When the latest version of Disney classic The Little Mermaid hits theaters this month, featuring its first Black lead character, the new casting will reflect a truth that children’s book writer Tracey Baptiste has known all her life—that there have always been Black mermaids.
A longtime New Jersey resident, Baptiste was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up within view of the sea, hearing Caribbean folktales that inspired her writing, including her popular Jumbies picture-book series. When children start to disappear in the second installment of the series, in the book Rise of the Jumbies, its young heroine, Corinne Le Mer, teams up with the beautiful and fearsome Mama D’Leau, or “mother of the water.”
She’s a type of mermaid found in Caribbean lore, rooted in the mythological West African character Mama Wata, says Baptiste. The book explores how their stories crossed the ocean from West Africa to the Americas through colonization and at a time when people were kidnapped for chattel slavery.
Disney’s choice to cast Halle Bailey as the lead in The Little Mermaid, making the actress the first Black Ariel, was initially met with backlash that played out on social media.
“Many people pointed out that Black mermaids were not extraordinary and tagged my book in their comments,” Baptiste says. Her 2019 New York Times op-ed in response to the controversy, “Mermaids Have Always Been Black,” went viral. Baptiste followed up the opinion piece with her own Black mermaid picture book, Mermaid and Pirate, published in April, a month before The Little Mermaid hits theaters.
Parents also responded to the controversy by posting videos of their Black children responding with delight and awe at the news of the latest Disney princess, with the hashtag #RepresentationMatters.
“The reason a lot of those girls were having such a strong reaction to that is because they haven’t seen a Black actress play this kind of role,” Baptiste said. “Often when Black actresses are cast in fantasy roles, they tend not to be the hero and they tend not to beautiful, so this was a big deal for kids.”
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