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Long before 'The Little Mermaid' remake, Black mermaids were swimming through African folklore

From the cover of "Soul of the Deep" by Natasha Bowen. (Courtesy)
From the cover of "Soul of the Deep" by Natasha Bowen. (Courtesy)

From the moment Disney released the first trailer for the upcoming live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” the internet has been dominated by angry voices who say it’s “unrealistic” for Black actress Halle Bailey to play Ariel.

But stories about mermaids aren’t exclusive to Western fairytales. Long before Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” was published in 1837, Black mermaids were swimming their way through African folklore.

Natasha Bowen wrote “Skin of the Sea” and “Soul of the Deep,” a young adult fantasy series about Black mermaids. Instead of building a story on the typical Western mythology around mermaids, Bowen chose to draw from West Africa.

Author Natasha Bowen reading her book “Skin of the Sea.” (Courtesy of Natasha Bowen)

“Whenever I write, I always include characters that look like me and my family, my friends,” Bowen says. “My father is from Nigeria, and so looking more into the origins and the goddesses and the beliefs behind them led me to the story.”

One mermaid-like figure featured prominently in African folklore is Mami Wata — a seductive water spirit with a dangerous edge.

“The Mami Wata that most of the people that I knew grew up with … was used as a deterrent,” Bowen says. “So like lots of fairy tales, they were told to scare children and make them beware of any dangers. Mami Wata was kind of a scary figure to make sure you don’t drown or you don’t venture too much into deep water.”

Bowen hoped to subvert some of the lore around Mami Wata in her own storytelling.

“I wanted to make her into a better version, so not a … typical kind of siren and vicious-like mermaid,” she says. “I wanted her to be an entity that was about courage and uplifting various people around her.”

Another crucial figure in African folklore is Yemoja, a half-woman, half-fish deity of the Yoruba religion. And beliefs around Yemoja are closely tied to the transatlantic slave trade.

“[Yemoja] was a goddess of river in the streams. And the stories go, depending on who’s telling them, is that she left those rivers and streams to follow the first enslaved people,” Bowen says. “Some people believe that she wrecked the slave ship. Some believe that she offered the enslaved comfort, and others believe that she returned their soul home if they died in the sea.”

So if this rich African folklore around mermaids exists, why all the backlash around a Black Ariel? Bowen says it’s all about the kinds of stories we are exposed to.

“When I’m teaching children, they will often … assume that the way that story should be is what they’ve consumed over the years. And I think we’re fed that version of mermaids, which is pale-skinned with red hair or blond hair. And that’s been the norm for so long,” she says. “But there are beliefs of mermaids in every culture, and I think it’s important to reflect that.”

Representation is important not just for Black people — but for everyone, Bowen says.

“I think speaking from Black mermaids, we need to see ourselves in positions as magical creatures. There’s all the furo about Black people in fantasy. And I think that it’s important for us to see ourselves — to have that freedom of imagination. And I think it’s important for everyone else to see us in those roles as well,” Bowen says. “You can only grow yourself when you learn more about other people and other cultures.”

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Saxena adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: ‘Skin of the Sea’

By Natasha Bowen

Excerpted from Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen. Copyright © 2021 by Natasha Bowen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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