Updated: Jun 10
By Dr. Omileye "Omi" Achikeobi-Lewis, DACM, M.Ed, MAOM, LCMHC, LAc
Just before lunch today, I decided to take a butchers through the newspapers and saw all sorts of drama, as per usual, but one article caught my attention and it was the one in the Guardian, entitled, "Disney’s The Little Mermaid flops in China amid racist backlash over casting". The article goes on to mention that the movie flopped in both China and South Korea because people could not accept the re-casting of The Little Mermaid as a black female. In fact, it received a 2.5 star review on Douban, a popular review site in China.
Just when I thought no more The Little Mermaid articles could catch my eye, another one did. This time it was one written by Tayo Bero and was entitled. The Global Backlash Against the Little Mermaid Proves we Need a Black Ariel. Bero makes an important point, "More than just fodder for nostalgia, these classic stories are part of US myth-building about itself. Making a Black woman the central figure in that myth disrupts the well-established hierarchies that have been embedded in that national narrative." Bero's statement made me think of the chapter I am writing in my up and coming new book, The Story's in the Blood: Alchemy of Healing the Racialized Trauma Body (just know this is the working title for the book, it might change). As I researched the chapter, Reclaiming the Sacred Self, I discovered this "Myth-Making" Bero speaks about has long roots and teeth.
One of the books I came across in my research for that second chapter, Reclaiming the Sacred Self, is Racism in American Popular Media by Brian Behnken and Gregory Smithers. I could not put it down, because it confirmed everything I could not quite articulate. I am a visual thinker. I think in images, and when I was a Clinical Mental Health Psychotherapist placed in a high needs school in Asheville North Carolina, I remember seeing up to thirty students a week. I also remember the snide and down-right derogatory comments I would hear from Administrators, teachers, and the like about the black children in the school. These comments were often accompanied by frequent penalizing actions. When I counseled these children I saw their brightness and light, and became super conscious they did not see that light reflected back to them.
One day I decided to organize a mindfulness group for the children. I felt they needed some peace in their life. I wanted the black children, in particular, to come into contact with their light. For each group lesson, I would prepare materials. I began to notice something interesting, I could find lots of fun quirky images of white children in meditation and yoga postures, but only clip art or the same few pictures of black children engaged in the same activities. I noticed the lack of these fun quirky images for black children, made them engage a little less in the mindfulness exercises. When they did see images of themselves they engaged much more. It almost became my casual experiment.
Two years latter, I remember thinking it was time for me to build a counseling website,. I wanted those quirky images of black children in yoga and meditation postures I had hankered after. I was shocked, that I still encountered the same problem, that I had way back then. Where were the images of black children being embodiments of peace, love, beauty, and joy? I was so mad with the situation, that my anger made me produce my first image of a young black girl with two puffies, who looked like my daughter, sitting peacefully in a mediation. I had sketched her in a small art book, and wrote the words underneath her image, "I am Love". Know I am not a trained artist, I think my anger made something beautiful, quirk-filled, and satisfying come out. I couldn't wait to share it with the world, aka my small circle of Facebook friends. I had no idea that my mads would have twenty more paintings in store. This time as they flew out of me, they would be grace large canvases,
I had no idea if the images would reach a wider audience. Every night I would lie in bed, and my mads would conjure up images of thousands of black and white children seeing my artwork. Each night, I felt a little sorrowful, as I thought this would never happen. But one day, my mads conjured up an Acquisitions Editor from North Atlantic Books, and the rest is history. The images got published as a book, with a story I wrote to accompany them. The book won a Kirkus Starred review. I had no idea what that truly meant, but the excited team at the publishing company told me that it was an honor. I latter discovered from a google search, "a Kirkus Starred Review is given to only 10% of 8,000 - 10,000 books reviewed by the magazine each year." I digress, but I do want to mention for my birthday, which was just the other day, I walked into my local bookstore Malaprop and there was the book, My heart flew open, and not sound corny, but my heart really did fly open.
Okay, forgive me I have Caribbean blood, and the Trini part of me loves to tell a story, but one thing, we do circle back to the main point. The main point of what I am saying is images do matter, and have always been used to racialize the body and our memories. So back to my chapter Reclaiming the Sacred Self, and the book Racism in American Popular Media by Brian Behnken and Gregory Smithers. They clarify that "Race and racism punctuated virtually all facets of American Life during the nineteenth and twentieth century", and it was the four forms of media: fictional and non fictional books, advertising, movies, and cartoons where representations of "racist and sexist beliefs and behaviors was both replicated and made anew with each new book, film, advertisement, and/or cartoon". In fact, Brian and Gregory state, it was through these mediums, "Americans were exposed to visual and aural cues that naturalized white supremacy at the expense of African-Americans, Native American's Mexican Americans and other Latino, and people of Asian Ancestry."
Being a therapist dealing with trauma all the time, I believe that images can create trauma tracks in our individual and collective minds. The other day, I flicked open My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa Menakem, who said one of his mentors revealed, "if it is hysterical, then it is historical." We see this with the reaction to the main character in The Little Mermaid being a beautiful young black girl. But, who cares about her beauty, in the collective trauma tracks of these hysterically reacting people, is the Mammy character of Gone With the Wind or Mammy Two Shoes in the Tom and Jerry Cartoons. These are the images that were consumed and continue to be consumed in many different guises. There seems to be a truth in the words of Brian and Gregory when they say, "so often Americans see such characters, so ubiquitous were they that these types of characters and racist baggage that accompanied them became normative for many Americans." And that is why Tayo Bero is so on point when she says, "For some white American parents, having a young Black woman at the helm of a story about identity and self-discovery is simply unacceptable".
As an Artist in Residence for the Asheville City School system, I have been called upon to teach thousands of kids to paint images like the ones in My Heart Flies Open. My husband, who helps out sometimes with the workshops, pointed out something interesting one day, "have you noticed how most of the white kids paint their character brown and a very dark brown, even when you tell them they can paint their character any color. " After he said that, I began to make a point of taking notice, and he was right. One day I noticed that one a young white female student spent almost 20 minutes of the 60 minutes paint the perfect color brown. And by the way, let me tell you something brown is a very hard color to mix. They were so proud of themselves when they mixed it, held the drawing up for us to see, and said, "look miss Omi, isn't she beautiful". Under her painting was the affirmation, "I Am Enough". It is one of the affirmations in My Heart Flies Open. I remember a beloved creative friend sharing with me "an image seen cannot be unseen, but it can be replaced by another one."
Achikeobi-Lewis. O. 2021. My Heart Flies Open. North Atlantic Books
Behnken. B., Smithers. G. 2015. Racism in American Popular Media. Praeger.
Bero. T. 2023. The global backlash against The Little Mermaid proves why we needed a Black Ariel. The Guardian. Retrieved on May 9th 2023
Menakem. R. 2017. My Grandmother's Hands. Central Recovery Press.