When I was a little girl my father told me I was a princess. I’m sure many little girls are told this at some point in their lives, but it wasn’t metaphorical when my father said it. He meant it. According to him, he had descended from a long line of Isoko royals in the delta region of Nigeria. At the time, I believed him.
I recently read a wonderful piece by Alyssa Cole, the author of recently released royal romance novel A Princess in Theory. The article is what inspired me to write this post and in it, Cole explains that while White women might be tired of princess narratives, Black women haven’t been portrayed as princesses often enough for princess fatigue to set in. It’s very easy to dismiss a narrative if you’re always at the center of it. Black women rarely get portrayed as beautiful, delicate, desirable, royal, or damsels in distress.
The revelation that I was a princess came at the time in my life when I had started to get obsessed with princesses, especially Disney princesses. My obsession with royals then expanded from Disney princesses to real life royals. My mother was a fan of Princess Diana and King Hussein of Jordan. Her interest became mine. I adored Diana, and finding out that I was a princess like her filled me with an immense joy.
I was also, unfortunately at the time, relentlessly bullied by the other girls at the international school I went to. But now, armed with the knowledge of my royal heritage, I marched across the playground and told the other girls what my father had told me. I was a princess. What I was going to inherit with this title, I didn’t know, but I blurted out the truth in a futile effort to gain their favor and respect. Or at the very least to get them to stop bullying me. Like many children, I was a people pleaser, utterly incapable of accepting the fact that some people were simply too cruel to be worth my time. Of course, my revelation backfired. The girls laughed and mock me. Where was my crown? My scepter? My royal clothes? Why didn’t I have long flowing hair? Why didn’t I look like all the Disney princesses? Their implication was clear: I didn’t look like the princesses we had all been raised on. All of these girls were White like most of the Disney princesses at the time. I was not, and because of this, my attachment to princesses was an apparent absurdity.
The rejection stung, but I held on tightly to what my father told me. I was determined to convince my White classmates, but I struggled to find a way to do it. Where were the princesses who looked like me? The search was at times thrilling and painful. Black princesses in the media that was spoon fed to me were few and far between. My first glimpse of a Black royal was in a children’s book a teacher read to us in class: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. The book tells the story of two beautiful sisters who are invited to a king’s palace as he searches for a bride. When our teacher read the story I was transfixed. The illustrations of two beautiful Black African girls, with their glorious natural hair like mine encouraged me through years that I suffered being bullied for my dark skin. It was the first time I saw Black girls being described as beautiful and in the end, one of the sisters becomes queen. Not a princess like I was obsessed with, but a royal nonetheless.
My next glimpse of a Black princess came when my parents let me watch Coming to America. For one thing, the queen, played by Madge Sinclair got to wear fancy clothes and my Jamaican mother was quick to point out that Sinclair was Jamaican like she was. That filled me with an extra dose of pride because I didn’t have much access to media that included Jamaican women. Best of all, the heroine in the movie ends up marrying a prince and gets to wear the poofiest pink dress of all time. That pink dress was everything to me as a kid and honestly, it still is.
But nothing, and I mean nothing changed my life the way Brandy Norwood did in Cinderella. Because of my Disney obsession, I had made a natural progression to an obsession with fairy tales. And having a Black fairy tale princess to watch was the most wonderful feeling. I think a lot of Black girls grew up with this movie, and for me, it was affirming in a way that nothing else had ever been.
Adolescence came, and for a while, I couldn’t find any Black princess stories to hold on to. The princess of Liechtenstein was Black, but she wasn’t featured in the mostly Americanized media that I consumed. Years passed, and then Disney announced that it was finally going to have a Black princess. My excitement for The Princess and the Frog was brief because like Alyssa Cole points out in her article, Tiana spends a huge amount of time in the movie in frog form. I was an adult at the time Tiana came out but I could imagine how little Black girls probably felt. Despite loving Tiana’s dresses and loving Prince Naveen I felt betrayed and disappointed. It was a missed opportunity and if I’m going to be honest, a slap in the face.
There was another princess that I discovered after Disney. The internet helped me to stumble upon the most gorgeous photo of Sara Forbes Bonetta, a 19th century West African princess. There was something about the photos of her in that enormous gown that will probably always captivate me. Her beauty and regal bearing are so evident in the photos.
And then, the Black princesses sort of disappeared again. Until this year. Meghan Markle is about to marry Prince Harry. Romance authors are publishing royal romances that feature Black heroines, and I’m discovering royal romances that I missed last year. This year seems to be something of a breakthrough, a perfect storm a so many things happening at once. Meghan Markle’s wedding, Princess Shuri being awesome in Black Panther, and more Black heroines appearing in royal romance novels than ever before.
I never did convince my classmates that I was an actual princess. My father was probably lying. Even with the knowledge that one of my cousins became a Chief towards the end of his life, I’ve often wondered if it was a purchased title. My cousin was wealthy after all, so on the financial front, he got much closer to royalty than I ever did. Still, I don’t have any easy answers or lessons from the girls who bullied me. They were awful to me, and after many years I got over it. I suppose the one lesson I did learn is that I managed to get through the bullying mostly because once in a while I got a Black princess narrative that I could hold on to. And that’s the real reason why we need more princess narratives with Black girls, so that every Black girl can see that they too can be a princess.