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Disney’s First Black Princess

By Aisha Al-Muslim

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Originally Published in Fall 2007

Princess Tiana, the first black princess in Walt Disney Animation Studios history, will debut on the big screen in 2009. But her impending arrival has already evoked some nervous anticipation in the African-American community.

“Just knowing that there is going to be a black princess, for me, that is not enough,” said Betrade Banoum, a Black and Women Studies professor at Lehman College. “We need to know the storyline.”

Disney announced in March that it is working on the new film, “The Princess and the Frog,” the story of a young African-American girl living in New Orleans during the 1920s Jazz Age.

The animated film, which previously went under the working title “The Frog Princess,” is scored with jazz by composer Randy Newman. It is based on an original story written by Disney’s John Musker and Ron Clements, the creators of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Disney did not provide details of the storyline, but the company released preliminary drawings from the movie.

Tiana (Copyright Disney)

In the African-American community, many people are asking why Disney took so long to come up with a black princess. And some have been asking for such a figure for years, long before Princess Tiana was conceived.

After a trip with her daughter to Walt Disney World in 2005, Katrina Helm, from North Carolina, started an online petition asking Disney why they did not have a black princess. According to Helm, a representative from Disney responded by saying that there were “no African-American fairy tales.”

Helm was troubled when the representative, who allegedly said that “African-Americans have ‘Lion King’ out of Africa.” Helm was offended. She felt the Disney representative had insensitively compared African-Americans to wild animals. Since Disney’s motto is “We Make All Dreams Come True,” Helm felt that Disney had the responsibility to make her child’s and other African-American children’s dreams come true.

Twelve-year-old Sheleasa Ward, who lives in Castle Hill in the Bronx, has gone to Disneyland more than six times with her parents and watches Disney Channel movies all the time. She feels that Helm’s petition was rejected too quickly by Disney.

“I thought that they just rejected her like ‘get out of here,’ there are no black fairytales, so we’re not going to get a black princess,” Ward said.

Mulan (Copyright Disney)

There are already other Disney princesses that represent almost every ethnic group: Asian (Mulan), Native American (Pocahontas) and Middle Eastern (Jasmine). There are also Caucasian princesses – Snow White, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid.

Many people in the African-American community wonder how this lack of representation affects the self-image of their children, especially black girls.

“Images are very important, so they have to convey the right message because they really get imprinted in children from a very young age,” said Banoum, who chairs Lehman’s Women’s Studies Department.

Ward feels that Disney finally gets the message that having a black princess is important for the black community.

“They understand that they need a black princess now,” said Ward. “I hope they don’t make her look rugged and bad stuff happens. They better make good stuff happen to her and make her look pretty.”

Princess Tiana caused some controversy when she was originally named “Maddy” since many blacks thought that it supported the stereotypical lower-class black name and because she was going to be a chambermaid. Ward does not understand why Disney would even decide to name the black princess “Maddy,” because she thinks it does not reflect the culture of the black community.

A Disney spokeswoman refused to comment on the storyline or the name change. “We generally do not talk about things that are pre-developed,” said Heidi Trotta, spokeswoman for Walt Disney Studios.

According to published reports, instead of a chambermaid, Princess Tiana will be a 19-year-old heroine in a Broadway-style musical. Her character will be voiced by Tony Award winning actress Anika Noni Rose. These reports say the villain of the movie will be a black Voodoo magician and fortune teller who will be known as “Dr. Duvalier.” And of course, if there is a princess, there has to be a prince. His name was originally going to be “Harry,” but in the revised script, that has also been changed – to “Naveen.”

Although Disney officials insist that the story and its characters will be treated with respect and sensitivity, the lack of information about the plot continues to concern Banoum and others in the black community.

“If it is just going to have a black princess and she comes with all the flaws, then it would have been better not to have her,” said Banoum. “It is a very powerful statement, so it has to be done right.”

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