Black Mermaids Matter
Months before the brutal police killing of George Floyd, before the protests when I made a sign saying, “I Can’t Breathe” and "Stop the Killing"—before the global pandemic, I longed to see a live mermaid show.
When the doorman at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs said, “Sorry, no more seats,” crying would have been absurd at my age, then nearly 60, but I came close. My eyes filled. My chest felt weighted by a thousand childhood sorrows, never resolved.
My boyfriend Mickey tried slipping ten bucks to the doorman, a post-adolescent state park employee who politely declined having his palm greased but offered to “take another look” before hurrying off.
We had traveled three hours to get there, stopping to snorkel with manatees—a species mistaken for mermaids by early sailors who needed a date. I had never seen the human mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, a uniquely Southern oddity north of Tampa. Growing up in 1960s Atlanta, I dreamed about sprouting a sparkly fish tail, like a tadpole that discovers its legs one day.
Color TV had not yet made its way to my family’s small house near a railroad track in Atlanta’s Brookhaven community. It would be two more decades before Disney released The Little Mermaid, a slick cartoon version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale. My mother, a dancer and synchronized swimmer in school, told me about the Weeki Wachee mermaids. She had an old photo of herself in Tennessee, wearing a blue cardboard wave on her head while striking a ballet pose in the Peabody College swimming pool.
I pictured a huge blue-green oasis, jam-packed with mermaids who performed underwater acrobatic feats for adoring fans, behind glass panels like the salad bar at Shoney’s. My childhood fantasy bore no resemblance to the Disney tale about Ariel, mermaid princess of Atlantica. That plot, in which Ariel agrees to trade her enchanting voice for legs and life with a human dude named Eric, makes me feel seasick.
The mermaids of my dreams were wild, badass creatures capable of delivering a beat-down to marine bullies—to the patriarchy itself—with a single blow of their powerful tails. Their hoop skirts, like the ones in Gone With the Wind, had somehow turned into muscles. For white women of my mother’s generation, the Weeki Wachee mermaids represented freedom rather than servitude. In small-town Florida, women in my mother’s category had three choices in the 1950s: “You got married, went off to school, or you became a Weeki Wachee mermaid,” according to legendary swimmer Vicki Smith.
In time, I learned that mermaids, like many powerful women, were often demonized as sea sirens who lured men to their deaths. For me, that storyline never rang true. Boys were gross and my mermaids were having way too much fun being free. They swam at lightning speeds wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Their long hair streamed behind them like the silk scarf that got wrapped around a convertible’s wheel cover, strangling another wild child, Isadora Duncan—a dancer my mom idolized. The Weeki Wachee mermaids were like my mom had been in her youth, when she was still free, dancing and swimming, before she stayed home with four little girls, nearly drinking herself to death while my dad traveled for his job.
Outside the Weeki Wachee mermaid theater, the young doorman reappeared, breathless, just as I was about to abandon all hope. “Okay,” he said, unhooking a rope to let us pass, “squeeze in on the far side.”
Mickey and I rushed down the concrete ramp, into a darkened auditorium, which was bathed in an otherworldly blue light. He pointed to a vacant spot on a metal bleacher before darting off to find his own seat. Swelling music filled the room. White bubbles erupted behind wall-length aquarium windows, and there they were. The Weeki Wachee mermaids—young women wearing fish tails in various iridescent colors, all with long, flowing hair. They began to glide, spinning in circles while taking discreet sips of air from black hoses. They reminded me of my mother’s portrait as a young woman in a black leotard, dancing in a grassy field.
My cheeks hurt from grinning. Yes, tears flowed. Feeling dorky, I turned toward the person next to me, hoping to share the magic of my childhood dream, unleashed. My seatmate, a thin man in a white tank top, stared straight ahead, not smiling. His shoulders slumped over his knees—the posture of a man dragged on a kiddie outing. He had a tattoo on his arm. I looked away too quickly to make out the image. Pretty sure it wasn’t a mermaid.
As the show unfolded, the constantly smiling mermaids performed impressive underwater ballet moves to various songs, including Jailhouse Rock, in honor of Elvis Presley, a one-time visitor. Through a canned sound track, they told us that Weeki Wachee got its start in 1947 when Newt Perry, a former Navy diver, built a theater in a natural spring.
The mermaids even slipped in a bit of environmental advocacy, decrying the blue-green river algae caused by lawn and farm runoff.
The critical thinking part of my brain, lulled into a frothy stupor, woke up. Why, I wondered, did all of the mermaids appear to be white? Ditto for the audience, so far as I could see, and the bleachers were packed. After the show, I did spot two women of color working in the gift shop building. I approached one of them and asked, stupidly, if there was any diversity among the ranks of the mermaids. “Not that I know of,” she said, smiling, “but I mean, I don’t know them all. We have a history book you can buy.” (I did.)
Later, I checked the official online Mermaid Roster, which featured 17 white women and two men as of January. In my mind, a bubble burst, turning into a soapy puddle.
To cheer me up, Mickey pointed out that Disney had cast Halle Bailey, an R&B singer of color, to star as Ariel in a movie version of The Little Mermaid. Shockingly, Bailey’s selection to replace the red-haired, blue-eyed cartoon Ariel triggered a racist backlash. Tracey Baptiste, author of The Jumbie God’s Revenge, uncorked a potent clap-back in her New York Times essay, “Mermaids Have Always Been Black.”
Baptiste described mythological black mermaids such as Mama D’Leau of Trinidad and Tobago, Mama Wata of West African lore, and fish-like ancestral creatures that the Dogon people of Mali call Nommos. “Black mermaids have always existed: long before [Hans Christian] Andersen, certainly long before Disney,” Baptiste wrote. “The focus on Eurocentric stories and storytelling has done us a disservice, leaving most totally ignorant of the fact that mermaid stories have been told throughout the African continent for milleniums.”
Oh, no, I thought after reading Baptiste’s essay. Have I been an unwitting conspirator? Were my mother’s mermaids appropriated from African lore?
An online history of Hernando County, home of Weeki Wachee, offered no comfort. Here’s an abbreviated timeline: Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed in Tampa Bay in 1539 and headed inland. White people proceeded to seize territories that had been home to American Indians, including the Seminoles, who named Weeki Wachee, which means “little spring” or “winding river.” After slavery was finally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, lynchings and other murders of black men seemed to become commonplace. In one case, for example, Rev. Arthur St. Clair, a farmer, minister, voter registrar, and county commissioner of both black and white heritage, “was murdered on his way to the Tallahassee negro convention.”
Probably I should say here that I’m not accusing modern-day Weeki Wachee of racism.
Black or African-American people currently make up less than 5 percent of the population of Hernando County. Before the pandemic, mermaid pay started at $15 an hour—not enough to support creative recruitment efforts. The swimming requirement for mermaids was another hurdle. John Athanason, a park spokesperson and Weeki Wachee’s city commissioner back when I called him in January, said that an audition might draw 60 aspiring performers, but a timed 400-yard swim in the spring’s current takes out about 80 percent of the candidates. An underwater audition and the need for scuba certification narrows the field further. In his eighteen years on the job, he told me, only a couple of African-American women had ever auditioned; one became a mermaid.
I don’t know the full story, but in Atlanta a half-century ago, a shy, chubby white girl with an imaginary friend named Mrs. Howell Beebee and few real friends dreamed of becoming a mermaid. I don’t hold this against her. The fantasy unlocked a vast wilderness of imagination. A whole rainbow of girls may be imagining the same freedom and power every day. They all deserve badass mermaids—not to mention Santas, scientists, engineers, pilots, astronauts, and doctors—who look like them.
On June 9, the City of Weeki Wachee, with a population of 13, was officially dissolved by the Florida governor. The move followed long-time recreational overuse of the river and hefty related legal fees. A multi-million dollar river restoration project is planned.
Live mermaids may or may not swim again, after the pandemic, as part of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Production of The Little Mermaid movie starring Halle Bailey got postponed by the health crisis, but that show is expected to go on.
Ginger Pinholster’s first novel, City in a Forest, focuses on a fictional Atlanta wilderness threatened by eminent-domain seizure. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte M.F.A. program, her essays and short stories have appeared in the Eckerd Review, Northern Virginia Review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She writes for a university in Daytona Beach, Florida, and she volunteers with the Volusia-Flagler Turtle Patrol.