- Fairy Tales with a Black Consciousness: Essays on Adaptations of Familiar Stories ed. by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, Ruth McKoy Lowery, Laretta Henderson
The study of folklore has always been both local and global, intensely focused on a single culture yet also deeply engaged with what goes on in the world at large. In many ways, anthropologists modeled how to access the local, traveling to remote regions, learning languages, and setting up camp in the cultures they study. And, like Claude Lévi-Strauss, they also put the local in conversation with the global as a way of understanding the culturally specific. But there is also something to be said for scholars who labor in libraries and archives, digging into narratives and excavating information from them. After all, Freud wrote one of the great landmarks of anthropological research, Totem and Taboo (1913), without ever venturing from his desk.
These days, scholars in the field of fairy-tale studies have been less invested in fieldwork than in literary and cultural studies. When Bruno Bettelheim argued for the revival of fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment in 1976, scholars were drawn into the orbit of the agenda he set, studying the magic, mystery, and violence of tales in the European canon. Given Bettelheim’s [End Page 126] orthodox Freudian readings of fairy tales, there was much to challenge and contest. Since then, there has been a powerful reorientation of the field toward multiple issues, ranging from the sexual politics of fairy-tale stereotypes to the cultural politics of fairy-tale adaptations. Yet the canon interrogated has remained fiercely Eurocentric, despite some efforts to expand the discipline into new areas of the world and to reach out to colleagues across geographic and disciplinary borders.
The editors of Fairy Tales with a Black Consciousness approach their work with the recognition that race has not occupied center stage in the study of fairy tales and children’s literature. They are also keenly aware that cultures which preserve their poetry in oral traditions have been excluded from the canon, nowhere more flagrantly perhaps than in the case of African American folklore and the lore of African cultures. Multiculturalism often comes, at least in schools, in the form of celebrating ethnic food, song, and dances, with the result that children in those classrooms begin to see two camps of people: “those whose culture is alien and weird and those whose culture is familiar and superior” (7). In thirteen essays, the contributors seek to show how Blackness is represented in fairy tales and to identify stories that encode Afrocentric ways of experiencing and knowing.
Black consciousness manifests itself in a range of ways. One set of essays (“Constructing Race in Traditional European Tales,” “Pinkney’s Aesop Fable,” and “Old Tales in New Clothing”) takes up attempts, failed and successful, to bring diversity to books for children. Jerry Pinkney, for example, unsettles race, class, and gender by taking familiar stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Nightingale” and hitting the refresh button with illustrations that give us characters with racial backgrounds that run counter to our expectations. In his award-winning The Lion and the Mouse (2009), he chooses Tanzania as a setting and raises questions about our ecosystem, turning the story into an allegory about a larger struggle on a global level. On the other hand, Rachel Isadora’s work is condemned by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw and Laura Anne Hudock for “peddling” an “exotic image” of Africa to her audiences and for exploiting the continent and its people in opportunistic ways (45). And Tyler Scott Smith similarly condemns Marilyn Shearer for failing to explore the full cultural implications of recasting Snow White as an African princess and producing a text that “falls short of being an important vehicle of inclusionary multicultural practices” (198).
We often forget that tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” are part of a global narrative tradition. Black Cinderella stories are not at all rare, and Deborah L...