On September 9, 2022, at the D23 Expo, Disney premiered the trailer for the live-action version of The Little Mermaid which stars Halle Bailey and will be released May 26, 2023. I, personally, am very excited about this film as I love most things that Disney does and will always go up for a Black princess. Which is why I have been saddened—although not surprised—by the amount of negative commentary surrounding the film due to the choice to cast a Black woman in the role of Ariel. This departure from the original film, which portrays Ariel as a red-headed and white mermaid, has really offended many people, despite the fact that these half-human, half-fish creatures are completely fictional. For example, there is a Facebook group called “Christians against The Little Mermaid.”
Okay, Jamie. That’s terrible. But what does this have to do with Black businesses?
One of the things that Black stories—whether on film or on stage or in books—and Black businesses have in common is that they provide a different representation and perspective than what has traditionally been presented.
It may be hard for a white person to understand what it means for little Black children (or even adults) to see themselves in a mermaid (or a warrior or a superhero). But if you’ve never been deprived of that representation–if you always see yourself wherever you look–you don’t know the joy of seeing it for the first time. It’s a similar feeling that I have when I discover a new Black business or learn that a Black-owned company is operating in an industry or area that I wasn’t expecting.
Europeans justified colonization by telling stories of African and indigenous savages and ignorance instead of showing royalty and innovation. The result was millions of people murdered and thousands of years of history buried.
This strategic narrative shaping happens even in more recent times. For a long time, Black stories have centered on Black trauma (slavery, poverty, violence, etc). For a long time, Black businesses have been presented as limited to barber shops and chicken spots, so much so that we expect to find these establishments in Black neighborhoods, even if they are not Black-owned (but that’s another article for another time). This limited representation, in conjunction with the financial, educational, and a host of other societal barriers, creates situations where it is more difficult for everyone to dream of or imagine Black people in other ownership roles. That can play out in anything from microaggressions (think “How’s your little business doing?”) to actively destroying businesses (think Black Wall Street Massacre).
Let me be clear: Stories about slavery, poverty, and violence and the ways they have impacted the Black community are all important and need to be shared. But what is equally important is sharing stories of strength, wealth, and (replenishing) love. Stories that allow audience members to dream and imagine and be inspired. Black-owned barber shops and chicken spots are central to the community, but so are doctors’ offices and design studios and 5-star restaurants.
It was really important to me to say something about this because we have to ensure that ALL of our stories can be told. In August of this year, the Barnes and Noble policy that limits or withholds its initial support of debut hardcovers until they deem it “worth” being on the shelves gained viral attention. This policy, like so many others that exist, will disproportionately impact new authors and authors from systemically excluded backgrounds.
One of the ways that I think that we can combat policies like this is to show up in the ways that we can. Go see the movies, opening weekend if you can. Pre-order the books. Buy tickets to the play. If you’re short on cash, request the books from your local library or post on your social media about how important these stories are. Have conversations with the people around you.
And, honestly, all of the stories being told may not be your jam. I remember when The Photograph starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield came to theaters, I went to see it and was a little bored. But I’m glad that I gave it a chance because it differed from what had previously been done and was a story that deserved to be told.
Over the next year, there will be a lot of stories that center or feature Black people. I’ll be making it as big of a deal as I can. I hope you will, too.