In a recent newspaper article, an author claimed Disney broke barriers by presenting the first African-American princess to audiences across the globe. Ribbit! Had I too been kissed by a frog? You see, I have seen African-Americans depicted as royalty in life and in film – years ago and now. What were they talking about? Darn, I thought, am I going to have to sit and watch the movie to critique it? Would I have to donate my hard-earned cash to an enterprise, let’s say one in which I am still sorting issues? My issues do not seem to bother my two young daughters who were clamoring to view the film and are not in the least bit moved by my philosophical issues (paraphrasing my youngest). Argh!
I have told myself in order to open a discussion about the first depiction of an African-American princess, I just might have to see it for myself. I tried to tell myself viewing the film might provide good fodder for the real argument – White-male affirmation and meta-narrative. But before I see the film, I am going to write the first piece of this paper because I am certain to be at odds with the ‘first story’ about African-American royalty ever presented to the world. Ribbit.
My issue? You see, while folks are getting all excited about ‘the enterprise’ finally telling a cartoon story about an African-American princess, I am wondering why this story has to be incorporated into some Disney meta-narrative in order for the idea of African-American princess to have any sort of face validity? I could be misinterpreting, but with all the hoopla I don’t think so. I still argue this is not the first time, so some folks are “tardy for the party”. In fact, I can think of a few films both TV and big screen where African-Americans were portrayed as royalty- Eddie Came to America, Michael Remembered the Time and Martin Luther and Coretta Scott KING, well they reigned supreme for social and racial justice. I can also think of many historical role models whom African-Americans consider majestic. The message I am receiving is we need to break out the cotillion ball gowns and tux. If the enterprise tells the story, then African-American royalty in film has in some way been legitimized and are incorporated into the meta-narrative – an American dream has come true. We have arrived. Somebody grab my dress for the cotillion!
Darn! Can everyone just read or reread Paulo Freire’s chapter one of Pedagogy of the Oppressed? It should be a must-read for everyone before they leave high school. I just want to scream in Spike Lee-movie style. Remember the part that says “As long as the oppressed remain unaware of the causes of their condition, they fatalistically ‘accept’ their exploitation.”
This isn’t the first time or only genre in which we have seen this need for cultural affirmation, need to become one with the meta-narrative or a fixation on being legitimized. Same can be said of Tiger Woods without specifically paying any attention to his transgressions. He is under significant fire for his transgressions – up to 16 alleged relationships with women outside of marriage. I am sure he is stunned because he is receiving so much attention. Interestingly, I am inclined to be somewhat stunned too, until I start to analyze the ‘shiggady.’ I can think of many a celebrity who has had or is participating in transgressions at the same magnitude and perhaps more. There is a difference. Those other transgressors are insignificant for a couple of reasons. Most are not a part of an interracial marriage, and if they are, no one seems to give a hoot. Why? I think that has a lot to do with type of sport. In other words, golf ain’t having it – transgressions. There’s one more important piece, I believe. Again, I am theorizing, the attention may have something to do with how Tiger has presented himself to the world.
Many high-profile celebrities, specifically those in particular sports, seem not to be too uncomfortable with their phenotype. They are not sharing with talk show hosts how they identify racially and ethnically. In fact, not only does the discussion not come up, but no one seems to care. They just assume. In Tiger’s case, however, how he identifies himself and how the world decided to identify him seem to not only matter – but they are contradictory. Tiger claims to be Cablinasian but the world sees him as Black. As one of his transgressees said, he is the whitest Black man.
Funny the way Mendelian genetics and phenotype seem to work. While I am not mad at that brother for claiming who he is, he is quickly learning the ‘Bl’ part of his constructed reality, Cablinasian, and his phenotype, seem to overshadow his self-proclaimed identity. I can’t help but wonder why. This is America and need I remind you again that we have what Tiger might describe as a Cablack president- who routinely refers to himself as Black and so does the world. I guess sometimes race still matters – at least in the presidency and golf.
In fact, race just complicates things. I think most folks know that. However, I believe Tiger was taken by surprise by the world’s response to his transgressions. His reality has been shaped by a highly racialized bubble, which it would seem only he helped to fill. Tiger is bothered by being referred to as an African-American so he identifies as Cablinasian. And the golfing world tends to respect him for who he is or claims he is, not his reified, racial phenotype. Or so he thought? I would argue this is true with a caveat- his bubble is also filled with money and because he has so much of it, folks could perhaps sort of ignore his phenotype and race. The problem? We have just not have figured out how much money one needs in order for race not to matter. One thing we do know, it certainly ain’t a billion dollars. Ribbit. I bet he wished he could kiss a frog too. Maybe all this would go away.
Tiger is not alone. Princess and the froggeryism – i.e. implying to me, wanting desperately to be recognized as a part of the meta-narrative, and just being accepted as oneself and ultimately taking part in the Horatio Alger American dream, occurs in different spaces – including academic spaces. For example, I was talking to a professor recently who shared with me that he would feel like he had made it if he could only have something published in one particular journal. One that was considered ‘prestigious’, ‘tier-one’ or ‘highly valued’ is the funky language that was used. It drives me nuts when folks use this language freely as if they don’t realize it’s coded to imply that to publish elsewhere is deficit until someone claims it be ‘tier-one’. Wonder who makes that decision? A colleague at Miami University and I suggest that it’s the same coded deficit language that we hear in the real estate market. You should live in this particular neighborhood because the schools are really good. It’s a nice and safe neighborhood. Aaah, the burbs – where few folks of color of reside – just like those ‘prestigious’ spaces.
Nevertheless, I gasped, swallowed and then reminded the faculty member to connect the dots – from editorial board to published paper. I laid on my spiel about two degrees from Kevin Bacon but to no avail. Nothing would suffice other than having his work being affirmed by a journal that rarely publishes anything, if all that has to do with his highly engaging research focus. In fact, the journal, has rarely published anything by faculty of color unless the writing and the topic were comfy (don’t use the word race – talk about identity development or use identity politics – sounds smart don’t it?). Oh be quiet, you know it happens all of the time. I also spoke with another colleague who said he had submitted his writings to those same spaces only to be turned down, time and time again, and on the occasion he did have something accepted, he would have to change the paper so much it sounded nothing like the original. Now before you argue that the writing may not be up to par, both scholars are prolific. They both have plenty of articles in print and in press in so-called ‘highly regarded’ spaces. Their work is published in spaces where the readership is more than the three folks who want to cite a particular line in another paper that will be read by three more people – and the 400 to 1,000 subscription holders. When asked whether I had the same problem, I replied no, for a couple of reasons. I do not need the affirmation, but I also don’t read those journals. There are others I look to use in order to frame my work.
I had a faculty member refer to my and others deciding not to submit to certain spaces as self-fulfilling prophecy. You are not publishing there because you refuse to submit for fear of being rejected. Wow, I thought, how Carly Simon of you. You are so vain. Nope, I don’t submit because I neither have an interest in some academic spaces nor do I read particular academic pieces – just like others have no interest in my counter space – and guess what, that’s OK. In addition, I don’t refer to that as self-fulfilling prophecy, because in order to be self-fulfilled I would at least have to have a desire. I don’t. The same may be true for the folks who write to those other academic spaces. They more than likely don’t read my work or send their word to the journals where I send mine. I have also suggested before, that is the beauty of academic freedom – and just plain old freedom of thought.
So what about the movie? I did struggle. OK, not really. I do want to support those African-American actors who are employed by the film industry, but I am just not ready to put on the cotillion dress. So instead, as suggested by one of my former graduate students, I am prepared to send a donation to the Black actors’ and filmmakers’ guild. My kids want to know when I would be able to watch. I thought about it. I could watch the movie when folks of color were recognized for telling their own stories and it would be great if they were supported by everyone. I could watch when folks of color could be credited for telling NON-DEFICIT stories about folks of color. Think about what’s in the theaters now. Right? I could watch when the end of this redemptive story telling comes to fruition (you know the storyline-see film and TV where Black children and people are forever being saved from their own cultural incapacities. What you talkin’ bout Willis and how dangerous are the minds of Black youth? And just who gets to tell stories about Black folks in the academy and in The Academy). I could watch it if they would open up an honest discussion about why they ignored different groups altogether or they were willing to touch on the topic of equity and race in a cartoon.
Lastly, I would watch the film, when race really does not matter and not when racism is temporarily masked by the amount of money one acquires. So, for now at least, naw, I can’t do it. Besides, I finished this piece without having to donate my cash. So until there is some Tiger Woodsian attention for those types of transgressions – not interested in being invited to the cotillion. Let me put my dress up. Ribbit!
Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.