This column first appeared in the July 19, 2019 issue of BLAC Detroit Magazine

Three seconds after Disney announced that a black woman would star as Ariel in the upcoming live action production of the animated classic, The Little Mermaid, Twitter was ablaze with the online petition #NotMyAriel. Racists and cartoon purists argued that Ariel should not be played by actor Halle Bailey, who is neither white nor a redhead like the 1989 character.

The folks at Disney were quick to defend their choice of leading lady. They pointed out that the original children’s story was penned in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and that Danes come in many colors, including black. Besides, they argued, The Little Mermaid is a cartoon, not a biopicThey could cast her as pink if they wanted to.

Politics make strange bedfellows, but so do fish, evidently. Even though I applaud Disney’s bold choice, I’m voting with the #NotMyAriel contingent. I have no problem with Bailey playing a mermaid; I just don’t like the idea of her playing Ariel.

I’ve been obsessed with mermaids for several years now. I’m sure it has something to do with spending so much time with my parents, who live in coastal Virginia near Norfolk, home to the largest naval base in the world.

You can’t evade mermaids in Norfolk. As the city’s mascot, they adorn everything from storefronts, to breweries and street signs. There are mermaid sculptures in the public parks. And my favorite Norfolk tourist T-shirt bears a silhouette of a mermaid and says “Be Mer-mazing.”

My childhood concept of mermaids was shaped by the European image of a woman with pale white skin, flowing hair, and shimmering blue-green scales (anybody remember Daryl Hannah in Splash?). But when I did some research, I learned that the idea of a fish-woman was as ubiquitous in the ancient world as the archetype of the earth mother.

For centuries, the Inuit of Alaska worshiped Sedna, the mother of all sea mammals. And in the Caribbean, the mermaid called Lasirn holds a mirror, a window between this world and the underwater world. To become a Vodou priestess, some women say they go with Lasirn into the water world and emerge with new powers.

My favorite mermaid, though, is Mami Wata, who has had followers in more than 20 countries across Africa for centuries. Scholars disagree on whether her name is pidgin English for “Mother Water,” or whether her name originates in ancient Egypt.

But they agree that the deity often holds a snake, the common symbol of African water gods. Mami Wata is as powerful as she is mercurial. She can bring you good luck or crush you mercilessly. Her sexuality is sometimes dangerous, sometimes ecstatic, but always alluring.  

This notion of a powerful, half-woman, half-fish sea creature suffered considerably in the hands of European writers. In Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the mythological creature not only lacks a voice, but also a soul. The story is more about her quest for eternal life than it is about winning the love of a handsome prince.

But my least favorite mermaid of all is the Disney version, where we find Ariel living a life of privilege as the daughter of the mighty King Triton. Evidently, that’s not good enough for the brooding teen.

She’s a self-hating wannabe, who will only be happy if she can live above ground married to a handsome prince. She’s internalized her oppression so completely, that she doesn’t seem to realize that she’s already a princess.

Let’s be real. Disney – and fairytales in general – have long filled children’s heads with unhealthy, dated ideals. But in the infinite ocean of fairytale flotsam, The Little Mermaid is the biggest fish tale ever. Ariel not only gives away her voice in exchange for a chance to love a human, she forsakes her heritage in the process.

Here’s what I want to know. Who’s gonna have the nerve to snatch a black woman’s voice in the live action version of the story? And what man will be worth a black Ariel turning her back on her own people? I hope the story takes a surprise turn in its modern iteration, and the black mermaid gets possessed by her ancestral water spirit guide, Mama Wata.

Maybe this time, she will lift her voice, not surrender it. Maybe she will give her human prince an ultimatum: Leave those pesky legs behind and live in my world where I’m already royalty. If you can’t love me on my terms, no worries. There are plenty other fish in the sea.  


America and Her Merciless Brand of Capitalism, Born of Slave Labor

This column first appeared in BLAC Detroit Magazine, October 3,2019

For many, the history of the United States of America begins with the rebellion of the 13 colonies and their quest for freedom from England’s tyranny. The birth of our nation is about the lofty principles that the colonists fought and died for: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But it’s rare that we ask: Why were the colonies founded in the first place? Hint: It wasn’t for the sake of freedom or even religious liberty.

It was for corporate profits. If this year’s commemoration of the arrival of the first Africans to the colonies in 1619 reminds us of anything, it should be of how low capitalism can go when left unchecked. Corporate values set the table for the unique institution of slavery in the United States, and still affects how we see labor today.

In the 1600s, England was too broke to compete with Spain and France in exploring the New World. Instead of relying on empty government coffers, King James I decided to let private enterprise foot the bill. He chartered two private corporations in 1606, more than 150 years before the American Revolution: the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth.

The companies had investors or “adventurers” who put up money or labor to settle land in America. (Back then, “Virginia” was a general term for all the land the English claimed, which went from “sea to sea” and included Michigan.) It didn’t take long for the free enterprising companies to take advantage of their monopoly. They siphoned off huge salaries for the officers. They exploited the poor. They recruited those seeking religious freedom or those interested in forcing Christianity upon the Native peoples.

At one point, people were expected to pay their own passage to America and pay an additional fee to use the land once they arrived. The companies instituted a lucrative lottery for land in America. It cheated so many poor people, the king shut it down. Native American hostility, harsh winters, disease, sunken supply ships and corruption killed profits.

In 1624, the Crown dissolved the corporations and assumed direct control of the colonies. But by then, corporations had planted more than tobacco into the Virginia soil. They had also planted what has been dubbed “low road capitalism” – a form of capitalism that thrives upon the unbridled exploitation of labor. Even when entire colonies were decimated by war, starvation and disease, corporate interests pressed on. The possibility of profit was worth the human life. 

In 1619, the White Lion docked in Virginia with about 20 Angolans it had pirated from a Spanish ship. Although there was no clear policy about slavery in the Virginia colonies at the time, the Africans were quickly sold into bondage. The answer to the white investors’ need for bountiful, expendable human labor had been answered. We know slavery’s lasting impact on almost every aspect of American life, but we rarely explore the way it shaped labor relations.

“Slavery pulled down all workers’ wages,” observed Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond in his piece for the New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project. “Labor power had little chance when the bosses could choose between buying people, renting them, contracting indentured servants, taking on apprentices or hiring children and prisoners.”

As we commemorate that fateful day in 1619, it’s important to remember that the English arrived on these shores as corporate investors who built white fortunes on the backs of slave labor. Their view of labor as an expendable resource undergirds today’s anti-union economy that traps workers in dangerous working conditions, poverty wages and widespread job insecurity.

The enslaved Africans who were exploited by American capitalism also rose to fight against it. Former slaves were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Black Union Army soldiers refused to be paid $3 less a month than white soldiers, arguing that they had “dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union and Democracy.” In 1864, they won retroactive equal pay. A. Phillip Randolph organized black porters who were locked out of union protections. 

Booker T. Washington challenged labor unions in 1913 to “unite with those who want to give every man, regardless of color, race or creed, what Colonel Roosevelt calls the ‘square deal’ in the matters of labor.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when he turned his focus to labor and the poor people’s campaign.

In the United States, capitalism took the lowest road, but African Americans have continued to fight to take it higher. Blacks have been at the forefront of the labor movement from its inception and remain committed to the real American values: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all. 

Cabin for enslaved laborers at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia

Cabin for enslaved laborers at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia

Guess Who? A conversation between an author and her cover artist

A first book is a special moment in an author’s life. After spending years honing my collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, it came time to find a cover. I spent hours searching online for the perfect art. I wanted something surreal, not literal. I love vibrant colors and didn’t want the book to appear to be a dreary tome full of rhetoric about race and gender. I wanted it to be inviting to women of all races and ages, and for the art to preferably be made by a woman or a person of color. It was a tall order.

I searched “African American surreal art” and the gods of search engines offered up the astounding digital art of Karin Miller. As soon as I saw her work, I knew I wanted it to grace the cover of my book. It was a magical choice. Because of her art, my book won a da Vinci Eye Award for design in 2017.

Miller, it turns out, is not African American, but a white South African. Born in Pretoria, she is an accomplished digital mixed media artist. The married mother of four worked as an information designer in Johannesburg for close to 15 years until she became a visual artist specializing in collage.

Despite being raised on the other side of the world, she plays with the same themes I grapple with in my work: women’s rights, racial equality, ethnicity, classism and beauty. She takes prominent political figures and places them in striking settings, reducing their mystery and power (more on that in the interview below). Her art references religious iconography and highlight the ways the races are connected despite the history of racial strife in South Africa. Better yet, her work is bright, strident and often funny. I was in love.

I was thrilled when she agreed to chat with me about her work:

Desiree Cooper: Your  piece, “Guess Who?,” graces the cover of my book. When I first saw it, it spoke to me profoundly. The classic, 1950s styling of the women reflected the perfect American ideal of womanhood, wifehood and motherhood. The fact that the women have exactly the same faces but are of different races made me smile – we are so much more alike than different. And the fact that each woman is blindfolding the other says how much women participate in gender politics themselves, sometimes becoming their own worst enemies. 

Can you tell me more about the piece, your thought process and the symbolism? 

“Guess Who?” by Karin Miller

“Guess Who?” by Karin Miller

Karin Miller: I created “Guess Who?” in 2011. One of the advantages of being an artist is that I can manipulate my subject, in this instance the ultimate colonial icon, Queen Elizabeth II, into someone else. I wondered what would have been the destiny of a charming, but non-royal, Elizabeth if she had been born and bred in South Africa.

 That’s so funny. I had no idea that the woman depicted was Queen Elizabeth II!

Miller: Artworks are open to interpretation and I love yours!

 What are the drivers of your art? What themes stoke your creativity? 

 Miller: I am, and always have been, interested in cultural dynamics. My art comments on social issues. Religion, politics, sex, race and patterns have been my main themes although I am finding politics becoming rather too overwhelming for me to handle right now.

I use irony to make serious themes more accessible. From political figures to celebrities, I have come to believe that no person should ever be idolized and put on a pedestal. This can be applied to the subject of mothers (and fathers) too. Mutual respect seems to be the answer—respect for each other, for life and for nature. 

 Did you have a formative life experience that shaped you as an artist?  

 Miller: I was born in South Africa in 1957 and have lived though, and experienced, important times and events in history, especially the history of my country. No one born in South Arica can deny that racial and cultural differences add to the complexity of our unique social fabric. Diversity lends interest and vibrancy to our society but also holds the potential for misunderstanding and conflict born of ignorance and a lack of respect for the “other.”    

Themes including the Madonna and Child spool through your work. How does your experience as a mother affect your art?

Miller: I am married with three adult children. As a mother, I have been keenly aware of the significance of every new human life and the huge sense of responsibility it brings.

 Well adjusted kids will hopefully make well adjusted adults who could ultimately make the world a more harmonious, peaceful place.

I can’t thank the Internet enough for giving me a way to find you. As a digital artist, how do you interact with a global audience?

I have a website and a Facebook page. I love the fact that the Internet allows us to communicate with people across the world. My interest in cultural differences, one I have had since childhood, flourishes online. And in a sense, the ability to connect directly with people around the world breaks down barriers and gives us more knowledge, which gives us power. Unfortunately this also means that we are losing our identities as individuals, to a certain extent. I guess that’s a good thing?


Karin Miller is represented by the Holden Manz Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. To view her work, go to: www.karinmiller.co.za

“Self Portrait” by Karin Miller

“Self Portrait” by Karin Miller