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.

Black Girlhood Stories: “Queen of the Scene”

queen-scene-book-cd-latifah-hardcover-cover-artLast year, I realized something on a level I had not fully problematized before: my black female students want to be princesses.

This revelation came very early in the semester last spring in my black women’s rhetoric class. We were reading excerpts from bell hooks’s Sisters of the Yam (see Sariane Leigh’s inspiring discussion of the personal impact of this text) and somewhere in a sentence that wasn’t even the focus of the piece, hooks criticizes princess-fairy-tales, the kind of indoctrination of female subordination that Disney (and the media) sustain. The sentence was, for me, so obvious so I really didn’t flinch when I read it but that is what many of my students focused in on.  They disagreed with hooks because, yes, they want to be princesses and find a rich, wealthy prince to sweep them off of their feet and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I was stunned, though I should not have been.  I have come to expect this sentiment from what I would call my domesticated female students, which often includes women of color, especially lighter-skinned women who often identify (or want to) as white [and, for some reason, flipping or twirling one’s straight(ened) hair seems to be a kinesthetic hallmark]: women who marry right out of college at 21 or 22, plan a big wedding with 22 bridesmaids, buy as big of a home as possible with a 2-to-3-car garage, work until they have children which is when their bread-winning husband takes over finances (and pretty much all decision-making).  There are variations of this but this is still the main storyline.  Many of the women on this chosen path love Disney and/or everything pink and princess-y and argue for it quite vociferously in my classes.  This little, neat, domestic map often gets unmapped fairly quickly and/or “messily” though in real life because it requires women’s subservience and, thus, manifests divorce, infidelity, financial trouble, resentment, intellectual/general boredom, or general unhappiness, part of what hooks, in fact, argues in her Love Trilogy.  However, the women desperately clinging to their prince-charming fairy tale last spring were young, conscious black women on the way to becoming artists, lawyers, doctors, professors, organizers, researchers, writers, and activists (none of whom, by the way, had boyfriends or even patience for the young black men they met in college).  It’s not like my college days weren’t filled with young black women who were looking for Prince Charming.  I was perplexed, even then, that black women who have become some of the nation’s top surgeons, CEOs, CFOs, and attorneys would only date men in college who looked as if they would be professional athletes or movie stars— Prince Charming on a whole other nightmarish level.  Yet and still, these women didn’t explicitly and publicly call themselves aspiring princesses back then.  I think it just wasn’t the discursive currency like in today’s media campaigns under Disney/Basketball Wives/Real Housewives.  Given the current and future successes and high drive of the black women in my classes that I am describing, their embrace of patriarchy is a contradiction since they are not likely to subsume their minds, time, and desires according to a man’s dictates and ego.  I think they simply need to see and hear an alternative model, one that matches the patriarchy they are not inscribing anyway.

So, at some point this spring 2013 semester and thereafter, on at least one day in the semester, I am planning to present an anti-princess campaign for young black women and I am going to do that with African American children’s literature, the kind of visual texts that should be part of every black girl’s life as an alternative to the Media Empire of White Femininity.  I am not suggesting that non-black women do not need to rupture patriarchy under the Disney empire and, thereby, Western culture.  However, I am not going to subsume the supra-alienation that brown and darker-brown-skinned women experience in the white liberalist, color-blind mantra of helping “all girls.”  To riff of Fanon, we start at the bottom and, thereby, liberate the whole.  I am intentionally turning to this space of children’s literature rather than popular culture where I don’t think we can expect media moguls like Beyonce to ever fully (or consistently) depart from the gendered prescriptions that a capitalist system pays her for.  I won’t assume that the young black women in my classes had access to these stories as children either… but it’s not too late.  The point will be to ask students:

  • What kind of world(s) do these stories, most often written by black women, create for black girls and why?  
  • What are these stories countering in the Disney empire? How? And what do these stories create instead,  for black girls especially?

I have many books in mind and I will be building that library for the rest of this month as I finalize the syllabus for this class that first meets January 24. (I will discuss many of these books here and will use this space to think aloud for this part of this course, so to speak.)

image2073932j The first book in my arsenal is Queen Latifah’s Queen of the Scene.  I am often (well, always) confused by the kind of media portrayals Dana Owens takes on but when she is really doing it up as “Queen La,” I can be down with her.  Despite her political choices in Hollywood roles, I really like this book and all of what it entails: Queen Latifah’s black girl rhyme; Frank Morrison’s 21st century art that seems to revive Ernie Barnes’s “Sugar Shack” (the infamous painting on “Good Times”); and the focus on a little black girl who is Queen (NOT princess) because she can hop scotch, jump double dutch, run, play handball/ stickball/ basketball/ tennis/ soccer, make sandcastles, swing high, walk tall.  Here are my favorites lines:

You don’t want to race me–

I’m fast as spinning dice

if it looks like I’m just catching up

I really passed you twice.

The-Games-Black-Girls-PlayI am especially drawn to this book given how many parents and teachers, mostly white and/or middle class minorities, have denounced the book because the little girl at the center of the story is too confident, claiming the book to be unrealistic and dangerous for girls.  I can’t imagine such a thing as being too confident as a black girl; it also becomes revealing to call this book unrealistic while staying silent on the cultural embrace of Disney princesses, as if THAT is realistic.  Most importantly, the book works, rhetorically and stylistically, as black-girl-speak, in the sense of the words and rhyming that you hear in double dutch games and black girls’ songs/games like Kyra Gaunt has so brilliantly discussed in her book, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop.

This rhetoric and style are also linked to what Daryl Cumber Dance calls the “baad-women,” the female counterparts to the more commonly known African American male folk-heroes such as Shine, Stagolee, and John Henry.  The purpose of these women’s discourse is to show superhuman exploits which are, basically, the makings of an imagination and creativity you will surely need in white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal contexts.  These baad-women quite willfully show the ways that they succeed at exactly those goals (both sacred and very secular) imagined to be outside of what women can do and, in the case of Latifah’s Queen of the Scene, what blackgirls can do.  Courageous, aggressive, and guile, it seems like only their words and quick wit can keep up with them given the ways that they rhyme, signify, and sass (a word, which, as Dance shows, is a West African derivation.)  Although white male or female, black male, and other unsympathetic women of color do not often understand or approve, the stories and discursive styles of baad-women provide immense pleasure and vision to black female audiences.

When I have students look at the black girl story of Queen of the Scene, I will ask them to read the words and look at the visual images of black girlhood through the lens that Gaunt offers about the games black girls play and the baad-women traditions that Dance has chronicled.    Most importantly, I want to look at the ways that, in this case, African American “folkore/orature” has long provided alternative identities and rhetorics to the gendered hierarchies and institutions that inscribe us: from the plantations under slavery/JimCrow to the indoctrination under Disney.  Baad-women always offer us an alternative world(view).