Friday, November 27, 2009

Being a Princess

Disney has finally after 71 years made a movie where the princess is an African American. In its history there has been an Asian, Arabian, American Indian and now an African American. As I watched parents talk about their insecurity of not knowing whether they were good enough to be the princess as kids, I had to think about that. While I understand the importance of image and appreciate the necessity of diversity, my mom raised us in such a way that the body was important and we were taught to honor it, but we were never made to feel as if skin, outside of its awesome protection function, was most important, even when others sought to make us feel as if ours was particularly unbecoming.

We were very much raised with black consciousness. We had books by black authors from the poems of Langston Hughes to the novels of Zora Neale Hurston to the magnum opus that is The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois and had examples of evey ilk nearby. But we were extended beyond the largest organ of mankind to a deep seated fundamental bedrock of belonging to the human race by the sheer power and skill of our familial examples and the works of the above writers. I wonder if we needed the public television images as some others, both black and white. We were black and proud. I remember one brother in particular repeating the sixties anthem, "Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud."

Yes, there were difficulties in middle school and at camp where I had to explain my hair and why my palms and feet were lighter than the skin on other parts of my body. I would let the kids touch my hair and answer questions about skin in general as if I was a dermatologist, even at the age of twelve. Parents would ask me far out questions. I was often less patient with them. But because our mother wisely balanced self-pride with a global consciousness (we had subscriptions to the National Geographic and had editions of encyclopedias every ten years or so) we were made to feel proud of our heritage and fully appreciated the beauty of others.

In thinking about this upcoming movie, I also remembered how I felt seeing the Cosby Show for the first time. It was great to see this family as a representation of my heritage. But for me it had more to do with balancing a public image to the likes of Good Times, What's Happening and the Jeffersons, all of which I really liked, with those that I knew. While we liked these shows, we had to sneak and watch these shows as they were not allowed. Another show that we liked was All in the Family . This too was unknown to our mom. We had one hour of television a day and it included shows like The Waltons, The Electric Company, Fat Albert, and Little House on the Prairie.

Mom was a stickler about television viewing. Besides the acceptable shows above, we watched The Today Show and the CBS Nightly News with Walter Cronkite and were expected to say something intelligent about what we were viewing. We discussed national and international politics as we sat for breakfast before school and after dinner. We talked about culture, presently and historically. The conversation was never focused on being an African American. It was about the beauty of who we were rooted in an intimate knowledge of our historical strength and the beauty of our struggle in a global context. While images mattered, we were first thoroughly human. Would a black Disney princess have mattered? I'm not sure.


septembermom said...

Your mother was truly amazing. She knew just how to direct her children's attention in the right way. No wonder that you are all so intelligent, articulate and compassionate.

My daughter is so very excited about the latest Disney princess. Jillian jumps up and down in front of the commercial and yells, "Mama, I NEED this princess so bad. Please tell Santa." Grandma already got her :)

Judith Ellis said...

Kelly - Jillian is so beautiful! She has Irish eyes, eh? :-) I think she's precious. Isn't it funny how our NEEDS change? She says the cutest things.

Yes, my mother was "truly amazing" and she absolutely knew how to direct and engage us. She was imperfect like all of us, but she was extraordinary indeed.