In Celebration of The Black Mermaid.

As  a youngin, almost all of my favorite movies were Disney movies. I can vividly recall rewinding my Disney princess sing-a-long video, grabbing my robe and umbrella, then performing the entire choreography to the opening song in Mulan when her grandmother prepped her for bridal status. I even had a plastic cricket on a keychain that I carried on my side like she did, y’all. The Little Mermaid was next on my film obsession list, though my love for Ariel began and ended with her fiery red locks; Ursula always had a bigger grasp on my interest. Her personality was bold, make-up was sickening, and possessed a sensual allure that I couldn’t articulate as a child but have grown to appreciate over the years.

But back to mermaids.

My mom loved many songs when I was younger, but no song made her light up quite like Mami Wata by Bembaya Jazz National. Immediately as the song began, she would shriek, roll her hands, and try to mimic the drum sound, followed by a clap and indiscernible singing. I loved the song almost as much as my mom did, and was always fascinated by the notion of an African band singing about mermaids, two concepts that I would have never paired together. Fast forward a few years and I’m presenting a slideshow of bare-chested Black mermaids with natural hair to a room full of professors, friends and family members at my culminating presentation for my senior thesis. Sparing the details of all the stress-filled months leading up to the end of the thesis, the outcome of the project has been one of complete transformation and obsession.

I now can provide about ten different names for feminine water deities along with the languages they derive from. I’ve had at least twenty conversations with people about the relationship between Mami Wata and the Starbucks logo. I have a whole gallery of Black mermaid artwork that grows almost everyday? My own fascination runs deep, but it is undeniable that Black mermaid representation is missing in several facets. Why? The novelist Paul Beatty jokingly asks in his novel The Sellout “how come there aren’t any African-American mermaids? Beacause Black women hate to get their hair wet”. Interestingly enough, what has always intrigued me the most about them is the celebration of Black hair in their imagery. From locs and tight 4C afros to Nigerian geles and long-flowing tresses, there is always so much diversity that represents the vast beauty of Black women. There are scholars of Mami Wata that even allude to the figure’s queerness in some cultures, reminding us that non-binary figures have a celebrated space in spirituality.

As I consider the impact that this obsession has had on me, I recall a classmate telling me that after hearing my presentation, her niece reminded her of the connection between Mami Wata and Starbucks and how the project allowed her to think deeper about the connections between the two entities. I think about what it would have meant to me, a girl who has found all of her homes near bodies of water (i.e. East Coast-North America, West Coast-Africa, Hyde Park-Chicago) but still cannot swim, to see an image of a Black mermaid who looked like me at a young age. I wonder about how so much of our identity as Black folk is dependent on where we landed on the Atlantic ocean. I remember the souls of ancestors lost in the tide, manifested in our water spirits. Through Mami Wata, I celebrate the beauty of water in Black history.

Through my obsession, I am silently starting my own mini-revolution.


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