The moment I feel even remotely vulnerable —be that the fragile morning after an inhibition-free night, the familiar shiver of cold and flu symptoms or the helpless pit of despair that engulfs me when my mental health begins to plummet —you’ll find me curled up on the settee, under a protective layer of blankets, shamelessly watching movies filled with childhood nostalgia. Movies like Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) have sat firmly in this arsenal of self-care classics ever since I can remember, enveloping me in carefree hug at a moment's notice.
But movies that transport me to a place of innocence and ignited imagination without having to strain to envision myself within these fantasy worlds, however, are in short supply. As a dual-heritage Black kid growing up in the 90s, opportunities to feel represented in my escapism were limited. Slightly too old to be impacted by Disney’s Princess and the Frog, I found meaning, and myself, in classics such as Roger and Hammerstein's Cinderella (starring Brandy, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg) and Motown’s The Wiz (an adaption of the Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross and Micheal Jackson). It’s for these reasons that I am unashamedly excited for Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel is played by Halle Bailey.
There’s no shortage of discourse on representation politics, the ongoing need for fairer representation in the media we consume and the ways the lack of it impacts people of colour of all ages. This importance can be felt most viscerally via a quick TikTok search of The Little Mermaid, where endless streams of reaction videos showcase the unadulterated joy of Black children when seeing the latest trailer.
Move over to Twitter, however, and you’ll likely be bombarded by bigotry and bias. The hashtag #NotMyAriel is trending amongst outrage and disgust at a Black actor being cast to play a fictional character. To quote writer and academic Saidiya Hartman, “So much of the work of oppression is policing the imagination”, and whilst simultaneously comical, embarrassing and triggering to witness, this backlash served as a reminder that no matter how frivolous our sources of joy may be, whiteness will attempt to steal every ounce of it.
The fantasy of merpeople lived in the cosmologies of our Black and indigenous ancestors long before Hans Christian Anderson coined his fable in the 19th century
In decolonising our imagination — by challenging the Eurocentric erasure of Black and Indigenous wisdoms, creativities and experiences — we’re able to recognise that whilst the remake of The Little Mermaid is important to many (myself included), we can also find ourselves represented in our own cultural storytelling, folktales and mythologies. We don’t need to rely on the white gaze of Western capitalism to feel seen and heard. In letting go of that gaze, we are reminded that the fantasy of merpeople lived in the cosmologies of our Black and indigenous ancestors long before Hans Christian Anderson coined his fable in the 19th century, and certainly before Disney offered our generation a capitalist mascot in their 1989 animated adaptation.
“All children, irrespective of race, creed, religion, deserve to see themselves reflected in books and films. We owe it to their self-esteem, to their creativity, to their imaginations. The imagination of a child is boundless, and it is the imaginations of this current generation of children that will ultimately provide solutions to some of the most pressing crises faced by the world today,” writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, Mary Ononokpono tells Refinery29's Unbothered.
A final year doctoral candidate, Mary’s ongoing research into the lives of coastal Biafran women during the Atlantic Age and Age of Abolition has sparked an informal interest in the ways that pre-colonial African communities were informed by a belief in and fear of water spirits. Known colloquially as ‘Orishas’ or ‘Ndem’ these deities were thought to have been sent by a supreme or higher god to populate, protect and service the earth, and continue to be worshipped today.
“Racial injustice is ultimately rooted in historical illiteracy. If people don’t understand how we got to this point as a society, injustice will persist. In that respect, the decolonisation of the cosmologies, mythologies and folklore of Black Atlantic societies has a really important part to play,” she continues.
Some pre-colonial water spirits include Yemaya — a goddess of the ocean, who, legend has it, created the seven seas. Believed to be a fierce protector of women, this water spirit is still worshipped across the world, such as by those of Santería faith in Cuba who were transported across waters during the transatlantic slave trade. It is said that to connect with Yemaya, holding a shell to our ears will carry her messages in the sound of waves.
Another pre-colonial deity is Oshun, the goddess of divinity, femininity, fertility, beauty and love. Considered to be one of the most powerful orishas, she’s both heralded as the nurturer of humanity and feared as a benevolent being, whose earthly punishments come in the forms of floods and droughts. In Nigeria, annual celebrations continue to take place along its Oshun river, where pilgrims pay homage, make sacrifices, and ask the deity to grant wealth, health and happiness. Often depicted in yellow robes, Oshun is rumoured to be the ethereal muse behind Beyonce’s numerous works, referenced in both the lyrics and symbolisms of her visual album Lemonade and her ode to the African diaspora, Black is King.
Elsewhere in Brazil, the Tupi people celebrate Iara, commonly referred to as “the Lady of the Lake”. A great warrior who was betrayed by her brothers, Iara is a water spirit with a princess-like origin story — minus the damsel in distress trope. Often likened to other South American tales of sea witches and goddesses, over time Iara manifests in recent imaginations as a merging of the two, feared and revered for her power to lure men to the bottom of the ocean.
Perhaps one of the more infamously depicted deities however is Mami Wata. Also known as Watramama or ‘Mother of the Water’, this water spirit is part human, part fish, and is often depicted as interchangeable genders. Considered to hold the important role of blessing the souls who died at sea, Mami Wata has held cultural and religious significance to the African diaspora for centuries. Mami Wata is celebrated in festivals such as the Epe-Ekpe festival in Togo for example, and is commemorated across multiple artforms; from exhibitions in the Smithsonian and Knockout Centre to featuring as the protagonist in Natasha Bowen’s young adult fiction, Skin of the Sea.
Another work of fiction which draws sources from Indigenous histories is Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, a book I have read and reread numerous times. Here, Aycayia, a mermaid of Taíno legend, who has the lower torso of a fish and a human upper torso adorned in tribal tattoos, is reimagined. Drawing inspiration from the Taíno population who inhabited Hispaniola (now the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and were made extinct after being ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in the 15th Century, Aycayia’s tale is one of colonialism, displacement, belonging, love and violence.
It’s through the honest and respectful retellings and reinterpretations of pre-colonial imaginations that diasporas of colour of all ages can truly see ourselves represented. As an avid wild swimmer who has always felt an affinity and attraction to merpeople despite being relatively disinterested in fantasy and sci-fi genres, I feel more at home in these nature-adoring narratives that offer an insight into my heritage than I ever have in any Disney movie.
Chantay is a tattoo artist who specialises in Black depictions of ethereal deities. Her merpeople, fairies, cupids and nymphs sit amongst rockpools, toadstools and flowerbeds, sporting voluminous afros, cascading dreadlocks and woven cornrows.
It's for these reasons that I’d always craved a mermaid tattoo, but after one wildly uncomfortable experience involving a white tattooist and a failed attempt at depicting afro hair, I’ve been cautious of finding an artist who could dream up a mermaid that actually looks like me. So, when I stumbled across Chantay Blue’s instagram I was overjoyed! Chantay is a tattoo artist who specialises in Black depictions of ethereal deities. Her merpeople, fairies, cupids and nymphs sit amongst rockpools, toadstools and flowerbeds, sporting voluminous afros, cascading dreadlocks and woven cornrows. Earlier this year, I had the honour of getting one of Chantay’s merpeople inked on my forearm. There she sits, glistening as bubbles rise around her, her billowing curls trailing to the part of her waist where scales meet skin.
Catching up over Zoom, Chantay and I discuss her approach to tattooing — itself a form of expression rooted in Indigenous practices that predates colonialism — and its revolutionary potential to reclaim a sense of identity and belonging. “When you get artwork tattooed on your skin you want something beautiful, something that reflects what beauty is to you, but most of the time we’re only offered images of white faces and features,” she says.
“All this does is reinforce the same beauty stereotypes that were forced on us in stories about merpeople and fairies when we were growing up. It doesn’t sit right with me, that you go for a beautiful tattoo and a white artist inks another white person on your arm or leg,” she continues, “I want people to be able to see their own beauty in my tattoos — it helps me feel beautiful when I’m drawing these stunning creatures that look like me too. I think it speaks to my inner child who was always into mermaids, but never saw myself in them.”
Through a decolonising lens we can reclaim our voices, stories, perspectives and imaginations and enjoy a blockbuster movie for what it is...
Whether through feature-length movies, fictional novels, tattoos, exhibitions, music or oral histories, when we are able to access ourselves in our own cultural storytelling, we’re reminded that we never needed the approval of whiteness to do so. With the racist rantings of grown adults on social media reframed as inconsequential white noise, we can also relinquish ourselves from the politics of representation, and no longer rely on white-dominated industries to dictate when and how our valid need to feel seen is met. Much like the ways that Ursula steals the voice of Ariel in the classic story, the commercialised capitalist legacies of colonialism silence the narratives of our ancestors. Through a decolonising lens, we can reclaim our voices, stories, perspectives and imaginations and enjoy a blockbuster movie for what it is, without feeling uncomfortably reliant on it to speak to our sense of self. So, whilst you’ll most certainly find me tucked up on the sofa, my cat secured in the little spoon position, embracing the 2023 remake with childlike wonderment, I can’t help but wonder: wouldn’t it have been nice if we could’ve seen the tales of our own water spirits — Aycayia’s, Mama Wata’s or Oshun’s perhaps — depicted on the big screen too?