Anthropologically speaking, race does not exist. Humans invented the concept of “race” based upon skin color as a means of keeping humankind separated from one another. With that being said, mermaids come in all colors and are not exclusive to the fair-skinned population or countries.
As per Jalondra Davis, a distinguished assistant professor of English at the esteemed University of California, Riverside, and an expert in mermaid folklore, it has been established that certain mermaids possess Black ethnicity. Prophetically, Davis' research has placed the genesis of Black mermaids in the context of the Middle Passage, a dark epoch where Africans were subjected to slavery and brutally uprooted from their native lands to be ferried across the ocean to North America and the Caribbean. It is a commonly recurrent theme in mermaid legends that those who were enslaved and were thrown overboard metamorphosed into aquatic creatures, along with their subsequent generations. According to Davis, one of the prevalent beliefs in African cosmologies is that individuals who succumbed to the water's depth could transmute into water spirits, which had the ability to preserve their mortal existence beneath the aquatic realm.
The concept of the mermaid has been depicted in various manners throughout African culture. It has been noted that certain attributes are consistently present among these depictions, namely, the mermaid's goal to entice, bewitch, and fascinate humanity. Additionally, she envelops herself in her mystique, allure, and, most importantly, her retribution.
These alluring and mystical beings have been known to hold a dual nature in many African tales, with some depictions showing them as benevolent guardians and protectors of the sea while others portray them as vengeful and malevolent creatures. Despite these varying representations, one thing remains constant: the mermaid's power to captivate and intrigue those who encounter her. Many believe that this power stems from their otherworldly beauty and enchanting songs that lure unsuspecting humans into the depths of the water. Even those who have encountered their retribution cannot deny the irresistible pull of the mermaid's charm. Their presence in African culture serves as a reminder of the unending mystery and wonder that exists in our world.
According to traditional accounts in African Mythology, it is reported that a beautiful woman possessing flowing black hair and an ethereal gaze, often portrayed with a combination of a human torso and head and a fin-like tail, was known to beguile and confuse her viewers. In various regions, she was referred to by multiple names, such as Mami Wata (translated to "Mother Water") in West Africa and Mamba Muntu in Swahili (East). In any case, these depictions surpassed human understanding of the metaphysical realm. The origins of the mermaid in these cultures can be traced back to a broader belief in the existence of mystical beings. The prevailing belief in "water spirits" played a crucial role in shaping the concept of Mami Wata or Mamba Muntu as the primary symbol of aquatic deities.
African Water Spirits
Water is commonly perceived as a symbol of vitality and rejuvenation, as well as a representation of change and cleansing. Such is the interpretation of Mami Wata in African mythology: she embodies the magnificence and potency of the natural world, capable of bestowing blessings or inciting destruction. It is recorded that several centuries ago, various water beings inhabited West Africa. Within tales recounted by the Igbo community and other groups, certain water spirits were described as possessing a humanoid-fish hybrid form, while others bore a resemblance to snakes or crocodiles.
Many of these water-spirits were personified as powerful goddesses, believed to hold sway over the lakes, rivers, and oceans. In some regions, they were worshiped as protectors and healers, while in others they were feared for their unpredictable nature and ability to bring disaster. Some were known for their seductive beauty and others for their fierce wrath. The variety and complexity of these traditions speaks to the deep reverence and fear that ancient Africans had for the power of water.
It is asserted that the entirety of ancient Africa harbored a plethora of water-spirit traditions prior to the initial encounter with Europeans. The majority of these were perceived as feminine. The duality of their nature, encompassing both good and evil, was a prevalent characteristic, reflecting the significance of water as a crucial source of communication, sustenance, commerce, and navigation, yet simultaneously posing a potential threat in the form of drowning, flooding of agricultural land or settlements, and facilitating access to outsiders.
Mami Wata, also known as Mamba Muntu, Water Mother, and La Sirene, is a highly revered water spirit in West, Central, and Southern Africa. It is widely believed that the ancient societies of Africa all had their own distinct water-spirit traditions prior to European contact. The duality of Mami Wata, embodying both good and evil, is a common feature among these traditions, reflecting the vital role of water as a means of communication, sustenance, commerce, and transportation, as well as its potential to cause harm through drowning, flooding, and providing access to trespassers.
Mami Wata is often depicted as wielding a mirror, an instrument through which she embodies ritual performances and worship ceremonies for Africans. The symbolic significance of her mirror lies in its representation of movement through the present and into the future. By envisioning oneself within Mami Wata's realm, her followers are able to shape their own reality. This perceived world grants individuals the ability to embody her divine powers and fulfill their own imagined realities.
The inhabitants of the coastal region encompassing Benin, Ghana, and Togo worship an extensive array of water deities, with Mami Wata being the most prominent. In this area, there is an established hierarchical system within the Mami Wata priesthood. This system serves to oversee the conduct of ceremonies, upkeep of shrines, performance of healing rituals, and the initiation of new priests and priestesses into the service of various Mami Wata deities.
Swimming and Race Today
According to a recent nationwide study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis at the YMCA, it was found that 64% of children who identify as Black/African American are unable to swim, while only 40% of Caucasian children face the same inability. This persistently low percentage can be attributed to the historical effects of racial segregation, which occurred at pools and beaches during the mid-twentieth century.
Corresponding to Professor Davis, a fundamental principle within the Black mermaid community is the concept of "aquatic diversity," as well as the imperative of educating Black children in swimming to guarantee their well-being. Davis also received training from Mermaid Tiva, a swim coach, lifeguard, and founder of "Mermaid at Any Age" in Los Angeles, an organization focused on promoting swimming education among African Americans.