Meet the Heatons! A middle-class American family from Abingdon, Va. This family is comprised of the head of household, Jeremiah Heaton, his wife, Kelly, their two sons Justin and Caleb, and their 7-year-old daughter, Emily. Jeremiah works in the mining industry and even attempted to run for Congress in 2012. However, he has managed to make the news for something that has less to do with Congressional politics and more to do with White supremacy and continued disrespect of the African continent.
Emily, like most little girls her age, has an affinity for princess stories. After asking her father if she would ever become a princess, Jeremiah began researching places that he could claim as king so that Emily’s dream of becoming a princess could come true. His quest landed him smack dab in Africa, right between Egypt and Sudan on the land of Bir Tawil. In the midst of turmoil between Egypt and Sudan, Jeremiah Heaton in all his supreme authority and invincible power, traveled to Bir Tawil, planted a flag made by his children, and Emily’s wish of becoming a princess was granted.
Bir Tawil is frequented by Bedouins. They are a nomadic people whose ancestral lineage is a part of the Bir Tawil land, which they roam. The Bedouin way of living differs from the Heaton family’s White American way of life, so one can’t expect the Heatons to understand it. But the Bedouins should be respected.
This move by Heaton is White supremacy at its finest and perpetuates the colonization of the African continent. Sticking a flag in the sand and claiming land that is not yours, which you did not cultivate or even buy, all the while benefiting from the resources of that country perpetuates the colonialist attitude that has raped Africa for decades.
Though this highly problematic story of White superiority and entitlement continues to hijack Africa of its riches and denigrate the history of African peoples, what is most alarming is that this story will be passed on for generations to come. It has been picked up by Disney for development into a film called The Princess of North Sudan.
Disney has paid for the rights to Heaton’s story, and while many are in an uproar about it, we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not like Disney has any respect for the stories of Black and brown people. In 2009, Disney released The Princess and the Frog featuring its very first Black princess, Tiana. It only took a mere 72 years since Disney’s first studio film release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 to make this happen. I, along with many Black film enthusiasts, was elated at the idea that little Black girls would finally have an animated depiction of a princess who looked like them. But we don’t look like frogs. The Princess and the Frog ended up being adapted from the Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince.
But what makes this recent decision by Disney to develop this story for the big screen so offensive is the fact that they don’t need to. Africa is overflowing with a rich oral history full of folklore and folktales of kings, queens, princes and princesses. Full of magical moments, love stories, adventure, family bonds, and happily ever after. And there are plenty other classic stories based in the continent that deserve to be shared. Here are a few authentically African princess stories we love that Disney could adapt instead:
Written by African-American author and illustrator John Steptoe in 1988, the popular children’s story takes place in an African village where kindhearted villager Mufaro and his two beautiful daughters Manyara and Nyasha live. Nyasha has taken on her father’s attributes and is giving. But unbeknownst to Mufaro, Manyara is mean and selfish. Mufaro gets word from the city that the king is looking for “the most worthy and beautiful daughters in the land” to marry. Mufaro can’t choose between his daughters as they are both equally beautiful, so he decides to take both of his daughters to the city so the king can decide for himself. Instead of traveling with her family, Manyara takes off toward the city in the middle of the night hoping to get there before her sister and be chosen as queen. On the way, she is faced with a few tests that challenge her character. Nyasha leaves the next morning with her father. She also has to take on the challenging tests, but she handles them with compassion and grace. Once they arrive at the palace, they realize the tests were set up by the king to see which sister possessed not only physical beauty, but inner beauty as well. The king chooses Nyasha to wed, and she becomes queen.
This Akamba legend is the story of a princess with beautiful long hair. According to the tale, she has “the loveliest hair in the world.” Singing maidens weave her hair into magical plaits every evening, which causes her hair to grow even longer. The maidens even adorn her hair with gold and carry her hair so that it won’t touch the ground. The princess loves all of the attention. One day as she sits in the garden getting her hair done, a bird lands on the garden wall and asks the princess for a strand of her hair to make a nest. The princess is so into her hair she feels disrespected that the bird would even ask her such a question. She denies the bird’s request. The bird casts a spell on the princess, which causes all of her hair to fall out and brings drought and famine to the kingdom. A young beggar boy named Muoma wants to help the kingdom and sets out to find the bird to ask if the spell can be broken. On his way, he faces a few tests where he has to practice kindness and share the last of his food and water with a mouse, an ant, and a flower. Because Muoma shows how kind he is, the spell is broken. Muoma helps to save the kingdom from the drought and famine, and the hair of the princess grows back. She falls in love with Muoma, for he truly showed her the meaning of kindness. Muoma and the princess marry and live happily ever after.
This tale from South Africa is often compared to Cinderella but we think it’s much better. Nomi, an adventurous young girl, is being starved by her father’s second wife. On a day out exploring her village, she meets and becomes friends with a fish at the stream. The fish brings Nomi food. Nomi’s evil stepmother becomes very suspicious and follows Nomi to the stream one day. When she sees Nomi has made a friend in the fish and the fish is bringing her food, the evil stepmother kills and eats the fish. But the fish had already predicted his demise and told Nomi that when the day came that he is eaten to throw his bones in the village chief’s garden. Nomi does just that. The next day the chief solicits help from whomever can bring the bones to him and offers his hand in marriage as the reward. Nomi is the only one who can do it. The two are married and live happily ever after.