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Essay: ‘Mommy, I Can’t Be a Princess Because I Have Braids’

Image: "The Princess and The Frog"

A scene from the animated film "The Princess and the Frog" is shown in this undated publicity photo released to Reuters February 2, 2010. Walt Disney via Reuters file

I remember Prevy’s birth like it was yesterday. After 23 hours of labor and an emergency C-section, I finally got the chance to see my beautiful baby girl. She had a head full of curly hair and was the spitting image of my husband. Overcome with joy, as I looked into her eyes, I couldn’t help but cry.

Today Prevy is a vibrant four-year-old. She’s always asking questions, she likes reading books and she loves all things “Princess.” Just as any proud mom, I often find myself joyfully crying over her accomplishments and our special times together.

Recently, she brought me to tears again. We had another one of those special moments only this instance was far from joyous. It was a Friday morning; I was working at the computer when I heard Prevy sadly mumble, “Mom?”

I turned to find her slowly walking toward me with her face to the floor. “Babe, come here. What’s wrong?” I said. She made her way to me and sighed, “I just can’t be a princess.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Then she took a deep breath. “I just can’t be a princess because I have braids in my hair.”

At that moment my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “Who told you that?” I asked.

“I have to take the braids out so my hair can be like this,” she said as she ran her hands through her braids as to show that her hair needed to be straight. Then she dropped her head again. That’s when I realized it wasn’t anything someone had told her, it was something she had observed.

Among all the Disney princes, kings and queens, none are black... That’s when I realized this is more than shameful. It’s damaging to the black community.

I was speechless for a minute and even more so hurt. Prevy had seldom seen me without braids in my hair and, ironically, my nickname is Princess. In fact, most of my extended family members don’t know my real name. If she felt she couldn’t be a princess because of her braids, what did she think about me?

Fighting to hold back my tears, I raised her head again. “Prevy,” I said, “Give me a kiss; Now give me a hug. Look at me —It doesn’t matter if your hair is braided, straight, curly, or in twists. It doesn’t matter if it’s black, brown, or blonde. It doesn’t matter if you have dark skin, light skin, or white skin. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. Being a real princess is more about what’s on the inside. You can be a princess and you know what, you are a princess and you always will be. Your braids are beautiful and so are you. Do you understand?”

She shook her head and said yes. Evidently she did understand because throughout the rest of the day she sang “You gotta love, love, love, love, love, love, love yourself” — a song from one of her favorite shows, “The Wonder Pets.”

Although I was able to comfort my daughter, I pondered the complexity of her observation for several days. I considered the most popular “fairy tale” princesses. Among the thirteen Disney Princesses in the Disney Princess Franchise (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna and Elsa) there’s little variety. Sure, some have black hair, blonde hair, white and brown hair. There’s even one with red wavy hair.

Princess Tiana's Official Induction
A person dressed as Princess Tiana is joined on stage by all of the princesses of Disney movies during Princess Tiana's official induction into the Disney Princess Royal Court at The New York Palace Hotel on March 14, 2010 in New York City. Jemal Countess / Getty Images file

And while all of them being tall and slim creates a dilemma, to me, there’s an even greater problem. Only one princess is black, Tiana, and her hair is long and straight. But Disney isn’t the only company lacking diversity in this area. I’ve rarely seen black princesses in storybooks, cartoons and television programs. When I have observed them, their features have appeared generic to their European counterparts.

Further into my thinking, I realized something far worse… Among all the Disney princes, kings and queens, none are black. Even beyond Disney, I have never seen an animation nor children’s book with a black prince, king, or queen!

That’s when I realized this is more than shameful. It’s damaging to the black community and here’s why. The development of trust, security, confidence and self-esteem is established during the early stages of childhood. Children love to watch, imagine and imitate. They are fascinated by the arts and learn best when lessons are coupled with things they enjoy. This is something that primetime kid network organizations understand. That’s why their pre-school/elementary programming often consists of engaging animations combined with social-emotional and life skill lessons.

Our young black girls aren’t seeing black women as honored and cherished. Our black boys aren’t seeing black men as heroic and respected.

Princess characters are depicted as the most beautiful, kind and fair; the princess is one who is honored and cherished. She makes important decisions, learns life lesson and overcomes obstacles—She’s an overall role model for young girls to follow. The same can be said for all royal characters. The queen and the princess have similar characteristics while the prince and king are portrayed as respected, heroic and handsome gentlemen.

Thus, if whites are primarily given the “royal” roles (and they are), methods that most appeal to children aren’t teaching our black kids that they, nor others who look like them, are held at high-esteem. Our young black girls aren’t seeing black women as honored and cherished. Our black boys aren’t seeing black men as heroic and respected. Therefore, black children, as a whole, are taught that whites are most valued, beautiful and handsome.

Though we can tell our children that they are equally all of these things, they haven’t seen themselves represented as such in a way they understand. Hence, they struggle with having confidence in their own culture and physical appearance at an early age. Case in point: “I just can’t be a princess because I have braids in my hair.”

As African Americans, we need to use our resources to invest more time, money and talents into empowering our preschool and elementary-aged children. My daughter’s statement has inspired us to start a personal initiative called “The Regal Project."

So what should be done?

It would be great if major networks and publishers would be more diverse in this area, especially since there literally are and have always been black royals. But it’s not solely their responsibility. We’re living in an era where blacks have more opportunities than ever before. Technology has afforded more of us the opportunity to produce films, cartoon animation and programming. Self-publishing has created new opportunities for our aspiring authors. And we’re wealthier than we’ve ever been.

So, as African Americans, we need to use our resources to invest more time, money and talents into empowering our preschool and elementary-aged children. I’m a writer and my husband is an incredibly gifted artist and illustrator. My daughter’s statement has inspired us to start a personal initiative called “The Regal Project."

We’ll be publishing diverse princess storybooks along with other children’s books in which the main characters will be heroic black males. The stories won’t be overly Afrocentric, but tales with main characters to which black children can identify.

Our hope is that this article will motivate other writers, illustrators, animators and producers to create storybooks and animated films that will help encourage our children to take pride in who they are.

Truth be told, it’s past time they see themselves as royalty.

You can find out more about "The Regal Project" on Alicia Hadley's Facebook page.

Image: Princess Tiana Officially Joins the Disney Princess Royal Court
Princess Tiana officially joined the Disney Princess Royal Court at a star-studded crowning event at The Palace in New York City. AP file