Black Hair, Dark Skin: Exploring the Non-European Roots of Rapunzel

At the beginning of the year, Kavya was utterly distraught she didn’t have “yellow hair” like Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled, and that most of her favourite characters didn’t look like her. This realization did not actually revolve around hair color: Merida has red hair, as does Ariel; Cinderella and Aurora are blonde; Snow white has black hair; Belle has brown hair. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocohontas, the three brown girls usually shoved in the back are irrelevant as they’re from the 1990s and show up in cameos in other princess’s shows or storybooks. Read the blog post about it HERE and on the Good Men Project. The realization that Kavya didn’t have the words to express: most of the stories she longs to play the lead in are populated exclusively by white girls. That’s why this Papa is onboard with two very important social media movements: #DadsRead and #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Since January, I’ve been actively diversifying our bookshelf with non-traditional princess narratives – Pirate Princesses, Princeless Princesses, even boys who are princesses, and with characters of color. But the one thing I couldn’t find until a few days ago was Rapunzel with black hair. The closest I came was Rapunzel: A Groovy Tale by Lynn Roberts, which came out in 2003ish. It’s a modernized retelling of Rapunzel where she has flaming red hair and is held captive in a crappy apartment with a broken lift by her evil lunch lady Aunt. I liked it. Kavya liked it. It is a good introduction to breaking the stranglehold of the golden haired Rapunzel narrative.

Rapunzel with black hair has been found!

Black Gold: Rapunzel with black hair has been found!

Rapunzel

This is not a posed shot. We are actively reading.

Last weekend, we went on an impromptu outing to Books of Wonder, the only bookshop in New York City dedicated just to children. We read some wonderful books, like The Three Ninja Pigs (I replaced the word Ninja with Capoeira and added Ginga, Aú, Cocorrinha to the story), as well as a few here and there featuring little girls and boys of color, and found Black Gold: an African retelling of Rapunzel with black hair.

The narrative is the familiar story that tiptoes into the dark side with the blinding of the prince, but ends happily ever after. A pregnant woman gets a craving for rapunzel and the only place to get it is in the garden of an evil sorceress. The hapless husband is caught when he goes back a second time and agrees to a trade: his life in exchange for his child when she comes of age. When she’s 12, Rapunzel is taken by the ambiguously motivated sorceress, locked in an inaccessible tower except for one window. A prince overhears the sorceress say, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” repeats the lines himself when she leaves, he and Rapunzel fall in love. Rapunzel lets it slip about the prince and the sorceress banishes Rapunzel to a barren wasteland. The prince is so distraught he hurls himself from the tower, blinding himself in the thorn bushes. The sorceress exits the narrative. He wanders around, finds Rapunzel again after hearing her singing, and through some stroke of luck he is not blind anymore. He takes her to his kingdom, where his royal parents accept her, a marriage takes place, and they live happily ever after. It’s a familiar story, well illustrated, with nice artwork.

Refilwe

Refilwe

Hands down, the most original retelling that has just come out in South Africa from Jacana Press: Refilwe written by South African novelist and children’s book author, Zukiswa Wanner, illustrated by Tamsin Hinrichsen from Cape Town. It sounds like an exciting retelling, not just because it doesn’t treat Africa like a country, but because it adds some lovely originality to the story. Instead of rapunzel, Zukiswa changes the mother’s craving to morogo, pumpkin leaves, and thankfully doesn’t name her character after it. There is a great post (read it HERE) where Zukiswa talks about the inspiration for taking on this particular folktale and the secret to the genius of the adaptation (aside from stellar writing chops), comes down to the relationship she has with her own hair:

When Jacana asked me to take part in the project of adopting traditional fairy tales, it was natural that I would want to do Rapunzel. I was that young girl who fantasized about having long, flowing locks. I was that young girl who begged my mother to allow me to visit my aunt’s farm, not so much because I loved my aunt and cousin but because I would get the opportunity to spend hours brushing my cousin’s Barbie or Cindy dolls’ hair (I was deprived as a child. I never got any dolls and only ever got books for presents).

I was that young girl who felt in my early teens that being able to hold my hair in a pony tail was a major achievement and so, I would relax hair with Dark & Lovely, braid it overtime, and the moment it was long enough, stay for days on end with it in a pony tail.  But I wanted to make Refilwe (Jacana 2014)  something that I, as a young African girl, would have liked to read so that I wouldn’t have the sort of hair issues  that I had growing up. And so it was that my Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.

Love this: “Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.” The story is set in the Lesotho mountains, the geographic setting playing a major role in  the narrative with the most striking change being the absence of a tower, replaced by a cave high up on a craggy cliff. This leads to a very catchy rhyme that kicks the ass of anything that ever came before it:

“Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks, so I can climb the scraggy rocks.”

When the witch finds out about this act of betrayal, scripted things happen: the prince is blinded and Refilwe is banished to the Northern Cape. He finds Refilwe again by hearing her singing and the two are united, where we can assume everything ends happily ever after. Even though the actual story does not deviate from the one that has been peddled around since it made it into English, the most exciting thing is that it applies what Binyavanga Wainana sarcastically warns us about when writing or reading about Africa:

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

One of the first versions of the Rapunzel story we will admit exists was from Italy, written in an obscure Neopolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile in 1634: Petrosinella, a type of parsley. Somehow Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a French novelist found out about the story and added other literary elements and plot changes in 1698, keeping the original name intact: Persinette. Still parsley. The Germans then translated her name to Rapunzel. Cabbage. Because – I’m assuming – they wanted to name her something with even less flavor than parsley. Thanks to the Brothers Grimm, who didn’t realize this story was neither a folktale nor German, their version is the one that became popularized. Then they rewrote it, making it even more confusing than before, where Rapunzel is definitely, 100% not pregnant, but in the end she somehow has two children. I’d love to read a story that uses Giambattista Basile’s ogress, magic acorns, and luxurious tower!

Despite the thorough gutting of the Rapunzel story in adaptations like Disney’s Tangled, the one element that is generally safeguarded is that Rapunzel has long flowing golden hair and she is fair skinned. It’s a safe assumption to make that nothing is sacred when you name your protagonist PARSLEY or CABBAGE. But if someone really wants to make the claim that there is such a thing as an original version, let’s go back several hundred years before Giambattista Basile’s “original” to Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings from the 10th century:

“Hearing his words, she loosened her hair, which cascaded down, tumbling like snakes, loop upon loop. She said, ‘Come, take these black locks which I let down for you, and use them to climb up to me.’”

The Shahnameh puts every epic you know of to shame. To put this in context, it is triple the length of Homer’s Iliad, and weaves Islamic history with mythology, covering the beginning of time through to the Islamic conquest of Persia, and various lands and cultures, from Turkey to Afghanistan through 62 stories, 990 chapters, more than 60,000 rhyming couplets, and more characters than you can ever keep track of. One of those stories that the European Rapunzel was born out of, is of Rudaba, the black haired, fair skinned princess of Kabul and Zal, the Albino, white haired, warrior. He immediately falls in love with Rudaba because of her beauty, but is rejected because he is an Albino and has lineage to the Serpent King. But then a prophecy declares their child will rule. There’s also a large, oracle-like, mythical bird with magical feathers in the narrative. Spoiler alert: they get married and have two children, one of whom is the main hero of the Shahnamah.

The plot is obviously very different from any of the versions that made their way to Europe and who knows what other versions of Rapunzel fill in the 600 year gap. Even though almost everything else of the story is gone, the long hair and a handsome lover climbing up this hair into a tower captured the imagination of every version ever since, including modern retellings, no matter how much they added or subtracted to the story.

Today, the version that is retold is credited to the Brothers Grimm and we only know Rapunzel as the girl with long, flowing golden hair. The Brothers Grimm removed mention of the pregnancy, which I think makes a much more powerful revelation of how the witch/sorceress/ogress finds out about her perceived deception: she realizes the girl is pregnant without anyone saying a word.

Even though none of the versions, including the Shahnameh, describe her with dark skin, I want to see more originality to the retelling, like what Jacana Press and Zukiswa Wanner are doing in Africanizing folktales that have been thought of as belonging to a rigid European narrative. As a Papa to a beautiful and intelligent daughter, I am down with expanding our notion of story. Now, can someone please bring back the acorns, ogress, and magic?

Short Link: http://goo.gl/C35H7L

Any other suggestions for variations of Rapunzel?

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