When my kids were little, I thought I'd give them a special treat and take them to see a black Santa Claus.
But they weren't having it.
"That's not Santa," Rahsaan complained.
"I don't want to sit on
lap," Jaida whined.
Mommy must have lost her mind.
St. Nick was rotund, rosy-cheeked and white, their teary eyes insisted. The jolly toy-toter couldn't possibly be black, like them.
Their repulsion stung, but then again, no one really aspires to be Santa.
But it's different when you're talking about beauty.
Even before they're able to read, girls are brainwashed with a conventional standard of beauty through images as innocuous as pictures in a storybook.
It's an innate wish. Every girl wants to star in her own fairy tale. Every girl wants to be a princess.
Good and pretty, joyful, positive, desired.
The multibillion-dollar princess industry tells us so.
But let's be real. Snow White never looked like Tamika from around the way. Neither did Sleeping Beauty or Belle or the Fairy Godmother, for that matter. (The Wicked Witch, well, that's another story.)
And definitely not Cinderella, unless you count Brandy, who played the princess with the perfect shoe size on TV, an unconventional casting centuries in the making.
But that was 10 years ago, when Brandy was hot.
For African American girls, especially those whose skin is as brown as chocolate, it's not so much the images they see, but the ones they don't see, that define their worth.
That's why, while thumbing through the newspaper the other day, I saw a photo that gave me pause and utter delight.
A black princess!
Turns out the princess! is actress Nako Adodoadji, who stars as beautiful Briar Rose in the Arden Theatre's production of
. Not only that, in a nod to racial harmony, she stars alongside a white prince and has white parents.
But it is the spunky Briar Rose who commands center-stage, sans crown. Who needs a tiara when you can have tinsel streaming from your locks like drop diamonds? The princess appeared ultra-regal - and way cool - to the throngs of young girls mesmerized just by her mere presence. And by her must-have footwear.
White kids seemed ever delighted, oblivious to what made this princess most unique.
But don't think for a minute that the black and Latino students who made up much of the audience didn't notice.
When teacher Ana Ozuna Donofrio asked her fifth graders from Independence Charter if they were surprised that Sleeping Beauty was black, everyone raised a hand.
"Because Sleeping Beauty is white in the storybook," said a 10-year-old with the fairy-tale name Ariel.
Give credit to Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden's producing artistic director, who requires diverse casting for his children's productions.
"For our kids to see such a beautiful, strong, black Sleeping Beauty is a great thing," said Nolen, who is white. "Kids have to be able to see themselves up there."
Adodoadji, the daughter of a Kenyan mother and Ghanian father, majored in acting at the University of the Arts. She spent her high school years in California and Atlanta, but most of her childhood in Africa and Europe.
Having grown up mostly overseas, spared the racially skewed American culture of beauty, she took a while to understand just how much black girls are starved for positive images of themselves, onstage and off.
But this production has opened her eyes. After each performance, the actors host a meet-and-greet in the lobby. Predictably, all the kids, boys and girls, black and white, make a beeline to Adodoadji, to talk to her, to take a picture with her, to simply touch her.
"They come up to me and say, 'I want to be Briar Rose,' " says Adodoadji, who, close up, looks like a young Cicely Tyson.
"In the real world, it inspires girls to think, 'If she could work as an actor, what could that mean for me? Would that mean I could do it?'
"Yes, you can."
And be a princess, too.