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.


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: “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).