In case you haven’t heard, Disney has decided after close to 90 years in existence to create an animation featuring a black princess. As you can probably guess from my title, I’m not going to take my soon-to-be-four-years-old daughter to see the film. Beyond the fact that Disney has a long and torrid history of distorting non-white ethnic folks in general and African Americans in particular, I think its of critical importance—as a father and anti-sexist black man—to monitor what goes in the smart, beautiful, afro-ed, head of my little daughter. Though as a black man with black feminist political leanings, I try desperately to recalibrate how my children (I also have a boy that is 7 years old) conceptualize their socially prescribed gender roles, I am fully aware that--despite my hyper-vigilant parenting--pervasive notions of gender, race, class, and sexuality will have a major impact on how they negotiate their social environment and their value—or lack thereof—in it.
Suffice it to say, that the U.S. has not been kind to black women as it regards portraits of beauty, sexuality, and moral character. Indeed, during the antebellum period it was generally accepted—and, at the time, backed up by so-called “hard science”—that African women preferred the sexual company of primates over that of men, that black women gave off a particular sexual pheromone which enticed white men to have sex with them, that they lacked the emotional feeling and attachment to their children compared to whites, that theirs was not a femininity worthy of acknowledgment. Ever wonder why the white mistress in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God blames Nanny and not her white powerful master-husband for the sexual acts (read: rape) that resulted in the birth of Janie’s mother? There you have it.
Black men have also been stigmatized sexually as primitive and targeted on this basis, often in the name of protecting white women’s honor, as a means of white masculine dominance. Who can forget the anti-black man propaganda that was the first Hollywood “blockbuster” in Birth of a Nation—based on Thomas Dixon’s novel/play Clansman—or the 1955 brutal slaying of baby-faced, Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi for purportedly whistling at a white woman.
Regrettable though it is, however, black men have—for various complex and problematic reasons—had a direct hand in perpetuating these negative images of black women over the course of U.S. history. Providing a useful context for this phenomenon, Patricia Hill-Collins explains in her essay “A Telling Difference: Dominance, Strength, and Black Masculinities,” that “virtually all of the representations of black masculinity [in the public domain] pivot on questions of weakness, whether it is a weakness associated with an inability to control violent impulses, sexual urges, or their black female heterosexual partners or a weakness attributed to men whose lack of education, employment patterns, and criminal records relegate them to inferior social spaces.”
As Hill-Collins makes clear, controlling black women's behavior and bodies became inextricably bound up with attaining manhood, and by extension, social equality for black men. The masculine weakness attributed to black men’s inability to control “their women” was, to be sure, a featured hypothesis in the notorious 1965 “Moynihan Report.” Crafted by U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a trained sociologist), the document was used to explain why black men and the black family were in such dire straights. Characterizing the black community as a “tangle of pathology . . . capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,” the document conveniently blamed emasculating black women—not white oppression—for the black communitys' failing. As Donna L. Franklin explains in What’s Love Got to Do With It, many prominent black leaders signed off on this report, including the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins (director of the NAACP), and Whitney Young (President of the National Urban League).
To be sure, King, Wilkins, and Young held white people’s feet to the fire for skirting their central roles in perpetuating this so-called “tangle of pathology” but nary a word was uttered in rejection of the black-woman-as-black-emasculator thesis. This dynamic is important to this conversation because it illustrates, in part, why black women—especially those that have attained a certain level of economic success—are cast in rap videos, black church sermons, and in black popular culture in general as “uppity,” “bitchy,” “domineering,” “black-man-hating,” and "ruthless." It is thus hardly surprising that most black women steer clear of the label “black feminist” like the plague although a great many of them—in their actions, politics, and worldviews—espouse key black feminist principles, including that nonreciprocating gender self-sacrifice is unhealthy and self-defeating.
That black women have been emotionally damaged by demeaning portraits within and outside the black community is no more evident than in the ways that they have flocked virtually en masse to Tyler Perry movies, ministries like those of T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, and make books, like comedian Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, top-sellers. Even though all of these men adhere, at bottom, to conventional notions of masculinity wherein women are expected to cater emotionally, financially, and culturally to black men, they garner so much support—and dollars—from black women because they are, by turns, moderately less patriarchal in their thinking than most black men and black-male-centric institutions. I guess in a world where black women get so little love from within and beyond the black community, meager acknowledgment of their marginalized status goes a long way. This pattern should fill black men with shame not comfort. Rather than explode the racial stigmas that have dogged black women over the course of U.S. history, we have become co-conspirators with the dominant culture—new age pimps, if you will—in exploiting black women’s pain and suffering.
My Baby-Girl and I won’t be going to see Disney’s “Princess and the Frog” because I will not be a party to warping my daughter’s notion of self-worth. Did you know that the original title of the movie was “Frog Princess” or that, according to Arifa Akbar, the original story line featured the black princess as a chambermaid working for a spoilt, white Southern debutante. She was—like a black Cinderella—to be helped by a voodoo priestess fairy godmother to “win the heart of a white prince, after he rescued her from the clutches of a voodoo magician.” In the new storyline the princess is of color—though tellingly not black—and the name of the character has been changed from Maddy (evidently it sounded too much like Mammy) to Tiana. According to the Disney promo, the story is set in the “charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age.” Need we bother to ask if there will be an inkling of how it was really like for blacks and black women in particular living in that era. This may turn out to be, in fact, the biggest fairy tale that Disney has ever told.
This morning I came across a story about how Google is sorry for an offensive pic of Michelle Obama that comes up on its search engine when you type in the First Lady’s name. (In case you're wondering, the pic is of a monkey superimposed on Michelle's face) This happened because the search engine automatically brings up the most visited websites linked to that particular search item. So, what this means fundamentally is that there are swarms of folks interested in such offensive portraits of Michelle and black women. Alas, this is the world within which I am forced to raise my smart, fun-loving, energetic, and--yes--incredibly beautiful daughter. Nope, baby-girl will not get to see Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” this go-round and something tells me she'll be disappointed. But, I guess now is as good a time as any to prepare her for the bumpy road that lies ahead for her as a black girl and woman. Hopefully, my love for her will absorb some of the shock. One can only hope.