Cue hot mermaid summer with classic fairy tale returning as live-action Disney remake
With The Little Mermaid debuting this weekend, you know the obsession over merfolks will dominate the culture for the rest of the year, right?
Like most toddler girls, I was enthralled with Disney’s 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid, the most famous fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen. Growing up in the coastal neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago, I imagined myself as a mermaid far too many times with beaches in walking distance.
But as much as I wanted to be Ariel, she didn’t look like me. She had long ketchup-red hair and over-animated blue eyes, and while under the sea she was just a mermaid, on land she was a young White woman.
This led to my parents looking high and low for Black mermaids. The search was fruitful with Sukey and the Mermaid. The 1992 book featured the first time I saw a Black mermaid.
The story is by children’s author Robert D. San Souci, who was known for bringing folktales to life. The book is beautifully illustrated by Brian Pinkney. In the story, a girl named Sukey has to do the back-breaking work on her family’s farm all day. Her stepfather is a “bossy, do-nothing” man, and her mother acts oblivious to Sukey’s suffering.
One day, Sukey seeks refuge by the sea. After singing a song about what she thought was a fictional mermaid, she realizes she summoned Mama Jo, a “beautiful, brown-skinned, black-eyed mermaid” adorned in gold jewelry along her seaweed green hair. Mama Jo notices Sukey’s sadness and offers to bring her undersea. Nobody is suffering there (except for Ariel, but that’s another story). So Sukey must decide if she wants to stay on land with her abusive family or find peace beneath the surface.
At the end, the author’s note reads that the folktale came from a recording called “The Mermaid” in Elsie Clews Parsons’ Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina published in 1923 by the American Folklore Society. “It is one of the relatively few authenticated African-American folktales involving mermaids,” the note reads.
As you can tell, I have a deep interest in merfolk culture, particularly when it relates to the African diaspora. When Disney first announced Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle fame would step into the fin of Ariel for the live-action film of The Little Mermaid, there was uproar because she was Black. At the time, I wrote a blog post about how the Disney film unintentionally perpetuated a White mermaid image that some people do not want to let go of, or acknowledge that communities around the world have similar legends.
The story was written by a Danish author, so the main character is presumably Danish, but it’s also a universal story that features the imaginary half-person, half-fish creatures who swim across the globe. Whether you like mermaids or not, the fact that this fairy tale has resonated for almost 200 years for generations is an extraordinary power for a story.