Mickey, Meet Anansi

       Why We Need Black Folktale Films

  Alexander McNab

NOVEMBER 1, 2020 | See the source image USC application essay

          I have always been asked to explain my identity, but for most of my life, I didn’t have the answers. I did not know why I have dark skin but “good hair”. I did not know why my father looks White but identifies as Black. I did not know what it means to be both Belizean and Black, both well-educated and Black, both middle class and Black.

          Absent of answers, I looked to Black stories to learn what Blackness really is and why a part of it seemed to be missing from me. With big hair, African clothes, and Ebonics sprinkled over Standard English, I looked noticeably different but felt starkly the same. At my core, I was just as Black with my dashiki and afro as I was with my t-shirt and loose curls. Rather than generating deeper cultural connection, my path of self-discovery through Black media led me to a minstrel-ized monstrosity of myself.

                                                                    Alexander McNab

          Last December, 11 years after I turned into a caricature of my own culture, I finally understood why those books and films failed to bring me to the Blackness I had been searching for.

          On Christmas Day, I video chatted with a White friend of mine in rural Wisconsin, and we shared our holiday traditions.

          When it came to music, our cultural differences were clear. She listened to “White Christmas” while I listened to “This Christmas”. She listened to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” while I listened to “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”.

          Yet, when the conversation turned to television and film, we were, suddenly, on the same page. Both of us grew up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Chuck Jones’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

          Of course, there are Black holiday films, but movies like Last Holiday and A Madea Christmas are simply Black films with Christmas themes. They are not Christmas cultural canon.

          Similarly, the stories I consulted all those years ago while trying to cement my cultural identity, are stories featuring Black themes, but they aren’t Black stories. The journeys of Malcom X and Mookie and Marlon Riggs reflect various Black traumas and different Black experiences, but they are not the stories that define our culture.

          When I think of what has defined my cultural sense of self, I realize that none of my true understanding of my own Blackness comes from media. A folk is defined by their folktales, and thanks to The Walt Disney Company, I have been molded by folk and fairy tales from around the globe, from Germany’s Snow White to the Middle East’s Aladdin. Yet, the only mainstream film adaptation of Black folk folktales, 1946’s Song of the South, is one of the only films Disney won’t release.

  Song of the South (Walt Disney Productions, 1946)

          How can I know what my Blackness means when I know more about the English Alice in Wonderland than about the Akan Anansi the Spider? How do I understand my identity when I am more familiar with France’s Beauty and the Beast than with the Southern Black Br’er Rabbit?

          If I can say anything definitive about Black folk, it is that we are a disappearing people, not in terms of our numbers but in terms of our identities.

          In an episode of 1996’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, this identity disappearance is embodied by the show’s three main characters, each of whom slowly starts to become transparent as they forget who they are.

          By the end of the episode, they regain their full physical form as they retell defining stories that contribute to each of their personal identities.

          While the blondes in Sabrina regain their sense of self, the Black cultural body continues to disappear as we too forget the stories that define us. As in Sabrina, I want to tell stories that remind my folk who we are so that we too can get our bodies back.

  Sabrina, the Teenage Witch S4E4: “Little Orphan Hilda” (ABC, 1999)

          My mission of telling Black folktales to regain Black folks’ bodies is deeply personal as I am doubly invisible. In addition to growing up without any Black stories to contextualize my cultural identity, I was also raised knowing very little about my own family.

          It was only later in life that I learned why my father immigrated to L.A. from Belize, why my mother and father never married, why my uncle rose to success only to fall back into poverty. Even now when I can tell the story of my family’s migration, my parents’ love, my uncle’s misfortune, there are still so many basic facts about my family that I don’t know.

          Where does my father live? What do my sisters look like? What does my grandfather do?

          Many of these questions have answers that I am not yet ready to hear.

          “I’ll have to prepare you before you go to Belize,” my father tells me whenever I mention travelling there in search of our stories.

          Some of these answers I will never know.

          “Do not go looking for your sisters,” my father warns.

          Given the inaccessibility of these stories, I will always be a little invisible. There will always be a transparent part of me.

   Maddie Morris

          In addition to the constant questions about my cultural identity, my uncertainty about my family is another significant motivating factor in my quest to better understand my folk. While so much about my family is unknowable, I feel empowered to access the disappeared parts of my culture if only I go to the right places, speak to the right people, and retell the right stories.

          In my view, to be “woke” requires both social consciousness and self-consciousness. My folk and I are asleep to who we are.

          Unlike Ellison’s invisible man, I am not disappeared by the blindness of those around me. I am disappeared by my blindness to myself.

          Nevertheless, in the face of the dirt that disguises us from our self-image, stories are my shovel. I wield them and uncover the roots of my people, and through them, I open our eyes to ourselves.