Mermaids have become a cultural phenomenon, and conflicts about mermaids and race are openly spreading. This is most evident in Disney’s backlash against the long-awaited “The Little Mermaid.”
After Disney released the trailer for the movie, which hits theaters in May 2023, social media captured the face of a young black girl who was overjoyed to see a black mermaid on screen for the first time. Less exciting was the simultaneous racism, with hashtags like #NotMyMermaid and #MakeMermaidsWhiteAgain going viral on her Twitter.
The fact that Disney’s portrayal of non-white mermaids is controversial is due to 150 years of whitewashing.
In a 2019 New York Times op-ed, author Tracy Baptiste (whose children’s novel Rise of the Jumbies is a black mermaid) noted that “Eurocentric narratives have obscured the African origins of mermaids.” doing.
“Mermaid stories have been told across the African continent for thousands of years. Mermaids are not just part of the imagination, they are part of a living culture,” she wrote.
Nonetheless, modern culture is pushing. Mermaids have become a popular subject in literature, film and fashion in recent years. Their depictions often reflect contemporary culture. They are black and brown, sexually fluid, and look like harbingers of the climate crisis.
As a scholar of contemporary literature and media, and a lifelong mermaid enthusiast, I am fascinated by the recent proliferation of mermaid literature, which remixes African folklore and ties the transatlantic slave trade to mermaid tales.
By briefly illustrating this new literary movement, I hope to show that these stories are part of a larger stream with a much longer historical ridge. I would like to put an end to the notion that Disney’s decision represented some sort of modern breakthrough.
In my view, I present three very different Black Mermaid fictions worthy of your attention.
1. ‘The Deep’ by Rivers Solomon (2019)
Although this novel is marketed as fantasy, it does a very real and important job of opening up new ways of thinking about the legacy of slavery.
Specifically, it prompts readers to think of mermaids as the product of the Middle Passage, a harrowing phase of the transatlantic slave trade in which enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic in crowded ships.
The conceit of the novel is that pregnant slave Africans who jumped or were thrown overboard from a slave ship gave birth in water and moved from amniotic fluid to seawater to evolve into a society of merfolk.
The main character, Yetu, is a mermaid who serves as a receptacle for stories of trauma too troubling for her people to recall on a daily basis. She is a historian and once a year she brings her “memories” to people in a sharing ceremony.
As the narrator explains, “only historians were allowed to remember.”
Once a year the Society meets to hear the history. Rather than being lost or forgotten, memories are hosted by the sea, housed in mermaid bodies, submerged underwater, and transformed.
This vibrant, easy-to-read book can be tied to the work of literary writer Christina Sharpe. She presents the concept of ‘wake’, a means of contemplating the continuing impact of the middle passage. For Sharp, ‘awakening’ is ‘a way of encountering the past that is not the past’ and a way of making an effort to ‘remember events that are still in progress’.
“The Deep” also offers an allegory of the challenges of working with the archives of the African American experience – the chief mermaid is of course a historian – and another important scholar in contemporary black studies. Evokes the work of Saidhya Hartman. About the erasure of black women from archives edited primarily by white men.
This gorgeous and complex work of Caribbean literature is steeped in magical realism but deeply rooted in today’s realities, especially the effects of colonialism and exploitative tourism.
Like “The Deep,” “The Mermaid of Black Conch” explores lost ancestors and imagines an alternate future. The novel highlights the continuing impact of white colonization on a fictional Caribbean island called Black Conch.
One day, a mermaid named Aeaea was caught in a fisherman’s net. She’s been indigenous for ages, she’s “her red skin, she’s not black, she’s not African,” and she carries the weight of her history on her shoulders. David, a fisherman who found her and fell in love with her, recalls the first time he saw her.
Similar to Solomon’s historian in “The Deep,” this mermaid is depicted as a materialized archive. Her hair is the home of sea creatures and her face is the history book.
But Lofi’s mermaid is an anomaly, singular and solitary, and not a member of a tribe. It is embodied in a father-son duo of American tourists who capture what they see as a trophy and seek to capitalize on it.
3. “Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
“Stars fall from the sky. Women rise from the sea. The world will never be the same.” It describes a science fiction novel that creates a vast narrative network of characters.
The arrival of aliens off the coast of Lagos has transformed the region and its people, miraculously ameliorating the ocean destruction caused by centuries of industrial and colonial exploitation. It transforms Adaora, a female marine biologist caught in a bad marriage, into a mermaid.
“Lagoon” is more than an allegory of ecological restoration. But I would like to point out how literature explores global environmental crises, and specifically the important role ecocriticism plays in Black’s emerging genre of mermaid literature.
As environmental commentator and Caribbean literature scholar Elizabeth DeLory writes, rising sea levels caused by global warming are spurring the future of a “more oceanic” planet.
Many modern mermaid stories share environmental concerns.
Mermaids serve as signals in both senses of the word – both as emergency alerts and as vehicles for conveying messages about the future of humanity’s increasingly oceanic planet.
In “Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals” (2020), black feminist theorist Alexis Pauline Gumbs points to “several practices of marine mammals that resonate with the strategies and tendencies of black free movement.” . Racial justice and environmental activism go hand in hand and, as many Black Her Mermaid novels teach readers, are inseparable.
There are many other works that could have been included in this compilation. The West African mythology of Mami Wata and the goddess Yemoja, or Bethany C. Morrow’s Song Underwater (2020), is a coming-of-age young adult novel about a black girl who becomes a mermaid.
None of these texts are outliers, as they feature black mermaids.
Instead, they are part of a broader cultural movement, a modern-day mermaid craze that deserves critical attention and appreciation.
Jessica Pressman, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, San Diego State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.