Though 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). 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.
There 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). Tiana 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. 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. Columbia 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. While 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.
This 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 men… and 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.
Raising 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.