Sunday, August 10, 2008

Disney's Black Princess

If you haven't heard it took Disney until 2008 to come up with a black princess character. It took only months before the big unveiling to figure out just how off-base their premise for the princess was. I am writing this blog post after reading many of the comments suggesting that black people are again making much ado about nothing. I am writing because I think it is important to see how little America knows or understands about black history -- American history and how a company as large as Disney could be so off base. [Read the Disney Story] [Comments]

The NEW Disney Princess: Her name is Maddie she is a chamber maid to a white woman in 1920s New Orleans. She is rescued from her life of servitude by a white prince. Oh yea, and she performs voodoo!

Did they do any research at all? If so they might have found a few incredible stories to tell little girls of color about their history, their culture, and about their strength and fortitude. The comments stated that Disney's portrayal was historically accurate and others said what else would a black woman in the 1920s do if she wasn't a chamber maid.

Even before the Civil war (so before 1920) New Orleans was the home to many people called Gens de Couleur Libres or the Free People of Color. These groups were said to have prospered and amassed millions of dollars of wealth.

Education of the Times
The first black college in America was established in 1837. Today there are more than 100 historically black institutions and the majority of them were established between 1870 - 1910. So by the time that Maddy the princess lived in New Orleans there were scores of black women in colleges across the country. Spelman College a prominent college for black women in Atlanta first began accepting and educating women in 1881.

In Louisiana alone there were four historically black colleges at that time: Dillard, Xavier, Grambling State, and Southern Universities.

Social History of the Time
Not only were their black colleges but black people were in white universities all across the country. Black Greek letter organizations began as a way to promote education and support those few blacks on campuses. I belong to a historic black women's organization that was founded on the campus of Howard University in 1913. One of their first civic activities was participating in the Women's Suffrage movement that began that year. In 1908 on th same campus Alpha Kappa Alpha was created in 1908. (Acknowledging many of the black APs online).

Today these organizations still sponsor debutante balls and cotillions that were reminiscent of balls given throughout history.Today their are some 500,000 - 600,000 black women with ties to Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha today.

Considering the fact that it was illegal in many states for whites to marry blacks it is strange that the Disney story promotes the fact that the black princess might only be saved by a gallant white prince.

Black Men in the 1920s
Now why was Maddy rescued by any prince other than a black prince? Don't little black boys need images that are positive and representative of their history as well? In 1906 Alpha Phi Alpha a black fraternity was established at Cornell University. Other all black men's organizations that exist today were also born: Kappa Alpha Psi - Indiana University (1911), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Phi Beta Sigma (1914). All with intelligent, accomplished, and prince-worthy men.

What if Maddy were saved by courageous men like A. Phillip Randolph; civic minded men like Congressman Oscar DePriest elected to Congress in the 1920s; or brilliant writers like my favorite Langston Hughes. Maybe they could fashion the prince after passionate men like Marcus Garvey, accomplished scientist like Ernest Just and George Washington Carver. What about some of those heroes from WWI or even Matthew Henson that ventured to the North Pole with Admiral Perry?

Maybe we could find great men like:
  • Pinckney Penchback a half black man first became governor of Louisiana in 1872 and was also elected to the US House of Representatives and the US Senate before his death in 1921.
  • Blanche Bruce who had been born a slave became a US Senator in 1875 and Hiram Revels was yet another black man elected to the US House and Senate in the 1870s.

The Harlem Renaissance
The Renaissance is considered a time of social and intellectual transformation for black people. In this time of cultural renewal that lasted from 1918-1929 black people were writing, composing, and performing on Broadway. It gave rise to the famed Apollo Theater. It was jazz, it was blues. It was Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker.

It wasn't only in Harlem but in the 1920s Washington DC a 40-block portion of the city, (the Shaw neighborhood) was home to more than 300 black-owned businesses, including the Ford, Howard, and Dabney movie theaters, a large hotel, three black-owned banks, black newspapers and pharmacies.

Black Women of the Times
From 1900 - 1930 there were so many amazing black women doing amazing things against incredible odds. What if we developed the princess story line around some of these real-life women.

  • 1903 Maggie Lena Walker founded the St. Lukes Penny Bank in Richmond, VA.
  • 1903 Madame C. J. Walker started her haircare business and eventually became the first woman millionaire.
  • 1903 Mary McCloud Bethune founded Bethune Cookman College.
  • 1903 Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training Center for Women
  • 1921 Bessie Coleman earned her pilots license.
  • 1921 Georgiana Simpson (Univ. of Chicago), Sadie Tanner Alexander (Univ. of Pennsylvania), and Eva Dykes (Radcliff) earned PhDs and Rebecca Coleman graduated from medical school.
  • 1921 While attending Howard University Zora Neale Hurston published her first of many books.
  • 1925 at the age of sixty-six Anna Julian completed her PhD in Paris.

Many of the comments are the best evidence for why Disney needs to do a better job in the type of character that it portrays. It is not only little black boys and girls that will learn from the story it is yet another generation of white boys and girls that get the wrong message as well.

I would think that in 2008 we could do better. Disney I am ashamed of you. After 84 years, it would seem that we could have used that time to be a bit more forward thinking, creative, and inspirational. For others that have read the story or may be confused as to why black American's are not overly enthusiastic, I hope this provides some context.



I wholeheartedly agree with you Valerie!

Disney should have portrayed a more "positive" image of OUR people.


Anonymous said...

That is awful. How in the world could they even think this was acceptable?

Here's another ding on Hollywood for you:

I'm blown away by what people think is acceptable sometimes.


VALARIE said...

Jan I took a look at the Ben Stiller reference on "full retarded". The difference I believe is that you will not find 300 hateful comments directed at people who suggest that calling people "full retarded" is okay. Collectively we understand that it is inappropriate and offensive. When it comes to language used to describe black people we are not yet that evolved. It is the comments that people make that let me know just how far we still need to go and why it is so important for Disney to be a bit more responsible. We don't have to be retarded to find the term offensive yet too many people find blacks irrational for demanding the same level of respect.

Anonymous said...

If you read the comments on "DAVE", you might find just that. One person even suggested it was funny and okay, just like it's okay to use the "N" word.

I really don't think people have come very far at all. It's only when it affects them directly that they become angry/upset. They don't see it as a problem unless/until it touches them or someone close to them.

You're black raising children who are black. You see/live color issues every day. I am raising a son who is black. (as of next week) I will live it through him every day too. I am raising a son who has Down Syndrome. I live it through him everyday. Both kinds of discrimination/misunderstandings/ hurtful comments/portrayals make me angry.

Why do people purposefully and/or knowingly say and do things to hurt others. Why do they try to make others feel small or unworthy somehow.

What I wish for my children is not to be defined by their outside appearance but by the content of their character. Are they good people? Do they make this earth a better place? Do they help their neighbors? Are they honest and hard working? Are they good husbands/wives/sister/brothers/etc? Things that in the end are what is truly important.


VALARIE said...

Jan I agree. I think that when you are a member of an outsider group that it actually sensitizes you a bit more to others who face life on the outside. I think that when you know that discrimination happens you are more likely to understand the experience of others. I could be wrong about that but it's what has been true to my experience. My black children will do the things that you list, care for others and love their family, and make the world a better place. Just as the black people that I listed in my post have been doing for hundreds of years in America without much notice. A strong cultural value in the black community is to fight for others less fortunate. That is the premise upon which all these institutions and organizations were founded.

Dawn said...

I think your entry should be published for a wider audience. You definitely did your homework this time...but then you always do!

Anonymous said...

Please publish this on a wider basis such as the ethiopian adoption groups. Well done. I also hated Disney's "Meet the Robinsons" It was very disturbing for myself and my adopted and bio children. Shame on Disney.

Jillian and Crew said...


I am in a ET Adoption egroup with you...I had no idea about the Disney Princess until you posted. Having 2 beautiful bi-racial girls, we have made great strides to make sure the word 'princess' would never be defined with blonde hair and blue eyes...but that all their little girl friends could be one. I saw that Disney had a princess that would be black-I was THRILLED only to be LET DOWN by the actual story. Seriously-it is 2008! How many people at Disney signed off on this being a good idea? (sigh)

Caroline said...

Reading this post just made me feel so... disappointed. We don't have any kids yet, so aren't too up to date on the new disney films, but I think I can guarantee we won't be buying this one on DVD to show to our ET babies when they're old enough.

Thanks very much for the heads up!

Naomi said...

You share valuable information. I am also single and in the process of adopting from Ethiopia. I can learn much from you.

Thanks for sharing!

Jennifer said...

I can not tell you how much I appreciate your voice. As a history teacher, I was excited to hear that the premise of this Disney princess would be based on the 1920's. I thought- wouldn't it be great if she were a part of the Harlem Renaissance? Only to find out that she is a chambermaid. Ugghh.
As a white mother to two extraordinary Ethiopian children, I can only imagine how these things can shape my children.
Thank you for giving my family such a resource of positivity.

Andrew and Rebecca said...

Valerie, you continue to amaze and teach me. Thank you so very much!

Tami said...

love your always. :-)

Kristine said...

Ugh.. Disney strikes again!
I am always miffed at their portral of princesses in general. Why do we need a man "rescuing" any of us?? :)


Anonymous said...

everyone should have to learn about all different cultures. people seem to think others are only what they see in the news

sorry this of off topic but it goes along the same line.

2 years ago i was conplaning to an aus about the way the aussie players were attacking the irish players during the international rules game and he said to be "their used to it any way. all your country does it drink and fight." now this made me so angery as it is sooooooooooooooo not true. i for no have never touched a drop of alcohol in my life and i am not the only one.

ireland has so much amazing history and culture and all cartoons protry us as is drunk leprechauns

kn said...

We didn't watch much Disney growing up as my mother really disliked the messages being sent. We have not let our son watch Disney movies either. Culturally on all levels they are awful.

Thanks for bringing this up. Whenever our son asks why he's not going to one movie or another (he's 5 1/2) we always respond truthfully. I had not heard about this latest absurdity. Thanks for bringing it up as now I'll have something to tell him when he asks. Interestingly when we tell him the truth he always accepts it.

Another amazing post. Thanks again,

Kristine (NY)

Jana said...

Good gracious, this is totally ridiculous! I am disappointed with Disney...again. Never was much of a fan.

Thank you for informing us of this!

Easties and Co. said...

When I read the description of Disney's first black princess, I cringed. I cannot believe the stupidity of that. Because they are such a large company, they had the opportunity to really get this right and to empower young black girls. I just found your blog, and look forward to taking more time to read your posts.

Original Court Date: April 18, 2009
Final Court Date: May 18, 2009
[607 total days & 165 days w/IAN]