When I was around 10, my father used to call me his “Black Prince.” It wasn’t a nickname I readily embraced. He made it hard to, because, more often than not, the nickname was entombed in letters he’d written from one New York state prison or another. By the time I was 13, he’d been shot and killed by the police. His mental health issues far outweighed his true self.
Over time I came to realize, the nickname and those letters were seeds to a larger purpose. That purpose was challenged last summer at rallies, protests and vigils remembering George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others.
I risked arrest marching well after New York City curfews and demonstrating with groups that took over NYC bridges connecting Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. I felt privileged to be a part of those demonstrations. I was hospitalized just a few months before, spitting up mucus chunked with blood for two nights, stricken by COVID-19.
Yet, in this past year of infections, Clorox recommended cocktails, demonstrations, recounts and the takeover of Capitol Hill, my greatest reckoning now comes against the Princesses Elsa and Anna of Arendelle from Disney’s “Frozen.”
My young daughter, London, is obsessed with the ice princess Elsa like no other Disney princess she’s known. She’s had four different Elsa costumes that she’s worn down to shreds because she insists on wearing them literally 24 hours a day.
With this obsession, I shudder to think that my child might become one of those little brown girls in the famous “dolls test” studies done in the 1940s and 50s, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Subsequent studies, conducted nearly 60 years later by filmmaker Kiri Davis, still showed Black children describing white dolls as “nice” and “pretty.” Yet, those same children described black dolls as “bad” and “ugly.”
I have two older daughters who went through the requisite Disney princess phase that all parents must indulge and endure, but the “Frozen” iceberg is different. It’s almost cult-like, I confessed to a friend; but why?
Then it dawned on me.
Elsa has powers, magical powers. She’s the only Disney princess to command elements at will. As a bit of a comic book nerd, I know superpowers are a given to the fictional characters boys adore, almost as a birthright. Devotion to a favorite superhero requires boys to jump off beds and couches, out of trees and off the occasional rooftop mimicking said heroes.
This rite of passage isn’t as clear cut for girls, however, because only about one-third of all Marvel comic book or graphic novel characters are female, with only 12 percent being “major” characters (Disney owns Marvel by the way). When that’s contrasted against the fact that women represent 49.6 percent of the world’s population and 50.5 percent of the U.S. population, it’s no wonder Elsa and Anna of Arendelle enjoy such adoration.
Just like Elsa, little girls are desperate to see themselves as strong and powerful, even in their moments of doubt. Just as important, Elsa relies on the love and trust of her sister, Anna, in moments of crisis, not some sauntering prince.
But still, even with this realization of why my little one loves Elsa so much, I grapple with making sure she first loves her brown skin and soft wooly black hair that lovingly wraps her Afro-Latina heritage. “Frozen” doesn’t help me teach her that.
My daughter does not live in Arendelle, she lives in a place that NBA coach Doc Rivers describes as, “a country that doesn’t love us [Black people] back.”
Nonetheless, I try to do my part. Her mother and I have taken her to the Bronx Zoo dressed as a dinosaur, the Hayden Planetarium dressed as a Storm-Trooper and to the Battleship Intrepid dressed as Bessie Coleman. We go trick-or-treating with friends in Tuckahoe, New York. We helped paint the “Black Lives Matter” mural in Harlem. We went to outdoor concerts honoring Elijah Jovan McClain. We play tag in parks throughout Brooklyn, and all the while, I tell her she’s fast, she’s pretty, she’s smart and she’s a superhero.
And while my daughter London may be enamored with Princess Elsa, her real-life heroes are pictured in her room. Her oldest sister, Devin, is an assistant professor of sociology and urban studies at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. Devin and I marched with a group estimated at 10,000 across the Brooklyn Bridge last summer. Her other big sister, Dana, uses her culinary skills to convert her kitchen on Greene Street into a micro-bakery to support groups like the Okra Project. The Okra Project is a grassroots initiative that provides care for the underserved Black and brown trans community in Brooklyn. In the mix of it all, the four of us enjoy daddy-daughter days marveling at dinosaur bones or enjoying picnic lunches under Brooklyn’s bridges, filled with pizza and laughter.
My oldest daughters are both former Disney princesses who’ve come to realize that a tiara isn’t required for helping a community or reshaping the narrative of a nation. Besides, a princess tiara would probably be too small for their unapologetic afros, or likewise African-inspired braids.
“Snow White” was released by Disney in 1938. “Frozen” premiered in 2013. So basically, it took Disney 75 years to realize that girls can be powerful, loving and downright super, with or without a size zero waistline, an animal sidekick or signature song.
Unfortunately, too many Black fathers don’t have that kind of time to teach those lessons. Just ask the daughters of Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Sean Bell and countless others.
Calvin Z. Heyward is an educator, poet and playwright. He and his partner in humanity, Leyla, just welcomed another daughter, Charley, born May 2, 2021. She’s named after an uncle who was one of the first to integrate his high school in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1960s.
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Photos courtesy of Leyla Caballero, C. Z. Heyward and Dana Heyward
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