The Stories We Tell Our Children

Our dear friends, The Ritters, are hopefully sleeping off their transatlantic flight and getting settled in to their European-home base.  So, I’ve offered to fill in for them today to give them a chance to catch their breath.

Today, I’m going to tell you a little story, one I hope you’ll share with your sons and daughters.  It’s a tale of wonder about royalty and honor, the pain of betrayal, travel to distant lands and adventure on a little planet called Earth, swimming in the astrosea of the Milky Way…

Have I got you going yet?  Do you miss ramp ups like that?  Lately, it seems like we’ve traded in a lot of our “Once Upon a Times” for stories that seem hell bent on replicating the world we see around us everyday.  One thing I really loved about Disney movies as a child was the way that they seemed to transport me to another land where anything was possible.  I grew up as a black girl in America, so I knew not to expect to see black people in these motion picture stories.  Fairy tales were written for white people, but a girl could still dream of being a princess, right?

Then Disney started adding a little color to a few of their princesses like Jazmine in Aladdin (1992) which was interesting but I shrugged my shoulders and kept on about life.  Then came The Lion King (1994) which I loved musically but really got confused when classmates seemed to be excited about this being the first black Disney animated movie.  I’d tell them, The Lion King is not a black movie and you’d think I had shot their dog the way their faces would fall.  It was a movie full of animals set in Africa, but there wasn’t a single “black” person in that movie.

In 1995, on the day I turned 15, Disney came out with Pocahontas and that was the day I began boycotting Disney movies.  I’m not sure what I expected of Disney at that point in my life but it was much more than what they put on the screen with that movie.  I was disappointed by what felt like an unsophisticated caricature of a woman who was an important part of American history, not just a fictive character.  I did watch Mulan in 1998, but kind of shrugged it off too because while it did address gender roles and the awful limitations that we place on our girls and by extension, women in society, I was hungry to see more.  I figured that maybe I had outgrown Disney and I should not look to them to entertain me anymore.  At least not when it came to animated princesses.

Fast forward to 2009, for YEARS I had heard that Disney was going to FINALLY have a black princess and that she was going to be American!  Then I started hearing that rather than tell a new American story, they were going to redue The Princess and the Frog, which has never been a favorite story of mine, by the way.  I saw the previews for that movie and it absolutely broke my heart.  It took me four years before I could bring myself to rent it and watch it because I felt like I needed to do it.  I love New Orleans, I turned 17 in that city, the food, the culture, the music, whenever I’m there, I feel at home.  What that movie did was no credit to New Orleans in my opinion other than, it was the setting that was chosen for the debut of Disney’s first black princess story.

So, I ask myself, with all the resources at their disposal, why did the writing staff feel that was the best story to tell?  Were they not aware of the stories of black royals, real and fictive, that they could have drawn inspiration from?  Mufarro’s Beautiful Daughters, Aida, Sukey and the Mermaid, The Orphan Boy are WONDERFUL books that could have been brought to the big screen.  If you needed real life examples of royals there’s Sara Forbes Bonetta Davies or Princess Angela of Liechtenstein or Princess Keisha Omilana of Nigeria or Countess Mary Von Habsburg of Austria or Baroness Cecile de Massy of Monaco And of course they could have picked any number of Beverly Jenkins’ novels and developed countless screenplays telling stories of black soldiers, journalists, adventurers, teachers who pioneered the West.  These stories are real and they are out there, so why don’t they get picked up and made into Disney movies?

I’m grateful that my parents encouraged me to read and to write so that I could craft images of black people like me who could rise to greatness from all kinds of backgrounds.  I realized as I grew into adulthood that not everyone had that influence in their lives.  Having that is so important because it taught me to dream and to reach, never being satisfied with what others think are the limits of my abilities.

In my child’s heart, I still hold out hope that one day, the story telling engines of the world like Disney will get it. That they’ll begin to hire the kinds of people who will turn them onto these rich stories that could not only entertain, but also educate a world desperately in need of a way to see the things that bind us together as brothers and sisters rather than the differences of culture and physical appearances.

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