"Why Make Ariel Black When Black People Can't Swim?" (A Sidebar on "Disney's New Little Mermaid")

Note: This is a sidebar for the main post announcing Disney's casting of Halle Bailey as the new Little Mermaid, Ariel, for the upcoming live-action feature film. If you found this first, you may also wish to read the main post HERE.

Among the varied protests tagged with #NotMyAriel on social media this phrase kept popping up:
"How are Disney gonna make Ariel black when black people cant even swim?"
Wait. What?!

Knowing that pretty much every nation with a coastline has mermaid tales and lore, not to mention mer-deities (see resources at the end of the main post to easily find these tales - particularly black mermaid tales), this notion was extremely odd to be seeing touted as if it were "fact". It took less than a few minutes of research to discover the shameful reason this stereotype exists, and that it has an aspect of truth, though it's not due to lack of ability (see black Olympian, Cullen Jones, who is disproving this long-held belief) or that "black people can't float", are "scared of water" or "don't want to get their hair wet". It's historical and caused by white people. (See this clip from an HBO special on the subject.)

A Facebook poster, Angelica Sampson, did a nice job of summarizing the issue.
"...black people were systematically denied the opportunity to learn to swim for centuries. It started in the slavery era, since a slave who could swim would find it easier to escape. After emancipation, black people were segregated from public pools and housing discrimination prevented them from living in homes or communities with pools—and such segregation was violently enforced by some white people. Even white-centered beauty standards that prompted black women to chemically straighten their hair affected black women learning to swim. Generations of parents were unable to teach their children to swim because they never learned themselves due to racism in America."
Even today (in 2019), black children (and not just African American) are statistically more in danger from drowning than their white friends for lack of being taught or opportunity to learn. (See Most Black Kids Can't Swim, And Segregation Is To Blame for a detailed and statistical study on the subject.)
Disneys Fantasia 1940- Pastoral Symphony
(click to view the original, uncensored version
next to the censored one.
"Sunflower" appears a number of times)
The main purpose of the post was actually to point out the problems with the "black folks need representation" statement. Sampson explained why merely pointing out that representation is important doesn't paint the full picture, and, in fact, sanitizes the reality of what black girls have been subjected to in history. (quote from Upworthy) The issue of swimming and water safety is symptomatic of a much wider problem. (All emphasis in bold that follows is ours.)
"Not only did black girls like my mother have to use their imaginations to insert themselves into positive Disney movie narratives, they had to consciously resist being influenced by images like this still from the original Fantasia (1940). Sunflower was a centaur who existed to serve the white female centaurs... She was a naked child with the lower body of a mule made to serve grown women. I want to you to fully absorb that she is intentionally drawn without clothing to designate her low social status. In an animated fantasy movie for small children, black girls were represented by a pickaninny named Sunflower. She brushes white women's hair and files their nails."
That fantasy and fairy tale depictions in entertainment and pop culture have not only extended the prejudices but actively limited the imagination and internal freedom of black children everywhere is atrocious. It's the exact opposite of why they exist. Sampson goes on to give even more examples of degrading representation in entertainment. She concludes with this :
"When you see posts that say black girls have NEVER been acknowledged by Disney, please understand it's not true. Even in fairytales, white people still imagine black women and girls as beasts of burden. Even in fantasy, we are degraded. Even Princess Tiana was the child of a domestic servant. (OUAB Ed. note: and she spent most of the movie not as a human but as a frog!) Her happily ever after was securing a loan. 
Image posted with Halle Bailey's announcement on Twitter
So excuse us for being excited to see a black child portrayed as a WHIMSICAL MERMAID with GORGEOUS FINS and an ANGELIC voice, and freedom to collect trinkets and sing and have silly boy problems!! Let's stop denying black children the luxury of fantasy. I'm excited that little black kids are gonna see black Ariel and wanna go swimming. I'm glad a company as influential as Disney is gonna take part in replacing the negative imagery black children have absorbed for the entire history of the US."
Although it's impossible to undo history, it is possible to make course corrections and create a more positive future. Whether or not there's as much thought behind the casting decision to choose a black actress to play the beloved Disney mermaid princess as this covers, there's no doubt it's important on a societal level. Positive representation, for black children especially, is long overdue but it is -finally!- here.

You can read more of Angelica's post HERE at Upworthy.com

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