Image credit: Dylan Bonner
While the media storm regarding #notmyariel seems to have died down a little bit, more brilliant points about these reactions are being made. I wrote my blog post about the subject to offer a broader perspective than one that is defined by Disney’s corporate version of the story. My intention was to make people think about the cultural complexities and deep historical roots of the story in a Scandinavian and particularly Danish context. Other commentators have advanced the important point that mermaids have a long tradition in West African cultures, while some have suggested that this controversy is simply the product of trolls using fake accounts. Even if the origin of this controversy is disingenuous, there are certainly people out there who seem to believe that mermaids are a white cultural product, and nothing else.
As a response to the idea that mermaids are, by and large, the product of white European culture, my colleague Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen, a historian of Afro-Atlantic religions, who is also Danish and happens to be a ginger like “original” Disney’s Ariel, has composed a well-crafted response to the racial intersections in the debate and the historical background of mermaid mythology (see link at the bottom). Aside from highlighting the important point that mermaid mythology is a shared Atlantic phenomenon, which reaches from the northernmost parts of Europe all the way along the coast of the African continent, Rune also discusses the important racial context of modern Denmark. Among other things, he points out that the idea of whiteness and the tendency to identify as “white” is very far from the Danish culture. Allow me to offer some thoughts in support of what Rune is saying:
The majority of Danes may have white skin, but, just like other Europeans, we do not see ourselves as belonging to a homogenous white culture like so many Americans. We belong to our own culture, and, on varying levels, we understand that our culture is entwined with other white and non-white cultures. Another important point that Rune advances is the fact that there are plenty of non-white Danes out there. Aside from the recent Middle Eastern-descended communities, Denmark has received immigrants and refugees for more than 250 years. In my previous post about #notyourariel, I touched upon the colonial era in Denmark, which began with the Crown Colonies of the Danish West Indies in 1755. The interactions that came with the Atlantic slave trade resulted in a minor influx of African-descended people in Denmark. The great African-Danish warrior Hans Jonathan fought for Denmark in 1801 against the English. While his deeds were recognized both by his naval officers and the Danish king, he eventually had to move to Iceland to live in freedom. His story is detailed in English in the book The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan.
In the 19th century, Denmark received a (for the time) considerable influx of Polish migrants -a trend that, curiously, has a counterpart in the Viking Age-, and during the Russian and Ukrainian Pogroms, the country received a considerable influx of Jewish refugees. Of other religious refugees, it also serves to mention that Denmark received Protestant French (Hugenots) and some Spanish migrants in the 1500s. In the early 20th century, you could find South-East Asian migrants in my former hometown Aarhus, and Copenhagen was home to a minor multi-cultural community consisting primarily of Russian Jews, but also descendants of people from the African continent.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Copenhagen’s reputation as a haven for multiculturalism and non-binary sexuality grew, and even during the early part of the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, the Jewish-fronted, Afro-Danish Jazz group Harlem Kiddies were still performing. In the 1950s and 1960s, Copenhagen became a primary destination for African-American Jazz-musicians who felt that the Danish capital offered a haven in which they could exist free of racial prejudice. Dexter Gordon, who lived in Copenhagen from 1962 to 1976 called it “Copenhaven.” He dedicated an album from 1969 to the town, and called it “A day in Copenhagen.” This is what he had to say about Copenhagen:
Since I’ve been over here [in Denmark], I’ve felt that I could breathe and just be more or less a human being, without being white or black.
From the 1960s and 1970s, Denmark began to see an influx of primarily refugees from various African nations. During the Apartheid in South Africa, Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia received South African refugees, and with the conflicts on the African Horn, we received a considerable Somali community from the 1980s. In the 1990s, refugees from the Rwandan genocide came, too. Many of these former refugees have now become fully integrated Danish citizens. All in all, if we count the colonial period from 1755 when the Danish Virgin Islands became Crown Colonies, there have been black Danes for just as long as the Viking Age has lasted.
Watch Rune’s video here: