The Princess & Precious

I HAVE YET to see either “Precious” or “The Princess and the Frog” and am still feeling ambivalent. At first I wasn’t sure about what was feeding this reluctance, but all became clear when I was driving home late earlier in the week listening to a public radio call-in show whose topic that night was the first black Disney princess, Tiana. Since I came in late, I didn’t hear how the show was contextually situated. Rather, I ended up punching in the middle of a woman’s reverie about how she and her middle-aged African-American female posse had rushed to the theater to take a look at Disney’s princess, that they didn’t bring daughters or nieces or little sisters. They brought themselves and cried in the dark. “Finally,” a black movie-screen princess. They “needed” their princess. Had “waited so many years” for their princess. Felt “cheated” without their princess.

By the time I’d arrived, sitting in my driveway, still listening –the infamous NPR Driveway Moment — I wondered why all this wasn’t resonating with me quite the same way.

I grew up on Disney too. My mother took my brother and me to see a Snow White revival back in the day. I liked the songs; fell in love with Dopey (of course) went home whistling for weeks. I saw the others, Cinderella and whatever else until I grew out of it all (One of my favorites, The Aristocats, didn’t have to do with a princess at all, but now that I recall there was one kitten named thusly.). But I don’t remember being pre-occupied about the fact that there wasn’t a black princess as of yet. I had other, deeper issues with cartoons — Disney, Warner Bros., and the like. Many of them had to do with these deflating moments where you’d be laughing at something ridiculous Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or Mickey Mouse or whomever would be doing and then out of nowhere some cartoon visage “corked-up” in inky blackface and exaggerated lips would pop up and spoil not just the moment, but the day. The emotion was some mixture of confusion and hurt that even to this day I don’t quite have a word/name for. It just lingered without a name which, I think, was what gave it more space than it deserved for longer than it should have.

Hearing these women talk the other night over the radio signal made me wonder why was it that I didn’t have the same reaction, that I didn’t feel like the princess was missing from my life, even though I probably was around the same age of the more enthusiastic callers. I had black dolls. I had a library well-represented by black books and what I didn’t have we’d go — my brother and mother and I — to the library to explore. We’d bring the books home and I’d excitedly show them to my father.There they were. Those stories on the page. I found that even then, I gravitated toward “real” stories. Even if they were troubling. I would stare at those famous Civil Rights Movement pictures — police dogs and fire hoses vs. peaceful protesters. There was confusion in that too, but it was different that the Disney/Warner Bros. version. I was learning something.

As timing would have it, the other buzzword on so many lips is another black female, a splashy, big-screen event of a whole different sort: Precious. The movie, based on a novel written by Sapphire more than a decade ago, is the heart-stomping story of a young African-American woman who experiences all manner of personal indignities and happens to rise up ultimately. It was hard reading. Harrowing. I interviewed Sapphire for the Times when the book came out. (And back then there was also a flurry pre-publication buzz for it too). Women are coming out of the theater wrecked, in tears or completely silent, gutted by it. The trailer itself had me going, I wondered, with all else that is going on right now, if I were strong enough to see this story, just now — a different black woman from the Princess but one who has become familiar within column inches of the newspaper, or “reality” T.V. dramas, or a certain type of fiction. A black woman who continues to pull life’s short-straws. It’s a sort of ‘blackness’ that has become a shorthand for ‘black experience.’ And, even with Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama in the White House, I just wonder what’s lies in-between on screen the Princess and Precious and why, even now, in year 2009, the contemporary black woman who simply *is* still isn’t as compelling as screen-fodder — it’s fantasy: or so hyper-real it bends. I guess that means ultimately, we’re not looking for a prince, but something more like balance

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