"Beauty and the Beast," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel," were all familiar childhood stories, that cultivated the imagination and piqued childhood interest. In classic popular literature, however, these picture books were cast with white characters thus leaving the Black child to wonder whether anyone during the story's time period was around that looked like them. After further research, you may be surprised to find that many fairytales such as "Beauty and the Beast" have African origins.
"...you may be surprised to find that many fairy tales such as "Beauty and the Beast" have African origins."
Though the minor details of "Beauty and the Beast" are not an exact replica, the main theme of a father who has to contend with a beast when seeking marriage for one of his daughters is the same. The daughters have distinct personalities, one is helpful to her father and the other is rude and haughty. The helpful daughter ends up spending time with the beast and grows fond of its company and magically turns the beast back into a human after demonstrating human kindness.
"The Snake with Five Heads" was retold in 1919 by Ethel McPherson in the book, "Native Fairy Tales from South Africa." McPherson acknowledges authorship of the stories within the Zulu and the Sesuto's native tongue "before being swept away by the oncoming tide of European civilization." This story predates "Beauty and the Beast" and according to James Deutch of Smithsonianmag.com "traditional tales of a bride and her animal groom have circulated orally for centuries in Africa, Asia, Europe and India." Belle's original name was Zanyani and sister Kazi was quite rude and selfish. Zanyani wins the heart of the beast by passing the test to grind corn and bake tasty cakes.
The 1988 retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" and illustration by Fred Crump Jr. under the title, "A Rose for Zemira" is a delightful read. It is important to note that in the second printing (color) published by Winston-Derek Publishing Group Crump adds on the back cover page the African origin reveal.
"What a big difference this lesser known fact [of African origins] could impress upon a young Black child."
What a big difference this lesser known fact could impress upon a young Black child. Having African origins with all-Black characters is a far cry from the all-white cast of Disney's 1991 film, or the 2017 movie. The sole exception was Toni Braxton's appearance from 1998-1999 as the first and only African American to be cast as the main character, Belle during a 12 year run of the Broadway play. Unfortunately, there is no widely available version in book nor film form which indicate any traces of the African roots of the story.
Enter Fred Crump Jr.'s retelling of over 12 classic fairy tales including "Beauty and the Beast," "Mgambo and the Tigers," "Hakim and Grenita," "Thumbelina," "Mother Goose," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Jamako and the Beanstalk," "Afrotina and the Three Bears," "Rapunzel," "Rumpelstiltskin," "The Ebony Duckling" and, "The Other Little Angel," He published over 40 books featuring African American characters.
The illustrations in "A Rose for Zemira" are spectacular. All the characters are Black including the handsome male the beast becomes. The book immediately gets your attention with it's opening sentence:
"There was once a time when the moon and stars sprinkled silver dust across the land. And the dust made magic... and mystery... and sometimes mischief."
The tall palm trees, the huts with straw roofs, the abundance of animals, jewelry, and fabric textures in each scene is mesmerizing. Each page is an explosion of colors densely populated with texture and statues. For a child, there is plenty to wonder and ask about beyond the text.
Disney missed the distinction of showcasing an all-Black cast in "The Princess and the Frog." The original fairy tale is one that also appears in McPherson's book by the same name as "The Princess and the Frog", but the storyline differs quite a bit. In the original, the princess doesn't marry the frog. Instead, the frog saves her life by carrying her in his mouth across a river to find her birth mother. The frog doesn't become human in the end either. Disney's version which is reported to originate from The Brother's Grimm "retelling" of "The Frog Prince" got some community backlash because the frog that became a prince in the story is not Black, and some asked, "Why not?" The Black Man is certainly fit to be the prince, unless of course, some other reason was discussed behind the scenes. While we do not know why the final decision was made, requests for books on "The Princess and the Frog" have waned considerably in our bookstore and I have noticed that at least one of the books that sold well when the movie came out is no longer available from our supplier. Though it is unfortunate that all the fanfare has faded fast on this sour note, it is certainly evidence that there is a need for such depictions of Black men and women living "happily ever after.". Though I believe Disney missed a huge opportunity, I hope that a Black owned film company fulfills this desire in even grandeur style far exceeding whatever Disney could have accomplished. Gone are the days of begging or pleading with others for what we are capable of providing for ourselves. I've seen many high quality illustrators like those that did "Kirikou and the Sorceress" that could make this happen. The animation and the message are beyond measure. I couldn't give a higher recommendation to watch a stunning example of what is possible.
The retelling of Rapunzel by Crump features a young woman with long braids locked up in a tower. The wicked witch and Prince Komandi are both ebony hued. And before we presume that this story could never have origins in Africa, we need to research the women of Namibia. They have been called Africa's Rapunzels and are known as the Balantu Women. Though the German colonizers tried to abolish the tradition of growing hair beyond 6 feet in length, the women stood their ground and have maintained their length. Apparently, there is a special mixture of herbs prepared and applied to the hair regularly to promote fast growth. Who's to say which came first, Rapunzel, or the Balantu Women? While I will not venture down this road in detail, I invite the reader to venture forward with questions like these and many many others that we used to take as true without question.
The importance of depicting Black characters for Black children goes far beyond the self-validating aspects received when seeing reflections of ourselves in the world. Fairy tales are some of the most repeated stories heard in our upbringing and are often pointed to in teaching life lessons. Though it can be understandably argued that some lessons are overly idealistic, they serve as a reference point (be it good bad or other) used to determine how we compare to societal norms. The model is often touted as "ending like a fairy tale." Even those who are in staunch disagreement with its ideals are challenged to communicate to today's teenager effectively without using these Western building blocks of what is considered "civil" versus "primitive." Once the main character is shown in Black, however, the message is that greatness is possible for all. Without this change the message is also clear without words that greatness is only possible for some.
"...greatness is possible for all."
I believe Fred Crump Jr. was a pioneer in the re-telling and illustrating of characters from fairy tales as Black. When I was initially exposed to them, I didn't realize some of the original tales were set in Africa and started off as Black characters. I do predict that soon all of these books will be collector's items unless someone steps up to re-publish them. If you want to make a great investment in a book that is likely to appreciate in value and capture the imagination of a child, The Fred Crump books are a must.
We're happy to have 8 of Crump's series still in print through our website including "A Rose for Zemira," "Beauty and the Beast," "Rapunzel," "The Ebony Duckling," "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Other Little Angel," and "The Little Mermaid." The others are harder to find and therefore have become much higher in price. Email us if there's title you'd like us to research at firstname.lastname@example.org