"It's not easy being green? Try being brown in a sea of white surrounded by blue." That's a line from my collections of essays about life and love, Bitch Is the New Black. In the essay "The Beatitudes of St. Clair," I wrote about being the only little brown girl living in Avalon, a white evangelistic town on the tiny island of Catalina, off the California coast. My mother and I ran away together there when I was 7.
This is around the time I developed a very healthy and necessary obsession with Keisha Knight Pulliam, the Hayley Mills of the late '80s. Her TV movie, Polly, an adaptation of Pollyanna, was the ultimate good-girl-gone-even-better fairy tale. Polly transforms a small, segregated Southern town into a tiny utopia with nothing more than pluck and tap shoes. I figured if she could do that, then maybe someday I'd get picked first for kickball or maybe even get a first kiss. Neither happened in Catalina. But the dream that little black girls could star in their own fairy tales, that they could do something superhuman, lived on.
As an adult I recognize that the fairy tales I told myself as a kid don't always come true. That being a "strong black woman" ain't all it's cracked up to be. That there are indeed many cracks in that stank face. That the bitch armor — chinks and all — is no lasting replacement for a knight in shining armor. Nevertheless, I was excited last year when Disney released The Princess and the Frog. Black women and girls everywhere were overjoyed that finally they'd get to see themselves on the big screen. But the movie didn't tell your typical princess story.
According to the New York Times, the movie "strenuously avoids race." Well, perhaps it avoids race as some people view it, through the very narrow lens of blatant categorization. Sure, the film's main character, Tiana (played by Anika Noni Rose), never talks about conquering the "metaphysical dilemma of being colored," but she does represent the very grown-up and, in my opinion, uniquely African-American and female instinct to stay a predetermined course to success. "I know exactly where I'm going," says Tiana, whose plan is to work hard, save her money and become a business owner. "I'm getting closer and closer every day."
Of course, when we get our princess, she's pushing a broom and counting her pennies. "It serves me right for wishing on stars," Tiana laments once she's transformed from a waitress into an amphibian. "The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work."
She's leaps and bounds from someone like, say, real-life future princess Kate Middleton, who will wed Prince William of Wales in the spring or summer of 2011. Kate, who now goes by "Catherine," has spent the last eight years as a princess-in-training. She earned herself the nickname "Waity Katey" in the British press because of her lengthy courtship to William, during which time her actual occupation was unknown.
For now I'm sure that Kate (and the media machine that has sprung up around her) is more than happy that she has the job of getting married. It seems that princesses of a certain class and color don't have to do anything but. While promoting Princess and the Frog back in 2009, Rose said that "the definition of princess has changed" with new icons like Tiana, who isn't spending her days "searching for a prince" but instead is looking to create her own reality. That statement seems very "soul sister," very sister-circle at the end of For Colored Girls. That black "princesses" need not look for their prince and instead should focus on what's in front of them — that's reality. It's a harsh truth that I agree with in theory but not in practice.
Dreaming should be for everyone — not just the Catherine Middletons of the world. At the end of the movie, Tiana's beginning fantasy sequence of being a successful woman comes true, but with the added bonus of a prince as her partner. So maybe the moral of the story is to act like a waitress but think like a princess.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.