Sheletta Brundidge: At last, our princess has come

  • December 12, 2009 - 6:01 PM
I just went to the movies and cried my eyes out. I'm talking about shoulders-humping-hot-tears-streaming-down-my-face-meeting-under-my-chin bawling. No, I wasn't watching "Precious," the story of an HIV-positive, illiterate, unwed mother of two who is assaulted by both her momma and her daddy. It was a cartoon that made me cry. I was at a preview screening of the new full-length animated feature "The Princess and The Frog." It features the voices of Hollywood A-listers Oprah Winfrey, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard. Set in an animated New Orleans, the Disney movie tells the story of a beautiful African-American princess, Tiana.

I could talk about animation and cinematography. I could go on about how the Cajun dialect was dead-on, how the Big Easy's architectural landmarks felt real as life to this former Louisianan. I could tell you how the jazz score had me and my 3-year-old son tapping our toes.

But it wasn't anything I heard with my ears or saw with my eyes that made me cry. It was what I felt in my heart.

As the credits began rolling, I started weeping and couldn't stop. I peeked at my girlfriend Lillian; she was bawling, too. We looked at each other and nodded, sharing without words all the moment meant.

A kindly man in the row behind us didn't quite get it. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"I'm fine," I explained, unable to wipe the tears away fast enough before responding.

His wife whispered, "Are you sure you're OK?"

"This is a moment I've been waiting for all my life," I explained, which may not have made things perfectly clear.

What I didn't say is this: You had blond, brunette and redheaded princesses growing up. You had Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Beauty and her beast. Now, at last, I have Princess Tiana.

As the audience filed out the doors, I just stood there and wept, glad to be alive to see the face of a black princess 10 times bigger than life and on the big screen.

When I was little, I wanted to be a princess. But I didn't know a black girl could be one. When I read fairy tales, I'd go to the linen closet, grab a long white towel, tie it around my head and pretend I was white so I could be like the character in my book.

Thank God and Disney that my nieces and the little girls at my church won't need a disguise to imagine themselves as princesses. They can do it now in their own skin.

Some might say all the hullabaloo about Tiana is just a step backward to a time when it was ideal for a woman to dream of being a princess so some prince could come and rescue her. Today girls are pushed to be more than just a man's appendage. Even so, adding Tiana to our culture's only royal family -- the royalty of our fairy tales -- will do black girls far more good than harm.

When I was a child, to tell the truth, I knew I was a princess because my daddy told me so, even though I never believed I'd live to see myself in such a movie character. That such a character and such a movie have come to pass is most important to those girls who will never be told they are princesses -- real-life girls like Precious, the ones who don't have anyone to tell them they're special.

A movie can only be a small piece of the puzzle of creating self-esteem. But girls who grow up believing they could be princesses like Tiana might also see themselves as being like her in other ways -- worthy, spunky, heroic. The center of the action, the star of the show. Girls who can imagine that will be in a better position to leave childhood princess dreams behind as they mature into strong, self-confident black women ready to take their place in the real world.

The black women I watched on screen while I was growing up were Nell Carter in "Gimme a Break!" (a maid), Florence from "The Jeffersons" (another maid), and Shirley from "What's Happening!!" (a waitress). I did not aspire to clean up or wait tables, but these were the characters who looked like me.

One thing those women had in common was that they were funny, so I drew on that and decided I'd be funny, too. They weren't beautiful -- in fact, they were asexual -- but they had sass, smarts and humor. Those were qualities I saw in myself.

In the theater the other day, I watched Lillian's 5-year-old daughter Elaina light up because she saw parts of herself on the big screen. I think those white-hot tears rolled down my face because I saw parts of myself in Tiana, too.

I'm 37 years old. I'm a wife, a mother, a businesswoman. I've got a comedy career and several broadcasting gigs, a house to clean, meals to cook, school meetings to attend, and a husband. I'd like to help make the world a better place.

But while I was in that theater, watching that movie, none of my accomplishments, aspirations or problems mattered. I wasn't a mother or a wife, a talk show host or a comedian -- I was just a little black girl. A little black girl who somewhere deep down inside still yearned to be a princess.

This year, the importance of racial role models has been noted with the presence of an intact black family in the White House. The first president my young son will remember will have been black like him. Will that help him believe that he can fulfill his dreams? Who can doubt it?

My prayer is that somewhere a little black girl watching this movie will come to know that there is a princess inside of her. As a grown-up black girl, I felt an old hurt ease as I watched Princess Tiana. She could be me, and I could be her.

This is a dream that doesn't leave me out.

Sheletta Brundidge, St. Paul, is a Twin Cities broadcaster.

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