Take time out one day and watch what we surround our children with; what they are basked in. Watch what we imply is beautiful, acceptable and cute. Elsa, the magical ice queen of a stone castle who has the powers of God, and shows it off, strutting over a frozen landscape, creating life in her blonde hair and blue eyes. There is Belle, the girl that lived and fell in love with a beast. Snow white preferred seven dwarves, and lived in an enchanted forest. She was the most beautiful in all the land. We know she was the most beautiful because her skin was as white as snow.
And then there is the little mermaid; a beautiful hybrid of a thing; half human, half fish. She sells her voice to an enchantress to be able to live in the surface world. She charms a prince with such beauty only the rivers and oceans birth. Some might argue that there is a strong similarity between the little mermaid and Mami Wata. Well, some might.
Before I dive into the point of this article, let me start by saying that I take no issue with any of the aforementioned tales. They all have moral teachings that kids of every color can learn from. I also take no issue with the fact that they are not a representation of our culture. They are western, as they should be. They were after all written by westerners, most of which hadn’t even seen a black person at the time. They should have their stories as well as their say on what beauty is and is not. I do however take issue with Africans. We should have our stories as well, and not define beauty by the west.
It goes without saying that black beauty is gravely under represented, and the few times it is represented, it’s hardly accepted or presented in its purest form. You can be black and beautiful only if you can be sexualized. You can be black and beautiful only if you are light skinned. You can be black and beautiful only if you have a long Asian wig on, fake lashes and a contoured face ripe with Caucasian features. You can be black and beautiful only if you are digestible to the west.
In Africa we have an even more unique situation. In the middle of a dusty, hazy December, we sing let it snow let it snow and wish for a white Christmas during the holidays. Christmas cards are riddled with snow, reindeers, and white blushing children drinking eggnog. Santa clause is white, and wears a winter coat, and in over a hundred years he has not been replaced by something remotely African. As creative as we are as a people, we have not seen the importance in coming up with our own holiday characters. Chances are if you are an African parent your child has a western character plastered on his or her backpack. Perhaps a Disney princess. Chances are that the majority of their dolls or action figures are images of white characters. Thankfully this trend is ending within the African American community, but in Africa, there seems to be no end in sight.
Recently I asked a young mother to review a manuscript I had been working on. She asked what it was about and I told her it was a young adult African fantasy based on popular African folklore characters such as Madam Koikoi, Amadioha, and Mami Wata. Her face contoured with disgust with every character I mentioned, and at the mention of Mami Wata she dropped the book as if it were hot lava.
‘You want me to welcome witchcraft into my home,’ she said. I remember finding her perception of my manuscript curious. This was a woman who had all kinds of fairy-tales in her library. Tales of young girls kissing frogs; of boy wizards casting spells. This is a woman who was fine with fairies coming into her children’s bedroom at night and taking their fallen tooth from underneath their pillow, for what nefarious purpose one can only imagine. This woman’s daughter, like many other little girls, had an Elsa backpack. Still she couldn’t see the hypocrisy. The double standard.
‘Mami water is evil,’ she said. ‘That’s the difference between her and the little mermaid.’ In our back and forth arguments I learned that both Amadioha and Shango were evil as well, while Thor was a harmless action figure
‘You don’t understand; we don’t have folklores in Africa. These creatures are all real and once you start evoking them they will lure you in.’
‘I do understand that you think every African creation short of egusi soup and swallow is dark and questionable.’ Because to say Amadioha and Shango are evil, is to say that for millennia, Africans worshiped evil. It is to say that our land is evil.
In truth, I cant really blame her. We did it to ourselves. For over a century we have allowed western ideology erode every iota of what defines us, including our creativity. Amadioha for one is not evil, nor was he faultless. The deity we once referred to as Ekwensu was not in any way similar to the devil. As a matter of fact, he was the deity traders prayed to. He was the god of trade, strategy, and trickery. However due to the Igbo’s limited view on the concept of evil, the only character the colonialism could use to describe the devil was Ekwensu, a trickster god. This is like comparing Loki in the marvel movies to Satan.
The literary community owes it to our society to take charge of what is ours. We owe it to our society to find the things that make us unique and beautiful. Society owes the literary community its time and patronage. We need to tell our stories, or someone else will tell it for us. And when that happens, don’t be mad when you find a white man in a loin cloth being called the king of the jungle. Don’t be mad when Mami Wata is evil, and the little mermaid can do no wrong.
We must lead the charge in celebrating who we are. Until we do, no one else will.