My mama never knew what it meant to be a Black girl. But she knew I needed to know how to swim.
She always said I had to learn to fight for myself and be independent of her. To stand on my own two, what do you call ‘em? Feet. A little mermaid.
But could she have imagined Halle Bailey, a Black girl like her daughter, under the sea? Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” reboot debuted on Friday, May 26, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death. Even in the afterlife, she might be tired of hearing Ariel and her little friends.
That’s because there were two soundtracks heard in the car my mama drove in the summer of 1991: “The Little Mermaid” and “Mermaids.” I sang “Part of Your World” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I had one foot in the fantasy of a Disney movie and the other in the realness of the Cher/Winona Ryder/Christina Ricci dramedy of a mama raising daughters raising their mama. Swimming.
Mom was as much a mermaid as she was a tsunami. Her life was hard and heavy. Some of us escape our trauma. Many of us do our best to keep our heads above water.
She was the latter and gave birth to two daughters. One Black, one white. One who spent most of her childhood with her great-grandmother for safekeeping, and me, trailing behind Mom’s fins into the unknown. We were always in the waves, sometimes with the tide and feeling free. Often against it and weary. Lost and found.
Raising me was always a collaboration between the two of us. A latchkey kid since kindergarten, I was shaped into a tiny woman-child: Grown enough to survive on my own, but a baby fragile enough to not know the dangers that come from being forced to wade in the depths too soon. Where “Mermaids” spoke to my reality, “The Little Mermaid” let the little-girl me be free.
I never tired of escaping into books and movies and the kind of innocence my life didn’t afford. “The Little Mermaid” was my happy place. And the cool thing about a big sister, five years my senior who didn’t grow up in the same buffet of addresses as me, is she loved me so much she let me be that mermaid and never turned my music down.
My mama wished the tape would pop but she never did stop me from singing. Voices deserved to be heard. I was always searching for my own.
There were no little Black girls in those movies back then. Not even in our books. No heroine, no princess of the sea. We did not star as Disney princesses when I was a child. We were not vice president. Our beauty was not a celebration and some of us wrapped towels around our heads and pretended to let our hair flow. We understood we were not part of the world we were taught to love, the world that does not love us back.
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more,” wrote Hans Christian Andersen in “The Little Mermaid,” the 1837 fairy tale on which the Disney movies are based.
It’s no surprise that this Disney reboot, with its Black mermaid, opens with that quote. Little Black girls are expected to be strong, to not cry, to breathe underwater and on land and weather the pressure. And in my house, “to be just as much white as you are Black.” To just keep swimming. It ain’t easy, healthy, or possible.
Adults may hate this movie, given the jaded gaze that comes with aging. But the little Black girl in me felt a small win watching Ariel swing that head full of ginger locs. During a time when a Black girl’s hair is politicized, they are adultified, and every part of her needs protection, there is joy to be had in “The Little Mermaid” of 2023.
To be seen, witnessed in your beauty and in your humanity, matters. Even — perhaps especially — in a childhood fantasy.
“If I would have had a Black mermaid, that would have been insane,” Bailey told The Guardian. “That would have changed my whole perspective, my whole life, my confidence, my self-worth. You’re able to see a person who looks like you, when you’re young? Some people are just like, ‘Oh, it’s whatever,’ because they’ve had it their whole life. It’s nothing to them. But it’s so important.”
And joyful. Even for a group of grown women who understand there is no time to sacrifice our voices. Me and my friends — Puerto Rican, Chinese, Dominican, Bajan — we let ourselves go at the screening. We saw ourselves in each other and on screen. No swimming, no heavy lifting, just floating in the fun. Still, I wished my mom and my sister were with me.
My mama always knew I’d do more than tread life lightly. I was her daughter. She knew I would breathe underwater on land and sea, because she could. Because the patriarchy is set up to suffocate its girls and women, our gills and tails are a given.
I don’t think my mom ever felt free to just be. And I’m constantly awakening to the fact that it was for her I was always singing.
What would I pay to stay here beside you? What would I do to see you smiling at me?
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.