Lately, there’s been some good rumbling about the dearth of stories that include characters of color (a New York Times critique, a “Top 10 Guide” in The Guardian, 30 Classics on The Griot) . As a father with a young daughter who’s been asking those difficult questions about her place in the world and how she sees herself through what’s around her, I know that this is a conversation that’s way past due.
At the beginning of the year, my daughter, Kavya, was utterly distraught she didn’t have “yellow hair” like Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled, and that most of her favorite characters didn’t look like her. This realization did not actually revolve around hair color: Merida has red hair, as does Ariel; Cinderella and Aurora are blonde; Snow white has black hair; Belle has brown hair. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocohontas, the three brown girls usually shoved in the back are irrelevant as they’re from the 1990s and show up in cameos in other princess’s shows or storybooks. What my daughter was experiencing was the same feeling that millions of other young girls also deal with: most of the stories in which she longs to play the lead are populated exclusively by white girls. That’s why this dad is on board with two very important social media movements: #DadsRead and #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Since January, I’ve been actively diversifying our bookshelf with non-traditional princess narratives – Pirate Princesses, Princeless Princesses, even boys who are princesses, and books with characters of color. But the one thing I couldn’t find until a few days ago was Rapunzel with black hair. The closest I came was Rapunzel: A Groovy Tale by Lynn Roberts, which came out in 2003ish. It’s a modernized retelling of Rapunzel where she has flaming red hair and is held captive in a crappy apartment with a broken lift by her evil lunch lady Aunt. I liked it. Kavya liked it. It is a good introduction to breaking the stranglehold of the golden haired Rapunzel narrative.
Last weekend, we went to Books of Wonder, the only bookshop in New York City dedicated just to children. There, I found an African retelling of Rapunzel by Rachel Isadora–this heroine has black hair. There’s even Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel by
Hands down, the most original retelling that has just come out in South Africa from local publisher, Jacana Press: Refilwe written by South African novelist and children’s book author, Zukiswa Wanner, and illustrated by Tamsin Hinrichsen from Cape Town. It’s an exciting retelling, where the author adds some lovely originality to the tired old story (oh, unlike the Lion King, it’s not set in an ubiquitous, one-nation Africa). Instead of Rapunzel, Wanner changes the mother’s craving to morogo, pumpkin leaves, and thankfully doesn’t name her character after it. And: “Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair,” says Wanner. The story is set in the Lesotho mountains, the geographic setting playing a major role in the narrative with the most striking change being the absence of a tower, replaced by a cave high up on a craggy cliff. This leads to a very catchy rhyme that kicks the ass of anything that ever came before it:
“Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks, so I can climb the scraggy rocks.”
When the witch finds out about this act of betrayal, scripted things happen: the prince is blinded and Refilwe is banished to the Northern Cape (how awful!). He finds Refilwe again by hearing her singing and the two are united, where we can assume everything ends happily ever after.
There is a great post (here) where Wanner talks about the inspiration for taking on this particular folktale and the secret to her particular adaptation: it comes down to the relationship she has with her own hair:
When Jacana asked me to take part in the project of adopting traditional fairy tales, it was natural that I would want to do Rapunzel. I was that young girl who fantasized about having long, flowing locks. I was that young girl who begged my mother to allow me to visit my aunt’s farm, not so much because I loved my aunt and cousin but because I would get the opportunity to spend hours brushing my cousin’s Barbie or Cindy dolls’ hair (I was deprived as a child. I never got any dolls and only ever got books for presents).
I was that young girl who felt in my early teens that being able to hold my hair in a pony tail was a major achievement and so, I would relax hair with Dark & Lovely, braid it overtime, and the moment it was long enough, stay for days on end with it in a pony tail. But I wanted to make Refilwe (Jacana 2014) something that I, as a young African girl, would have liked to read so that I wouldn’t have the sort of hair issues that I had growing up. And so it was that my Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.
The earliest existing versions of the Rapunzel story was from Italy, written in an obscure Neopolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile in 1634: Petrosinella, a type of parsley. The Germans then translated her name to Rapunzel. Cabbage. The Brothers Grimm’s version popularized the story, where Rapunzel became the girl with long, flowing golden hair. Even though none of the many versions of this story describe her with dark skin, it would be great to see more originality to the retelling, like what Jacana Press and Zukiswa Wanner are doing by Africanizing folktales that have been thought of as “owned” by a rigid European narrative, and along with that, European aesthetic expectations. As a Papa to a beautiful and intelligent daughter, I am down with expanding our notion of story. Now, can someone please bring back the acorns, ogress, and magic—all of which has been edited out?