Disney’s 1989 animated interpretation of The Little Mermaid brought the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale alive through Ariel with her manufactured white beauty that has become the trademark for mermaid images. But one book made me realize mermaids can be black and any other complexion our imaginations want us to see.
It was Sukey and the Mermaid written by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Sukey is forced to work on the farm by her stepfather, but she befriends a black mermaid, Mama Jo, who gives her hope her life can be better. I loved the story, reread the book over and over. The mermaid in this story was black and older with long silvery strands and an undersea attire that looked like armor made of gold. Ariel’s juvenescence may have enhanced her magic, but Mama Jo possessed a more sage magic, a majestic presence.
Black mermaids conquered conversation on July 3 at the news of Halle Bailey from Chloe x Halle and Freeform’s Grown-ish nabbing the part of Ariel in the Disney live action remake. The four-day Fourth of July weekend prolonged the uproar on social media where supporters who applauded a black Ariel clashed with those who slammed a black Ariel with the argument she can only be white due to the author’s Danish roots.
Since I’ve been working on a young adult novel about black girls cosplaying as nightclub mermaids, I’ve noticed Disney’s imagery has even warped the marketplace for mermaid-centric merchandise, further emphasizing these mythical creatures can only be accepted as white.
Sukey and the Mermaid fell into my hands after my Ariel doll disappeared. Ariel, with her ketchup red hair and shimmery purple bra and green fin, was found under the Christmas tree when I was five-years-old. I would stick her under the faucet for her to swim in the ocean I created in the sink, put her beside my head at night in bed. Then she went missing.
Years later, I learned Ariel was tossed in the trash. My mother despised the attention the only white doll she would ever buy me received over my black dolls. The black doll experiment conducted by psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark in the 1940s found the participating black children preferred white dolls and used more positive adjectives to describe them. This informed how my mother would raise my sister and me with only black dolls since she knew a time when she could only get white dolls.
But she caved with Ariel, since I was obsessed with that mermaid. Ariel topped two birthday cakes in a row and became an epic Halloween costume complete with the shimmery green fin. Eventually Ariel was replaced by book mermaid Mama Jo and my Disney obsession moved on to brown-skinned Jasmine in Aladdin.
The controversy around Halle’s casting will hopefully die down as we accept a new image of a mermaid who could be reflected in more stories, products, and images for girls and women of various complexions.