Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina who writes for McClatchy. He will be a Professor of Practice at Davidson College in the fall after serving as a visiting professor at Columbia University’s school of journalism this spring. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m a 50-year-old Black man, and I’m about to buy a toy doll – for myself. It won’t be for my college freshman daughter, who outgrew dolls long ago. I’m not buying it for the beautiful little Black girls at the Boys & Girls Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where my wife is CEO or those at the non-profit literacy program, Freedom Readers, she founded 13 years ago, though maybe I’ll later buy them some, too.
The first one I’m buying will be mine, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
For maybe millions of little girls, Black girls and others, the “Ariel” doll – unveiled this week by Disney and based on the signature character of the much-anticipated live-action film version of “The Little Mermaid” coming in May – means joyous representation. For me, it represents the culmination of an American story that hasn’t fully been told.
Halle Bailey, the inspiration behind the doll and the star of the Disney live action remake of a classic, is my niece, the daughter of my second-oldest brother Doug and my sister-in-law Courtney. I take no credit for her success. I can’t sing. You really don’t want to hear me sing. Nor can I act.
As I like to tell people, I have her on slow rather than fast dial through my brother and sister-in-law. The last time I saw her was at my mother’s funeral more than a year ago. Not too long before that, we enjoyed a cookout at my mother-in-law’s after hitting the beach near my house. I’m the uncle standing in the background beaming, ready to step in only when necessary.
But I’ve often been reluctant to make that joy public, in part because I didn’t want the imperfections of our family to in anyway undermine her career, particularly as she and her sister Chloe were teenagers trying to establish themselves. It’s been easier for me to write about our family’s pain than exclaim exuberance for all I know our family has overcome. It’s a balancing act I’ve yet to perfect, and may never, celebrating the good but refusing to forget family scars remain and racial progress still needs to be made.
Doug is the third-oldest sibling among us. I’m the fifth. For much of my early life, we lived in a tin can of a single-wide mobile home – tin sides, tin roof – in St. Stephen, South Carolina - which was considered a sundown town where Black people might be attacked by White racists if out after dark. We faced many race-related struggles, which I’ve documented in books and articles numerous times over the past several years.
But something new is happening now. The announcement of the Ariel doll did something to me, forced me to introspect even more. I’m a man reevaluating his life, wondering why it has been so easy for me to write, speak and teach about Black hardship but so hard to openly express Black joy. I blame no one but myself.
The doll, created with Halle in mind, has dark skin, long dreadlocks and a well-placed mole. Disney chose Halle to depict Ariel because she’s uber talented, works hard and has a long track record of success early in her young life. I don’t know if Disney understood that it was also tapping into a genuinely great American story, the fulfillment of the American Dream on the grandest stage. And I’m not just saying that because Halle is my niece (though, of course, I’m biased). I’m saying that because of a woman named Rose Graham Jackson.
As best we can tell, Jackson was a Black woman who straddled freedom and slavery in a rural part of South Carolina not too far from where I grew up. Though we aren’t certain, we think she was on a plantation in the Andrews area, according to Jackie Whitmore, a cousin and family historian. She gave birth to a man named Orange Brewington. He had a daughter named Mary Brewington Brown, who gave birth to Catherine Brown McKelvey. Catherine was my maternal grandmother, a woman I never met. She died from leukemia before I was born. My mother gave birth to 11 children, had two miscarriages and raised a few others like they were her own.
Our family has survived slavery, Jim Crow-induced poverty and a criminal legal system that has been too large a factor in our lives. Now our family has made it all the way to the big screen in a lead role for the most American of American film companies. Nine members of my family were literally in the White House because the nation’s first black First Lady Michelle Obama invited Chloe and Halle to perform during the 2016 Easter Egg Roll.
Chloe and Halle invited my mother, one of my brothers and cousins, including one of my nieces who lost her mother in a drive-by shooting but has been raised by one of my sisters. I have family members who have rubbed elbows with Beyonce, who signed Halle and her sister Chloe to a contract years ago. I write for a living but don’t have the words to describe how improbable that was – until it happened. It’s surreal.
When you have a gaggle of siblings, you are going to have a lot of nieces and nephews. And I’m proud of them all. And I’m convinced collectively they will do bigger and better things in this world than my siblings and I have, meaning we are on the kind of trajectory as a family that’s supposed to be celebrated in this country.
I’m excited about that prospect. I can also see that evolution in my own kids, my daughter who is just starting her college career and my son, on the verge of signing a management contract to pursue his hip hop dreams. I remember the days long ago when my brother Doug would dismantle and reassemble VCRs and computers just to better understand how they worked before working in real estate and managing his daughters’ careers.
Among our large and growing family are entrepreneurs and military officials and veterans and teachers and preachers. Among us are Black men who transformed themselves from ugly early-life struggles to loving their wives and taking care of their kids, and Black women who have been the family’s glue, the reason some of us were able to maintain our sanity in the face of injustice.
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I get that a Disney movie is fundamentally a money-making product for one of the world’s most-influential corporations. I get that the Ariel doll is another sign that capitalism is alive and well. And I understand the need to not allow a single story to overshadow larger societal problems that still need solving, many of them race-based.
But still. As a family, back in South Carolina, we are still going to rent out a movie theater and have a fish fry the weekend “The Little Mermaid” is released. Because even while continuing the fight to make things better for us all, there are times we should stop and let ourselves be in awe of what we’ve overcome.