In my purse right now is a letter from my seven year old daughter to Ellen. Her letter is written on unlined computer paper in four different marker colors with sentences all topsy-turvy crooked. The words are smushed together at the edges of the page where she ran out of room and it’s signed in her very best handwriting, thankyouverymuch! Throughout her letters are words like, “dance”, “help”, “Mama” and “worried”.
“Trinity, what are you doing?” I ask noticing her stuck out tongue in concentration as she sounds out “dear” and “trip”. I’m washing dishes in the immaculate kitchen of the family I nanny for. While her brothers play with my charges, she’s sits at a table and writes a letter I completely by her own initiative.
“I’m writing Ellen for help…how do you spell, ‘dance’?” she answers all innocence and concentration.
Confused, I wiped the counter down and sit across from my daughter. She has matching red marker smudges on her cheek and forefinger, I ache to reach over and wipe it with a tissue, but that would distract her from her work. “Why are you writing Ellen?”
“Because when we planned our trip to see the first black Cinderella in New York City, it was so much money! Mama, I’m worried it won’t happen. and Mama WE NEED TO SEE THE BLACK CINDERELLA!”
“Yeah…but you really shouldn’t worry about that…” I start, not quite happy that she’s assumed the financial burden of the trip. I took on a housecleaning job and extra nannying in order to raise money to go to NYC. Her worry is equal parts encouraging that she shares this dream too and disheartening that she doesn’t believe it’s possible.
She looked up, “But Mama it’s important. We must see it! We just have to.”
“Why, baby? Why is it important?” I’m intrigued by her passion. I don’t wonder where she gets it from, I just lament for all the trouble it’ll get her into.
She puts her marker down and sighs as if she’s full of wisdom and simple me just doesn’t get it. Sage Trinity must enlighten her mama. I have a feeling this is just a foretaste of sass to come. “Because Mama, before, black women used to be slaves but now we’re princesses and I want to see.”
Black women used to be slaves, but now we’re princesses and she just wants to see.
I leaned over to kiss her forehead and whisper, “Don’t worry, baby. We’ll see. I promise, we’ll see the black Cinderella”.
Then I walked away out of her eye sight, leaned against the wall, and quietly cried.
In one sentence my daughter revealed that no matter how much exposure to positive black role models, she as a mixed child has inherited the single story every African-American woman has– we were once slaves. Yes, now we have sexy and fierce Beyonce, intelligent and Ann Taylor-ed Michelle Obama, and pithy, sage Oprah, but somehow they’re not enough. Somehow, these women and successes, do not speak to the wonder that is being a little girl who dresses up and plays dolls and reads fairy tales like they’re field guides for navigating this strange, wild world.
The unfortunate truth is, we’ll never look back at our Fore-mothers and see Harriet Tubman or Sojouner Truth for anything other than their hard won victory over racism in America. Their stories have shaped ours so much so that my daughter says, “black women used to be slaves”.
Which is why I must save her from that single story. Yes, we rose out of slavery, but we’re so much more. So, for my little girl who dreams in stardust, fairy tales and sweet princesses are the way to give her a counter-story.
When Disney introduced the first African-American princess, I went nuts buying my daughter, then three, all things Tiana, all the time. I was so excited when I saw the trailer! No longer did I have to rely on the outdated effects of Whitney Houston and Brandy’s primetime “Cinderella” special to help craft a counter-story for my daughter, I had a bonafide, real-deal black princess to point to. After so much anticipation, I was disappointed with both story they chose for their only black princess and limited screen time of her as a human. For most of, “Princess and the Frog”, Tiana is a frog and not in her beautiful brown skin. Tiana’s storyline revolves around a saddening insinuation that her most endearing character trait is her strong work ethic.
Not her great loyalty, but her great ambition.
Not her deep wells of kindness, but her deep resolve to make something of herself.
Not her compassion for animals or people, but her passion to have her own restaurant.
It’s bootstraps mentality and surviving for the black woman. Watching Tiana, both human and frog versions, I asked, “Could Disney have unintentionally perpetuated the dangerous single story of black woman slave made free? ”
When Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie gave her TED talk on the “single story” she shared about a houseboy named Fide who was poor and her family helped with food and work. She shared that the only thing her mother told her about Fide was that she should be grateful at dinner time because people like Fide have nothing. When Chimamanda visited Fide’s home she saw a lovely bowl his brother made and something did not compute in her mind; how could this person who she should pity create such beauty? How is there capacity for such poverty of circumstance and richness of creativity in the same person? She identified a problem: She was believing a single story about Fide, his family, his village, and all the people in her social class.
That’s why when my daughter transitioned her affection from Tiana to Merida, I didn’t flinch. If I’m honest, I was glad for the distraction. For all it’s problems, Cinderella is a story of hope, redemption, and kindness rewarded.
My hope when we go to see Keke Palmer as Cinderella that in some way, she’ll see for herself that dreams do come true for the black heroine and not just because she’s earned it. My hope when we sit in the audience and see the first Black Cinderella on Broadway that she’ll see with her very own eyes that magic glistens just as stunningly on brown skin as it does white.
It starts with giving our girls a princess who looks just like them; It starts with giving them a subversive, counter-story, like a Black Cinderella and her black fairy Godmother on the greatest stage their has ever been.
I want her to hear Sherri Shepard sing to KeKe Palmer, that “It’s Possible” that she “can change it all and make it all happen”. I want to have a happily ever after moment for my mixed daughter learning to live confidently in her creamy caramel skin.
That letter she wrote to Ellen for help is still in my purse. Some days I think I should mail it and embrace the impossible, other days my pride gets the best of me and tells me to find one more house cleaning job to ease the stress of paying for our trip. My dreams will come if I work hard enough and dreams are for the lazy.
And then I realize, I’m still believing the dangerous single story.