In 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.
In 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. I 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.
I 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):
- What kind of world(s) do this story create for black girls and why?
- 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?
- What are these stories countering in the Disney empire? How? And what do these stories create instead, for black girls especially?
- What do the visual images of black girls in this book do to and for them?
I 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.