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.