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Back in September, I wrote about how Black creatives and organizers are fighting against racist attempts to shrink out Blackness.
I touched on how past and present acts of racial violence affect our realities. But I didn’t realize how white supremacy tries to stifle our imaginations as well. Just this week, the Star Wars franchise had to call out its racist fans (again) for sending hundreds of discriminatory remarks to Black actress Moses Ingram, who stars in Disney’s new series “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Y’all mean to tell me that Star Wars can have millions of sentient creatures, but a Black, lightsaber wielding character is hard for some folks to imagine? I’ll just let Ingram speak for herself: “Y’all weird.”
Last week, I featured Jasmine La Fleur who created Black Fae Day to promote positive representation of Black people in fantasy culture. She revealed how some Black fans were once afraid to express their love of fantasy books and movies because to them, standing out increased the risk of racism and discrimination.
But people like Jasmine are making sure our imaginations are no longer being held captive by fear. We can be wizards, fairies, pirates, angels, princesses and more. This newsletter applauds those who, like Jasmine, are also creating safe spaces for us in fantasy culture. Because our Blackness by itself is magical.
Forward this newsletter to your friends and fam so they, too, can let their inner child run free.
Go under the sea with Mer-cademy
If you have always felt like transforming into a majestic mermaid, I have great news: your time has arrived!
Last Saturday was Black MerMay Day and based on what I found on Twitter and Instagram the melanin magic was poppin’ under the sea. In the Black MerMay Facebook group, pictures of beautiful Black merfolk with colorful mermaid tails and elaborate costumes filled my timeline. Anita Riggs, a plus size cosplayer and makeup artist who goes by the name of Tranquil Ashes, started Black MerMay Day to amplify the Blackness that’s often erased in the mermaid community.
If you missed out on the festivities, the fun isn’t over. In fact, it could be at a pool near you thanks to a Black-owned, mobile mermaid academy in landlocked Nashville.
Mer-cademy helps people gain their confidence in the water and gives swimmers a chance to live their childhood dreams. Shakira Baly, who is known as Arikah Nash in the professional mermaid community, founded Mer-cademy in July 2020. As a Pisces born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and raised by a corporate conservative parent, starting a mermaid academy was a childhood calling for Arikah.
“I just felt like I wasn’t relating with people in this world. So would say, ‘I’m not of this world. I’m a mermaid,’” Arikah said.
It wasn’t until she had her daughter, Carmen, that Arikah started peeping some issues, like how almost all mermaid merchandise is white. She couldn’t find a Black mermaid for Carmen’s sixth birthday party. Then Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” in 2019. Arikah was overwhelmed by a tsunami of outrage as people accused Disney of ruining their childhoods by choosing a Black woman for the role. Clearly these uneducated folks weren’t aware of the ancient history of Black water spirits, orishas and other aquatic deities in folklore.
So Arikah joined a swim school for mermaids to become what she wanted her biracial daughter to see, especially since they live in a world that typically discriminates against Black Southern girls.
“Her father and I are very big on making sure that she knew who she was before the world tells her who she’s not, which is not good enough and not worthy,” Arikah said. “I wanted to implement the seed that if she wants to do it, she can do it.”
Now Arikah and Carmen share their skills with other land dwellers who want to discover their inner siren during Mer-cademy’s swim lessons, underwater modeling classes, parties and other events. Clients don’t always have to travel to Nashville for this mystical experience. The Swimply app, which is like Airbnb for pools, gives Arikah the ability to rent private pools wherever she goes. Or, depending on her needs, she can also book a recreation center or YMCA pool.
What fuels Arikah’s passion is watching people heal their fears through water. She witnessed this when she was booked to teach swim lessons at Black Fae Day’s Fairytale Gala in Georgia in May. Black women who were self-conscious about their clumsiness in the water or whether their body types would fit into the fins were able to shed their concerns and indulge in their childlike imagination after a pep talk from Arikah.
“I looked at all of them and said, ‘Ladies, if you’re telling yourself, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, because’ fill in the blank, your mind is going to say OK whether it’s correct or not,” she said. “I was so grateful to be there to squash all of the excuses for why they weren’t able to be what they wanted to be when they were little girls.”
Arikah wants Mer-cademy to grow beyond swim classes, birthday parties and girls’ nights outs. Sis also wants it to become a nonprofit that hosts therapeutic retreats at her own mermaid sanctuary.
Along with that, Arikah, who also has experience in the entertainment industry, wants to ensure that venues featuring professional mermaids, like the Aquarium Restaurant and Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, book Black talent.
The lack of representation in media and retail implies that mermaids can’t be Black and don’t belong in the community, Arikah said. Mer-cademy wants to bust those myths by not only teaching civilians how to swim, but also by training a whole gossip of professional Black mermaids.
“I’m putting my foot on these corporations’ necks,” Arikah said. “I want people to see that we do exist. We are magical.”
Carmen, who is now 9 years old, no longer has to search hard to find a mermaid who looks like her. As a Mer-cademy ambassador, she can just look in the mirror and up at her mommy. Carmen takes after Arika, using her outgoing personality to encourage kids her age to take a spin with their mermaid fins in the pool.
“Anytime we hear the words, ‘I wish I was a mermaid’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid,’ it’s almost like my daughter and I would look at each other and we’re like, ‘Well, come on. Let’s go. What’s stopping you?’”
For the glory. For the culture!
We no longer have to look far for our heroes in shining armor thanks to Knights of Wakanda, a collaborative group of Black armored combat fighters from across the country who celebrate the Blackness of knighthood.
Armored combat brings medieval-style fighting to present day. It is a real sport enjoyed globally by thousands of fighters geared up in historically accurate, steel armor and weapons to battle it out during one-on-one competitions or melee battles. When the Knights of Wakanda meet up, it’s like a family reunion since the group’s 17 members compete on different teams across the country.
Cyrus said its typical for the Knights of Wakanda to compete against each other during tournaments, but it’s all fun and Black love at the end of the day. They always find time to link up and break bread, grab a drink or whatever needs to be done to find community in one another.
“They have brought a true sense of connection, acceptance and community for me,” Cyrus said. “I never thought I would meet a group of people from so many different walks of life in the Black diaspora and realize we have more in common than our lineage.”
Knights of Wakanda was forged in February 2019 during Carolina Carnage, one of the largest armored combat events that takes places in South Carolina. In honor of Black history month, armored fighter Charles Harris took pictures of Black competitors for his Instagram. After the tournament, the group created a group chat to keep up with each other. Since they were still reveling in the popularity of “Blank Panther,” naming themselves after the Kingdom of Wakanda seemed fitting for a group of fighters who wanted to win for the glory and come together for the culture.
“We do experience racism,” Cyrus said. “I’ve experienced it. Some of the other fighters have been through worse because when people think of the sport, or they think of their lineage, they lay claim to it as theirs. So they don’t like it when people outside of their lineage does fights.”
Contrary to that thinking, African knights did exist during medieval times. Knights of Wakanda brings that legacy to the 21st century. Some fighters in the group have already made history. Spencer Waddell, known as Seto Gesshuko in the armored combat world, became the first Black Historical Medieval Battle national longsword champion in February. Last year, Cyrus became the first Black sword and shield national champion for the International Medieval Combat Federation, a separate armored combat league. Cyrus said Seto was inspired and trained by Adrian “Sabah” Dinwiddie, the first Black knight in the country. Although Adrian has retired from the game, Cyrus said he still hits up the Knights of Wakanda group chat.
Collecting titles are great. But some Cyrus’ biggest wins are with the children who see him outside the arena. A little boy wearing a knight outfit awed at Cyrus after he took off his helmet during an event. Cyrus remembers the excitement that danced in his eyes as they took pictures together and answered questions about how to become a knight.
Then there was the Walmart run Cyrus and another Knights of Wakanda member did last year after an Atlanta competition. Cyrus and his friend decided to go grocery shopping in their armor. What was supposed to be a funny video for the Gram turned into a heartwarming trip filled with inspired kids who wanted to take pictures with them. A 5-year-old girl hit Cyrus in the feels when she asked him if she could be a knight. He told her yes. In fact, Knights of Wakanda accepts women, queer and transgender members.
Inspired by such moments and wanting to educate the next generation of Black warriors, the group is planning to host panels and live demo fights at some of the nation’s largest pop culture conventions, like Dragon Con in Atlanta and Blerd Con in Arlington, Va. They’ve created these cool Black character designs for what will hopefully become a short comic book or anime/manga series. The Knights of Wakanda group is raising money to register as a nonprofit so they can do all the groundwork to amplify the Black excellence within armored combat.
“You can’t really tell who’s under the armor until we take it off. And there’s a lot of people who think mostly Caucasian people are doing this sport,” Cyrus said. “There’s little kids who we don’t know who will see us somewhere fighting and taking off our armor. And then they’ll see that if they want to be a knight, they can actually be one.”
Stay magical by spreading the Black joy! See y’all next week!