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Disney’s Black mermaid is no breakthrough – just look at the literary subgenre of Black mermaid fiction

Disney’s Black mermaid is no breakthrough – just look at the literary subgenre of Black mermaid fiction
The Little Mermaid, teaser. Image: Courtesy of Disney

These literary works ask readers to rethink the histories of these half-human sea creatures and their role in society today.

Mermaids have become a cultural phenomenon, and clashes about mermaids and race have spilled out into the open. This is most pointedly apparent in the backlash over Disney’s much-anticipated The Little Mermaid.

After Disney unveiled its trailer for the film, which was released in May 2023, social media captured the faces of gleeful young Black girls seeing Black mermaids onscreen for the first time. Less inspiring was the racism that simultaneously occurred, with hashtags like #NotMyMermaid and #MakeMermaidsWhiteAgain circulating on Twitter.

The fact that Disney’s portrayal of a nonwhite mermaid is controversial is due to 150 years of whitewashing.

In a 2019 op-ed for The New York Times, writer Tracey Baptiste – whose children’s novel Rise of the Jumbies features a Black mermaid as the protagonist – points out how “Eurocentric stories have obscured the African origins of mermaids.” “Mermaid stories,” she writes, “have been told throughout the African continent for millenniums. Mermaids are not just part of the imagination, either, but a part of the living culture.”

Nonetheless, contemporary culture is pushing back. Mermaids have, in recent years, become a popular subject in literature, film and fashion. In many cases, their depictions reflect contemporary culture: they appear as Black and brown, as sexually fluid and as harbingers of the climate crisis.

Halle Bailey with young fans at the UK Premiere of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" on May 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images for Disney)

Halle Bailey with young fans at the UK Premiere of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on May 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images for Disney)

As a scholar of contemporary literature and media – and as a lifelong lover of mermaids – I am fascinated by the recent surge of mermaid literature that remixes African folklore and connects the transatlantic slave trade to mermaid tales. By briefly charting this new literary movement, I hope to show how these stories are part of a larger current with a much longer historical tail. I also hope to put to rest the idea that Disney’s decision to feature a Black mermaid represents some sort of modern breakthrough.

Here are three very different works of Black mermaid fiction that, in my view, deserve attention.

1. Rivers Solomon’s The Deep (2019)

This novella is marketed as fantasy, but it does the very real and important work of opening up new ways to think about the legacy of slavery. Specifically, it pushes readers to think about mermaids as products of the Middle Passage, the harrowing stage of the transatlantic slave trade in which enslaved Africans were transported in crowded ships across the Atlantic Ocean.

The novel’s conceit is that pregnant, enslaved Africans who either jumped or were thrown overboard from slave ships gave birth underwater to babies who moved from amniotic fluid to seawater and evolved into a society of merfolk. The protagonist, Yetu, is a mermaid who serves as a repository of the traumatic stories that would be too troubling for her people to remember on a daily basis. She is the historian, and once a year she delivers “The Remembrance” to her people in a ritual of sharing.

As the narrator explains, “Only the historian was allowed to remember,” because if the regular folk “know the truth of everything, they will not be able to carry on.” Once a year, the society gathers to hear the history. The memories are not lost or forgotten but submerged and transformed, hosted by the ocean and housed in the body of a mermaid.

This vibrant and readable book can be tied to the work of literary scholar Christina Sharpe, who presents the concept of “the wake” – a means of contemplating the continued effects of the Middle Passage. For Sharpe, “The wake” is “a method of encountering a past that is not past” and of endeavoring to “memorialize an event that is still ongoing.”

The Deep also offers an allegory for the challenges of working in archives of African American experience – the main mermaid is, of course, the historian – and evokes the work of another important scholar in contemporary Black studies, Saidiya Hartman, who has written about the erasure of Black women from archives largely compiled by white men.

2. Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

This gorgeous and complex work of Caribbean literature dips into magical realism but is deeply grounded in the reality of today – specifically, the effects of colonialism and exploitative tourism.

Monique Roffey, who was announced this evening as the winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year for her novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch, on January 25, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Costa Book of the Year)

Monique Roffey poses with her novel, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’. Image: Ian Gavan / Getty Images for Costa Book of the Year

Like The Deep, The Mermaid of Black Conch explores lost ancestries and imagines alternative futures. The novel highlights the continued impact of white settlement on a fictional Caribbean island called Black Conch.

One day, a mermaid named Aycayia is caught in the net of a fisherman. She is ancient and Indigenous – “red-skinned, not black, not African” – and carries the weight of history. David, the fisherman who finds her and falls in love with her, recalls his first sighting of her: “She looking like a woman from long ago, like old-time Taino people I saw in a history book at school.”

Similar to Solomon’s historian in The Deep, this mermaid is depicted as an embodied archive; her hair is a home for sea creatures, and her face is a history book. However, Roffey’s mermaid is an anomaly, singular and isolated, not a member of a tribe. The ocean keeps this ancient beast safe, hiding her from the destructive forces of Western capitalism, embodied in the father-son duo of American tourists who seek to capture and capitalize on what they see as an aquatic trophy.

3. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014)

“A star falls from the sky. A woman rises from the sea. The world will never be the same.” The publisher’s summary describes a science fiction novel that combines the alien-encounter genre with African mythology to create a vast narrative network of characters, human and nonhuman, that stretches across Nigeria. The arrival of aliens off the coast of Lagos transforms the area and the people, miraculously remedying centuries of oceanic destruction caused by industrial and colonial exploitation. It also turns Adaora, a female marine biologist caught in a bad marriage, into a mermaid.

Lagoon is far more than an allegory of ecological repair. But I want to point out how literature explores the global ecological crisis and, specifically, how ecocriticism plays a key role in the emergent genre of Black mermaid literature. As ecocritic and Caribbean literature scholar Elizabeth DeLoughrey writes, rising sea levels caused by global warming are spurring a planetary future that is “more oceanic.”

Many contemporary mermaid tales share an acute sense of environmental concern. Mermaids serve as signals, in both senses of the word – as an emergency alert and as a medium for transmitting a message about humanity’s increasingly oceanic planetary future.

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 Black freedom movement strategies and tendencies.” Racial justice and environmental activism are aligned – and, as many Black mermaid novels teach readers, inseparable.

There are many more works I could have included in this roundup – Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea (2021), which grounds its narrative in the West African myths of Mami Wata and the goddess Yemoja, or Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water (2020), a young adult novel that tells the coming-of-age story of a Black girl who becomes a mermaid.

None of these texts are outliers because they feature Black mermaids. Instead, they are part of a broader cultural movement – a contemporary mermaid craze deserving of critical attention and appreciation. DM

This story was first published in The Conversation. 

Jessica Pressman is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.

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