What will she be for Halloween?
When Jacob, now in college, was about ten, he was a nurse shark for Halloween. He wore scrubs borrowed from a family friend in the medical field and fashioned an ominous fin sticking out of his back. He carried a blood pressure cuff and created a medical nametag that said “Nurse Shark.” The next year, he dressed all in white and pinned a large orange circle to his mid-section. He wore horns and carried a pitchfork—a deviled egg. Looking back on photos of Jacob each Halloween, the theme was playing with language. It seemed to start as far back as second grade when he taped a two-liter Coke container to his face and went as a bottle-nosed dolphin.
Jamie, 11, an avid gum chewer, went as a bubble gum machine last Halloween, and Liam, our techy kid, was a robot early on. Bill and I don’t like to spend much money on Halloween costumes, preferring to allow the kids to scrounge something together from the way-too-much stuff we have laying around the house. Through the years, I’ve been amazed at how each child manages to pull off a costume that speaks to his or her interest and personality. This year, Jamie is an iPad, probably because as the youngest in the family, she isn’t allowed much device time. If you can’t have your own iPad, you might as well be one for Halloween. Liam (still the family tech support) helped her print out large-sized versions of the app icons to glue on her foam core board.
But it is Teenasia’s costumes that have somehow been the most poignant to me. Once she graduated from the small child stage of costumes that I chose (preschool Jamie and Teenasia as bumblebees and little Liam as the beekeeper) and could choose them for herself, Teenasia has often dressed as African American women she admired. She was Harriet Tubman in third grade; a dentist in fourth grade; and Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast, in fifth grade. She took a year off last year in grade six to be a birthday cake (she loves her birthday more than anyone I know), but this year, she is back to her admirable black woman theme, dressing as Tiana, the strong princess who saves both herself and her prince, from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.
Teenasia’s Halloween costumes speak to me, not only because I love the end result, but because I watch Teenasia’s process of choosing a costume. It’s not easy and this year, in particular, she was struggling to find something.
“We have that witch costume in the basement,” I reminded her one night as she looked through photos of Michelle Obama, trying to decide if people would know who she was if she wore a suit, pearls and heels. “You could be a witch. We could get some green makeup.”
She would have none of it.
Teenasia’s annual search for Halloween costumes is a reminder to me of the challenge of finding black women role models for girls—either real or fictional. As inspirational as Harriet Tubman is, Teenasia needed to reach back to the time of slavery to come up with her. When Teenasia dressed as 2012 gold medalist Gabby Douglas, everyone knew who she was—partly because there were no other black women gymnasts in that Olympics. And until late 2009 when The Princess and the Frog was released, not one of Disney’s many princesses was African American.
Clearly, this isn’t a just a Halloween issue. Every time I take my girls to a kids’ or family movie, I am disappointed by the lack of diversity on the screen. Few kids’ books feature African American main characters. Too often, the minorities in films and on TV have token supporting roles, rather than meatier main ones. The causes of this are deep, complicated, and go beyond casting decisions. Of all the difficulties we, as a society continue to face in the horrific long aftermath of slavery, it may seem petty to complain that the first black Disney princess arrived on the scene just a few years ago. But the lack of fictional diversity is symbolic of the work that still needs to be done in the real world.
Yet, at the same time, I’m thankful Disney’s Tiana arrived at all, however late she may have been. I’m thankful for the progress we’ve made, and the men and women who continue to work for change; who continue to be a voice for the voiceless and advocate for the marginalized. I’m thankful that my daughters were born at a time when schools, corporations and the government are all recognizing and discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion—even if we haven’t figured it out all the solutions yet.
This year, Teenasia will be Tiana. She’ll wear a tiara, a green gown, and she’ll carry a frog. She’ll be the beautiful African American princess who went from waitress to frog to restaurant owner. And this Halloween, my prayer is that as Teenasia grows out of trick or treating and costumes in the next couple years, she will grow into the belief that in real life, she can become whoever she wants to be.