn’t want him to.  And because Woman refused to trade in or share her keys for some of Man’s strength, she’s the one who has the inside knowledge of everything and the real power.

Now if I can get my students to put aside their dutiful, Christian abhorrence of a story that includes the presence of the devil, then they might enjoy “Woman and Man Started Even.”  This second story still nests women with the devil and there are obviously all kinds of (subtle?) expectations about women’s chastity and virginity here (i.e., keeping everything locked up).  So the story doesn’t overturn men’s dominance but Woman here KNOWS that!  She does not believe in, value, or respect Man’s power over her and she will use them locks in every way she can.  Power is named and called out, even if it cannot be fully dismantled.  She is no victim or passive participant in an unchanging script.  There’s no reason why fairy tales and folktales can’t frame such a critical understanding of our social order, especially if black women are going to the main characters.  I find both pleasure and political power in knowing that African American folktales for children have offered such examples.

Black Girlhood Stories: Violent Histories

tiana-the-princess-and-the-frogThough the cat was let out of the bag a long time ago and many know this by now, I will do the re-cap anyway. When Disney decided to create its first black princess— the 2009 feature film with Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog— the original plan was to name her Maddy.  Black folk had a fit because that sounded way too much like Mammy. To make matters worse, “Maddy’s” original role was to be a maid to a white family.  The argument was that Disney wanted to be historically accurate for 1920s New Orleans where the job opportunities for black girls would have been solely in the role of domestic servants to whites.  Long story short, black folk slowed down some of Disney’s fantasy of animating the “post-racial” Gone With the Wind for “Maddy.”  Instead, they made 19-year old Tiana a waitress, working hard to buy her own restaurant.  In the end, we obviously still see her serving whites (under the guise of her desire to be an entrepreneur).maddy  And instead of her prince being a white European male with a penchant for Jazz, as was originally scripted, her prince is a very light-skinned, racially ambiguous, lazy, playboy who has been disinherited from what look like royal parents if he does not change his ways.

facilier_500There are are so many problems with The Princess and the Frog that they are too numerous to detail here.  What disturbs me most is Disney’s proclaimed desire to accurately portray the history of 1920s Jim Crow New Orleans by casting a black girl as a maid while having no interest in representing the historical terror of racism, white violence, or white people’s reign under Jim Crow at this time.  The only character who inflicts terror and violence is the dark-skinned, gap-toothed black voodoo man, Dr. Facilier, who releases black-shadowed demons and is later dragged to the underworld for his sins.  So in sum, The Princess and the Frog offers black girls and women very little.  Though this has not been the focus of this series of posts in my anti-princess campaign, I want to also add an important interjection: the culture that cultivates black girls to want to become princesses is equally dangerous for black boys.

We cannot ignore that, unlike every other Disney princess, Tiana must exist as a frog/animal for MOST of the story (when she first tries to kiss the prince/frog, she turns into a frog too and stays that way for most of the movie).  princess-tiana-prince-naveen-princess-frog-the-princess-and-the-frog-9987343-1280-800Tiana is literally denied a human form/humanity for most of the movie because of her connection to and curse from a black man, Dr. Facilier, making it hardly coincidental that for her to finally receive a prince, he is not black.  And while many have praised Disney for creating an interracial relationship, no other princess has been cursed by a black man and then married off into another race.  We see flashbacks of Tiana’s very loving father in the movie but he was killed in World War I so, quite literally, loving black men are merely a memory in Tiana’s life while darkness and danger are her present reality in relation to them.  Given the mainstream focus on the high rates of HIV and genital herpes amongst black women who are in relationships with black men, this Disney film seems very connected to the demonization of black heterosexual relationships and sexuality.  I am not suggesting that these statistics related to AIDs and genital herpes are not serious cause for alarm and necessary political attention for black women and that we can simply ignore these statistics because the media always represents black men as subhuman.   What Disney achieves, however, is the erasure of a whole new generation of black boys and young men who can only be cast as Tiana’s most dangerous peers.  Black men are only a memory/history of goodness; it will only be white or light-skinned men who can help and love her now.  These are dangerous, violent, white supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchal ideologies (not to mention the fact that it only took Tiana’s prince 20 minutes to forego his previous desire for multiple women— which is, perhaps, the biggest delusion of all for a young woman).

This post wants to nod to a place that overturns Disney’s usual, mathematical equation of whiteness+lightness=goodness and blackness+darkness=evil.  For that reason, I turn to Bessie Smith and the Night Riders where the terror that the book comments on is real …and is connected to the literal and symbolic originators of a real violence: white men as KKK in the Jim Crow South.KU KLUX KLAN As The Princess and the Frog shows, we are not afraid to scare children with demons, black voodoo men, or monsters, so we should  be ready to roll out the fire, witchcraft and sorcery of the KKK in U.S. history too.  Bessie Smith and the Night Riders delivers on that!  The magic and revision in this story means turning a curious, little black girl into the main character who alerts a black woman, Bessie Smith, and thereby saves a black community.   Perhaps, then, the best parts of Bessie Smith and the Night Riders are that these black women do not need men to rescue them from real-world danger at all; they recognize the ways that white men inflict terror on black women, not deliver them from it; and they are not cast as mammies/waitresses by way of calling up “history.”

So we move on now to a very real story about very real black women… a story for children that is now officially part of my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls.

Bessie-Smith-and-the-Night-Riders-Stauffacher-Sue-9780399242373

This story, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by John Holyfield, is about a little girl named Emmarene.  For Emmarene, there is one thing that will fulfill her heart’s desire: to see Bessie Smith perform.  She stands alongside other people in the community waiting for Bessie’s infamous train to ride into town.  And it is critical that this is where the story starts, right at the intersection of Jim Crow rule and place.  1Columbia Records had to make Smith a personal train car because she was not allowed in the ‘whites only’ sections when she traveled. The South Iron and Equipment Company made the car especially for Bessie, with two stories, seven staterooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom so that it could hold everyone in her show, all obviously black people who wouldn’t have the freedom to use the bathroom and eat where/when they wanted in the South without alternate living/traveling quarters. The car could also hold the tent that Bessie’s crew created so that she could perform in multiple, alternate venues right there in the open. The car was painted bright yellow with green lettering so when Bessie came to town, everyone knew it: it was the visual marker of Bessie’s presence as much as it was the visual marker of the reality of de jure segregation.

Because she can’t afford a ticket and nice concert clothes, Emmarene sneaks around the tent where Bessie is performing and peeks her head into an opening, hoping no one will notice.  2While she is sneakily listening outside, she becomes the first to notice that the KKK have arrived with the intention of hurting everyone in the tent, with the usual tactics of setting the place on fire.  Emmarene runs inside and lets Bessie know.  Bessie immediately finds out what is going on, gets alarmed, and so steps outside to confront the white men in white sheets planning to terrorize yet another group of black people with a possible cross-burning, at least.  Bessie yells at them for quite a while, threatens them, and warns they better leave.   The KKK eventually ride off and Emmarene walks away as a heroine right alongside her idol, Bessie Smith, who invites her to the front row of the show.  It may not be a “happily ever after” (racism offers no such thing) but there is a real-life happy ending. The entire community is saved and revitalized by Bessie’s courage, actions, and her music.

3 copyThis story really does almost feel like a fairy tale in its imagining of one sole black woman being able to shake off a posse of KKK riders but all records indicate that Bessie Smith did just that.  In July 1927, robed members of the KKK rode in on one of Bessie’s tent performances and began to pull up the tent’s stakes. When Bessie heard of what was happening, she confronted these white men, shaking her fist at them, cursing at them until they left, and then simply returned to her performance like nothing had just happened. In this story, it is a black woman who saves black people from white menand it is a little black girl who recognizes and alerts everyone of the danger.   The only aspect of this story that is actually fictional is the presence of the little girl.  But with this fictive insertion, we see Bessie and Emmarene as a continuum of black women who can offer the most heroic rescue of themselves and their community.

4Raising little girls to want to emulate Bessie’s actions here is a world I wouldn’t mind living in. Think back to how Tiana gets fooled by the white bankers who act as if they will let her buy a restaurant (until, of course, her new Prince intervenes.)     Does it seem like Bessie or little bitty Emmarene would have made such a misjudgment of a Jim Crow institution and the white men who run it, especially since many of these white men would have adorned themselves in white robes at night as THE MEMBERS of the Klan?  Would anyone in that tent watching Bessie perform have been that foolish about trusting white bankers in 1927?  Why would we praise a story that represents a young black woman as gullible, exploitable, and naive when her community would have given her the tools to be exactly opposite of all that as the condition of her very survival under racial apartheid?  Why would we tell children this kind of story about black people in the Jim Crow South under the ruse of creating the first black princess?  And if black men are the site of violence that must be destroyed in order to become feminine princesses, then whose femininity is this? I am not suggesting that we can shelter children from entities like Disney; even if they do not watch the movies, they will hear of them from other children and see the images/brandings everywhere.  However, we CAN ensure that children know Bessie…and Emmarene, Flossie, Queen of the Scene, and many more.  To allow children to only know princesses and mark black men as the overdetermining evil is to be participating in black children’s self-destruction and in their erasure as black men and women.

With all the real-life examples provided in our living-historical-archive of  black women who confronted the most oppressive odds in relationship to their communities and against white supremacy, why are we letting Disney tell our children that black men will curse black women and so THAT is what we need magical rescue from?  It is just silly to think we could ever trust Disney with our image and history anyway.  Audre Lorde reminded us a long time ago in her 1991 interview with Charles Rowell in Callaloo what black artists have always known (she is talking about grants and large funding institutions here): “no society is going to finance its own reorganization or demise, or contribute to a culture bent upon radical change… political structures [do not] underwrite or finance its own alteration.”   So it seems like we have no choice but look to alternative, cultural spaces for radical images of black women and men… and make sure that those are the spaces that black children SEE.

Black Girlhood Stories: Outsmarting Every Fox!

Flossie-and-the-Fox-9780803702509One of my father’s closest friends is  the owner of the first black barbershop in my Ohio hometown where I grew up.  My cousin worked there as a cashier when I was little and always took me along with her. This is when my father’s friend would always tell me that the name of his shop was his actual, full name: Poor Clark’s.  As a little girl, I thought his first name was “Poor”, pronounced Po, and that his last name was “Clark.”   This was a fabrication that Mr. Clark actually upheld until I was old enough to figure it out for myself.  When I remind him of this, he laughs and agrees that this is a good first name, proud that he concocted such a story for me.  He also told me that he was born in a place so deep back there in the backwoods of Mississippi that they had to pipe sunshine in.  I believed every word of that also and had fanciful imaginations for how one might get sunshine through a very, very long pipe.  My cousins and family told me stories like this all of the time and I believed every word.  While I was arguably a very gullible, little girl, I certainly learned that you can make language and stories twist and turn at your will.  With these stories, however, also came expectations for how to live my life and understand myself.  I was expected to question everything, use a sharp level of common sense, value quick wit in language play, maneuver the world with a critical eye, know a lie when I hear one, not be the fool who gets fooled by smooth talk, look past what someone says to see who they really are, pay close attention to what people do rather than to what they verbally profess, not believe someone just because they proclaimed themselves superior/intelligent, refuse to see myself as too small/too weak/too insignificant to handle tough situations, not back down from something that intimidated me, and realize when I am being tricked, thwarted, or messed over.  I was expected to be there for my community and to be able to know to rely on myself—my intuition, my social perceptions, and my own political awareness. I see all of this now as a kind of black literacy skills-set, a black-girl skills-set even, a worthy one that I will always be honing.  This is why my favorite book has always been Flossie and the Fox.  Though this isn’t the book that officially kicked off my anti-princess campaign on this blog, it is THE book that changed my relationship to children’s literature and to the alternate universe it can offer for and about black children. The book is simply brilliant for the ways in which it not only revises the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, but destroys it and makes it unutterable for little black girls.

Published in 1986 by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, McKissack’s tale represents a story that was told to her by her grandfather while sitting on the front porch with her family during hot summer evenings in the South. This story does not begin with: Once upon a time.  Instead, Grandfather would open with a question: “Did I ever tell you about the time…”   Little black girls are active participants here as they become the both the moral and the message. Now this is a story you just have to hear.

Flossie iiFlossie Finley is a little girl from Tennessee who rushes to her grandmother’s side when she is called.  Big Mama is busy sorting peaches so Little Flossie must take a basket of fresh eggs over to Miz Viola because a sly fox has been scaring the hens.  Flossie tells Big Mama that she “disremembers” ever seeing a fox but Big Mama, after stopping to think for a minute, assures her this: “Chile, a fox be just a fox” and simply tells her to watch the eggs closely.  With that advice, Flossie is on her way to Miz  Viola, walking through the woods instead of using the road to stay cooler.  Sure enough, Flossie runs into the fox who asks her what her name is.  Just as polite as can be, Flossie gives the fox her name and tells him she doesn’t know his name either.  When he answers that he is Fox, Flossie lets him know she doesn’t believe him and soon after, he commences to prove his fox-ness to her.  And, from there, Flossie just shows her shine.  After all, a fox be just a fox.  That’s not something she can’t handle.

Fox is just beside himself that a little girl like Flossie doesn’t know who he is and is not scared of him and he tells her as much.  Flossie’s answer is classic: “you sho’ think a heap of yo’self” and then she just skips right along.  When she stops to rest by a tree, Fox comes along to offer her his proof: “I have thick, luxurious fur.”  Flossie iiiFlossie rubs on his fur and tells him flat-out: “feels like rabbit fur to me” and then accuses fox of trying to fool her. Fox is ticked off now and insists that she needs to recognize his fox-status and act accordingly.  It doesn’t work though.  “Unless you can show you a fox, I’ll not accord you nothing!”  and with that, Flossie gets at him, once again, and then skips along.

Flossie is thirsty now and so she stops to get some water at the brook. Fox comes out to her and asks her to notice his pointed nose and warns that this fact should be proof enough for her.  The dialogue here is just beautiful.

Flossie: Come to think of it, rats got a long pointed nose (then she snaps her fingers). That’s it! You a rat trying to pass yo’self off as a fox.

Fox: I beg your pardon.

Flossie: You can beg all you wanna.  That still don’t make you no fox.

Next in her travels, Flossie meets up with a tabby cat who she enlists in her discussion.  Fox asks Cat to speak up and assure Flossie that he is a fox.  Cat obliges by pointing out the details of Fox’s claws and yellow eyes. This does not deter Flossie either who pretends to be deep in thought and then says: “All due respect, Miz Cat, but both y’all got sharp claws and yellow eyes.  So… that don’t prove nothing ‘cep’n both y’all be cats.”  Fox now starts to plead about “this horrible situation” and again tries to offer her proof: this time, it is his bushy tail that he describes.  Not missing a beat, Flossie reminds him that squirrels have the same kind of tail.  When Fox offers his promise to Flossie that he is a fox, Flossie just lets him know that his promise won’t do.

FlossieBy this point in the story, Flossie can see Miz Viola’s house at the McCutchin place in the distance so she allows Fox one more chance.  He offers the evidence of his sharp teeth and ability to run exceedingly fast.”  Again, the dialogue is perfect:

Flossie: You know, it don’t make much difference what I think anymore.

Fox: What? Why?

Flossie: Cause there’s one of Mr. J.W. McCutchin’s hounds behind you.  He’s got sharp teeth and can run fast too. And, by the way, that hounds looking’, it’s all over for you!

The story ends with the fox running for his life and Flossie looking out at us, every egg in tow, with the biggest most beautiful smile, letting us know that she knew he was Fox all along.

~

Like I said, this was just not a story I could really summarize and my telling does the book very little justice here.  The story is just too perfect.  This is no Little Red Riding Hood: this is not a girl who is given one path/dictate that she must follow and then punished brutally for not following it, too naive and unaware to handle alternate worlds, ideas, and independence.  There is no woodsman to come and save the day.  Flossie is never even given a path, only a destination in relation to a much larger community than the nuclear family.  Like Stevie Wonder tells it, when you’re movin’ in the positive, the destination is the brightest star.  Flossie is trusted to get to the destination and is encouraged to believe in her ability to get there.  After all, Big Mama tells her before she even leaves that a fox ain’t all that. The Fox— i.e., the big, bad world— is never made bigger than Flossie and she never treats it as such.  She never once co-signs the Fox’s overdetermined beliefs in his own superiority and power and lets him know it at each step of the way. And she doesn’t need someone to come save her because she can save herself— with her sharp wit, intelligence, and ability to see things exactly as they are, knowing exactly who she is and where she is.  She is still innocent and pure in the way she interacts with the creatures on her travels but she is not so gullible and pathetic that she loses the ability to recognize a predator and handle him.  Not even the fox’s, lofty, high-faluting language is given any kind of social marker of intelligence, educated status, worth, or superiority.

I would go so far as to say that for a black girlchild, the knowledge/talent/wisdom that Flossie has are a life-and-death matter in a world dictated by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.  You will HAVE to be creative on that kind of path because the walkway will never be clear-cut.  The fact that a black grandfather would tell his grandchildren this story on the front porch speaks volumes to a black community’s full awareness of this kind of life-and-death matter and the ability to present it to children, not in self-defeating ways, but in life-affirming ways.  This grandfather knows that them silly princess fairy tales are not for his Flossie-girlchildren and he gives them something even BETTER from his own mouth and from his own word! Like I have kept saying here in this anti-princess campaign, we have always had alternatives.  And we have always had counter-rhetorical styles and counter-epistemologies that offer girls a role and vision of themselves beyond the exaltation of passivity, male dominance, and white femininity.

Black Girlhood Stories: “Now Sheba Sings the Song”

Hope-Springs_movie-poster-1-450x250As I expected, a few friends are already disturbed by my last critique of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  I am sympathetic to and in agreement with, of course, their desire to surround their children with images of black beauty. I will just say here though that I am as serious as a heart attack about holding black men accountable for their actions and relentlessly critiquing female passivity (the book relinquishes white aesthetic standards of beauty but keeps white femininity in tact in other ways).  This might seem tangential, but stay with me here: last night I watched “Hope Springs” and I only became more emphatic.  The movie, featuring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a suburban, middle class married couple of 31 years, revolves around a week-long therapy retreat for the couple who need to save their marriage (this movie seemingly promised to make mainstream cinema/Hollywood relevant to baby boomers).  I was stunned by how problematic the movie was.  I expected bourgeois conceptualizations of therapy but not the celebration of abuse that the movie upholds.  Streep plays a passive and very nice white wife while Jones plays a mean, bitter, and neglectful white husband who, even at one point, sends Streep’s character crying out the room as she accuses him of bullying her.  The couple sleeps in separate bedrooms and haven’t been sexually intimate for five years.  At the end of the movie, when we no longer see them connected to marriage therapy, the couple is finally intimate again and all is back to normal.  Streep’s character, however, is still passive, submissive, nice, and quiet; Jones’s character is still aggressive and detached, but newly sexually aroused.  The gender roles are not my only problem with this movie: my problem is in the way their identity as a successful, suburban white couple rests on their ability to still “mate” after child-raising.  Herein lies the crux of why these dominant narratives do not apply to black families and to black women in particular.  Though this couple can obviously no longer reproduce children, the symbolic value of their sexuality as a good white family who have reproduced the good, white nation must be re-generated, almost as a way to re-identify older white middle class couples with their former value as young, fertile reproducers.  One sexual act is all it took in this movie to finally rekindle the flame of the marriage, even though the wife’s personality and voice are completely subsumed. The price that white middle class women must pay to represent this exalted reproductive role is such submissiveness and subservience.  If you think that this is an old school argument no longer viable within the supposed enlightenment (and I DO mean lightness and enlightened here as puns) of postmodernism and 21st century new wave feminisms, then just watch the movie.  I’m not suggesting that all white couples’ lives look this way (either in the negative aspects or the positive aspects); nor am I suggesting that Streep’s character represents a respect for white women.   I am hardly envious or impressed with the way that Streep’s character must forego any complaints of her treatment once she receives her husband’s sexual attention.  I don’t covet that cultural representation.  What I am questioning here is the cultural apparatus that centers such (varied but ideologically consistent) symbols of white family life/reproduction.

Black women’s reproduction simply does not have this value.  Black women can take care of white babies and serve white institutions in all other kinds of way, but they do not symbolize the ability to reproduce the nation’s optimal mode of being.  To suggest otherwise is to offer a delusion, not a counter-narrative. You need only think about the mourning that we are still witnessing with the death of the 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in comparison to the national response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and countless other black children in the recent past, or to our now 50-year anniversary of the murder of 4 Little Girls preparing for Sunday school.  Clearly, only certain women have the capacity to reproduce the white family/nation that is valued most.  Some middle class, black or brown, heterosexual women may now have the option of eclipsing their person under a man/hearth/nation like Streep’s character did, but this won’t make them the privileged site of the nation’s reproduction (yes, those married to wealthy, white men might get closer to this privileged site but their status will come from training/rewarding their light-skinned children to pass).  You can’t simply re-cast the story with new actresses, with black or brown women as the new queens of the home/hearth/nation and think we are getting something new; it is still the same, white storyline.

ShebaSo when I reject female passivity, it is these symbols that I am describing in “Hope Springs” that I am rejecting.  To see a text that I think challenges Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters in interesting ways, I turn to Now Sheba Sings the Song.  This book  isn’t really read by young audiences, though it was originally intended for young audiences given that Dial Books published it. The book was published in 1987 within a context similar to that in which Steptoe did Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  And since this post started with an adult movie, I am including a discussion of an adult book (initially cast for young readers) as part of my anti-princess campaign.

~

Soul Looks Back In Wonder.      I Saw Your Face.      Jambo Means Hello.     Moja Means One.   Daydreamers.    The World of Black History.    To Be A Slave.     Zamani Goes to Market.     Something on My Mind.   These are all children’s texts illustrated by Tom Feelings, more famously known for his word-less illustrated narrative about slavery, The Middle Passage.  The success of these children’s texts are what gave Feelings a home with Dial Books and the possibility to publish Now Sheba Sings the Song, a book of illustrations by Feelings with an accompanying poem by Maya Angelou.  Though the text departs significantly from children’s literature (there are only a few images of little girls in the book), it offers a revision of queendom/hearth/nation.

FeelingsThe book is a collection of drawings of black women that Feelings did in the course of 25 years, spanning the full range of the African Diaspora in all kinds of settings.  The drawings were intentionally done in flowing black line and sepia tone, thus attempting to connect tone and line so that each drawing/woman could communicate with the larger set/group.  Feelings tried to capture his awe of black women whose faces so clearly indicated painful and dehumanizing experiences but that didn’t, at the same time, become negative visual carriers with lines/shapes that removed openness and wonder.  He kept all of these drawings at his side for those 25 years, feeling like they had formed a collective storyline, and then asked Maya Angelou to write a poem for all of them giving her free rein to do what she liked, wherever the artwork took her.  As Feelings attests, Angelou took each drawing— all 80 — and placed each one of the drawings on every surface of her home.  Feelings Portrait copyAngelou then sat, walked amongst, lived with the 80 drawings for six months, resulting in the final poem, “Now Sheba Sings the Song,” also the title of the book (the 73 lines of the poem are spread across the 55 pages of the book, making it look like the kind of illustrated text that you get for children).

Angelou’s choice of title is obviously striking… Now Sheba Sings the Song.  She is referencing the Queen of Sheba who has been given numerous names in many cultures’ “book of life”: the Holy Bible, the Holy Quran, Kabbalistic treatises, medieval Christian mystical works, etc.  Born in the 10th century BC  (Sheba was not her name but the name of the vast empire she reigned over), her empire included what is now known as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen; many argue that her rule extended into Egypt, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Kenya. As could only be the logic under white supremacy, there has been considerable doubt and questioning of the fact that she was black (of course, she would not have called herself Black or African in our contemporary, political terms, but she surely wouldn’t have ever called herself white either!) Her relationship with the then King of Israel, Solomon, resulted in a son and a long chain of rulers of Ethiopia.  The word, Song, in Angelou’s title obviously references the Song of Solomon in the bible, “The Song of Songs,” that features a love story that has been debated as an allegory of God’s love for people, divine love within the human heart, and/or the mystical quality of romantic love and sensuality; even more debates ensue around the possibility that the nameless woman in the Song of Solomon is the Queen of Sheba (with the man being King Solomon).  The fusion of Feelings’s drawings and Angelou’s poem puts these questions and issues to rest because, Now Sheba Sings the Song and clarity is re-instilled.  In this revision of Sheba’s song/queendom, it is the beauty of black women that constructs a powerful lineage system and not: the exclusivity of nobility, the presence of a man who chooses you and determines your only value, a social system based on hierarchy (everyone cannot be a queen or rule in a monarchical system), the heterosexism where women are kept/pursued/humanized solely for their reproduction of the kingdom/nation, the performance of femininity for the benefit of male provider-ship/attention, the relegation of black women to the bottom of the social system so everyone else can stay at top. Indeed, Sheba now sings a new song.

Perhaps, it is Feelings’s final thoughts on this collection of sketches that weighs in most heavily for my anti-princess campaign.  These drawings were done when he traveled outside of the United States, especially Africa, where Feelings thought he could finally see and, thus, draw the beauty in black women.  And he was very serious about re-creating black visual images, given the context of minstrelsy and other forms of visual colonization on black life (see the video from Camille Yarborough’s Ancestor House below where she and her guests discuss Feelings’s work in this regard.)  However, he realized that America had only clouded his experience because he really needn’t have looked further than his own mother’s and grandmother’s eyes.  That’s the main lesson here, coming from both Feelings’s artistic process and Angelou’s naming of this poem/book: if you want to find beauty and majesty in black women’s queen-liness, so to speak, you don’t need to concoct stories about docile heirs to or recipients of a man’s throne.  You need look no further than the everyday women in front of you who, despite the pain and dehumanization they have experienced and carry on their faces, are still beautifully open to joy and wonder in the experiences of being black women.

Black Girlhood Stories: On Inherited Kingdoms

250px-Mufaros_daughters_coverIn keeping with my self-proclaimed anti-princess campaign for young black women in my rhetoric class this spring, I decided to look more closely at the 1987 text, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  Many of us, of course, have known this book for many years now.  It was even featured on Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton; Phylicia Rashad did the read aloud. The book is also often marked as the African version of Cinderella.  The story is based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century that the author and illustrator, John Steptoe, researched and chronicled with the most stunningly beautiful illustrations.

mufaros-beautiful-daughtersIn the story, Mufaro (“happy man”), a distinguished elder of a village in Zimbabwe has two beautiful daughters, Manyara (“ashamed”) and Nyasha (“mercy”).  The king has asked all “worthy” and “beautiful” daughters to be sent to him in the city and so, of course, Mufaro wants to send both Manyara and Nyasha, unable to choose just one.  Manyara is mean and selfish and so leaves early so she can beat Nyasha there. On the way, Manyara encounters various spirits/animals/people who she treats very cruelly; she rudely dismisses each since her sole focus is on reaching the kingdom and securing her place there.  Meanwhile, Nyasha leaves later and encounters these same spirits and is very kind and giving to each: she offers each comfort, a listening ear, and her own belongings.  In the end, we find out that each spirit was actually a manifestation of the king and because he sees and experiences firsthand just how loving Nyasha is, he chooses her and dismisses the mean and self-centered Manyara. The book ends with Mufaro equally proud of both daughters: Nyasha as the new queen; Manyara as the queen’s servant.  There is no absentee or neglectful father in this tale; there is no older woman/stepmother who competes with the beauty of a young innocent girl-child with her spoiled daughters as proxy.  This is no Cinderella tale; it teaches morals and values completely differently.

At this point, we can empirically show that it has been primarily black authors who have represented black girls in children’s literature in life-affirming ways (see this article by Roger Clark, Rachel Lennon, and Leanna Morris).  However, this book/story doesn’t fully disrupt and challenge female subservience and patriarchy since, in the end, the good girl gets chosen by the king.  mufaros_daughters_3I appreciate the way that the young king can manifest himself as a hungry child, as a wise older woman with worldly advice, and as a benign garden snake. The king is also not looking for beauty and innocence; but beauty and worth, or, rather worth as beauty.  He must also ask Nyasha for her hand in marriage (not her father) and articulates what makes her beautiful (her compassion and generosity.) Nyasha never gets all weak in the knees with the Western construct of love-at-first-sight and she never appears so desperate or exasperated that the king chooses her. I appreciate these ideological departures from Western fairy tales.  However, we never see whether or not the King has any of these qualities that Nyasha has; he never has to prove himself/his worth, only the girls do.  Nothing is ever demanded or expected of him; all he has to do is exist.  His worth is never in question since, presumably, his kingdom/manhood IS the worth, making him the only character in the story with supernatural powers even. The qualities of goodness and niceness only seem to be expected of girls, a fait accompli many of my female students with brothers will certainly recognize.  This expectation to be good, nice girls simply won’t fare women well and is certainly a stunning mismatch to the black women’s history that we will be looking at throughout the semester.

tumblr_mczg0fZkEo1r84qxdo1_1280I am still contemplating whether I will use this book in my classes as part of my anti-princess campaign.  I have never found the original recording of this oral tale that the book is based on, so I wonder if that story’s recording got revised based on the lens of dominant Western European notions of monarchy and white femininity rather than early 19th century Zimbabwe. The visual images are just so stunning, however, that it is hard for me to resist this book. I myself own multiple copies of this book and a puzzle where you can piece together Nyasha’s beautiful face.  I just can’t resist the imagery. If I do use the book, we will need to ask more questions here than the original set of questions I had in mind (questions #2 and #4 have now been added):

  1. What kind of world(s) do this story create for black girls and why? 
  2. How are black boys and men depicted in this story?  Are they central, peripheral, and/or deeply connected— how and why?  What power(s) do they wield?
  3. What are these stories countering in the Disney empire? How? And what do these stories create instead,  for black girls especially?
  4. What do the visual images of black girls in this book do to and for them?

Fall-leaves-007-450x337I do want my students to see and experience the radical practice of centering the visual beauty of two pretty little black girls in cornrows.  I, however, also want them to deconstruct the king’s power to choose and define which women are best; to expect compassion and love but show no evidence of providing it.  For some, my readings of children’s literature might seem a little bit over-the-top while others will surely resist my criticism of such a beloved tale.  But, honestly, women need not look far within their own friend-networks (or within themselves) to find a heterosexual woman who is supporting a man who offers very little emotional support in return, or who is accepting as her fate all manner of abuse and neglect simply to have a man/provider, or who is directing her very self-worth according to men’s attention and desires, or who is shaping her rhetoric according to the male personae in power.  These fairy tales are not mere fiction; they are BOTH thermometers and thermostats of a social ordering. We need only point back to Karen Rowe’s canonical 1979 work, “Feminism and Fairy Tales” (see the journal, Women’s Studies 6.3) where she argues that these stories portray romanticizations of marriage where the heroine is rescued externally, lives under the care of fathers and princes, and gets restricted to homelife.  For Rowe, real-world passivity, dependency, and self‐sacrifice are romanticized virtues learned early by women because these are the dominant scripts of the social order. And by women here, we should say white, bourgeois women and all their proxies. Unfortunately, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters really doesn’t make a radical departure from this script; it only ethnicizes it.

Visit any pre-K or kindergarten classroom and you will see that young children often see and act on the world through exactly the kind of problematic, racialized+gendered scripts I am talking about here.  These are not the kind of scripts that have ever benefitted black girls.  Disney today merely exploits these stories for capitalist gain; it did not invent them.  The inclusion of black girls as princesses, while leaving the main story of male dominance fully in tact, is simply not radical or reflective enough of the socially transformative work of the black female rhetors we will be studying this semester.