"In Bayou Magic, I bring in the cultural tradition of African mermaids - Mami Wata, the mother goddesses." - Jewell Parker Rhodes
Like a lot of other 90s kids I grew up watching the Disney classic The Little Mermaid. I watched it so much that today I still know every aspect of the plot and every lyric to each song by heart. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I never really saw diverse representation of mermaids or sirens. I rarely ever encountered any that were Black. After doing a little research, I spent part of the summer embarking on the journey of reading as many books as I could that featured Black mermaids and sirens. These books, also featured at the bottom of this post, ranged in everything from subject matter to target audience. Some were light-hearted while others were more impactful. What they had in common was their commentary on the Black experience.
Mermaids and sirens are fantastical creatures; however, they have both religious and historical importance to the Black community. Books like Bayou Magic, The Jumbies, and Sukey and the Mermaid explore the existence of a mermaid by the name of Mami Wata or Mama D’Leau who is known for assisting and guiding slaves during the transatlantic voyage from West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. In contrast, books like A Song Below Water connect fantasy to the modern experience of the Black community particularly the experiences of Black women. The Deep, a short but emotionally impactful book, addresses the generational and cyclical trauma carried by a great number of individuals in the Black community. It beautifully comments on the healing process that needs to occur within the community to prevent the cycle from continuing.
These books may be laced with myth, legend, and folklore but their importance and beauty lies within their ability to use storytelling as the catalyst for the Black experience. They are a constant reminder that shared experience is an important aspect of representation. When I read A Song Below Water I felt seen as a Black woman and when I read The Deep I felt as though the painful aspects of my Black experience were validated. What started off as a challenge to find and read books with Black mermaids and sirens became a lesson in history and identity. I would have never imagined that I would have learned so much about myself and my heritage. It has been and will continue to be an unforgettable experience.
#OwnVoices at Richland Library is a way for African American staff to provide thoughtful and well written book reviews, book lists and blog posts to promote African American authors and their work about the African American experience. The series invites our customers to learn one more way we are continuing the conversation in our community and speaking our voice. Find more resources on race, equity and inclusion, here.