Our Mermaid Craze / My Mermay and the Black Mermaid Renaissance

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

We are in a Black mermaid renaissance. While Black mermaids are a hot topic of discussion now, I know, as Tracey Baptiste has asserted, that “Mermaids have always been Black.”1 Mermaids have always shown up in Black art, music, religion, folklore, and visual culture, though perhaps not with the frequency that we see right now. The visibility of these already-existing traditions was highlighted and accelerated by the 2019 casting of Halle Bailey in Disney’s live action version of The Little Mermaid. As important as Hallariel (as professional merperson and singer The Blixunami anoints her in their single, “Splish Splash”) is to this cultural moment, it can be traced back so much further. It can be traced back to the authors of several Black mermaid books, both children’s and adults, to come out in the 2010s, the labor of mermaid experts and curators of Mami Wata and Black mermaid lore exhibits in the early 2000s, the worldbuilding of Black electronic group Drexciya in the 1990s, the mermaid and water spirit performance of Black female artists such as Sade, Nicki Minaj, Azalea Banks, and Beyonce that spans from the 1990s until today.2 Or we can go back hundreds of years, to when African peoples from diverse ethnicities captured into the transatlantic slave trade brought their water deities with them, where they continued to be worshipped within mermaid dolls placed along with offerings on altars, or through stories told and retold about the powerful water women of African American and Caribbean folklore.

I am a Black Studies scholar and professor who specializes in African American literature and speculative cultures. My current project is a study of African diasporic mermaid lore in conversation with Western humanism and the Anthropocene. But in the mermaid community, I am known by my “mersona” Mami Melusine and as host of The Merwomanist Podcast, a show about Black mermaids, fantasy, and aquatic culture. As a mermaid scholar, enthusiast, and content creator, I am used to people, when they first hear about the work that I do, bringing up the live action The Little Mermaid. While my work is not primarily inspired by or focused on The Little Mermaid, I cannot deny that I and other Black mermaid creators have used the film’s release in May 2023 as an opportunity to draw attention to the bigger story of Black mermaids. I thought the best way to talk about different aspects of the Black Mermaid Renaissance would be to chronicle my experiences and travels throughout the month of May. My busy Mermay exposes the richness and depth of meanings that mermaids hold for the different communities of Black people who love, revere, create, and embody them.

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The opening of The Little Mermaid in May, along with several other mermaid events, is not accidental—May is known by mermaid fans as Mermay. Mermay was founded in 2016 as a drawing challenge by artist and former Disney animator Tom Bancroft, after his drawing of teenage mermaids with their “shellphones,” inspired by his daughters, went viral. Recognizing the excitement over mermaids, Bancroft challenged himself and other creators to draw and post a mermaid every day during the month with the hashtag #mermay, using prompts that he posts for every day of the month as inspiration.3 This month-long celebration of fantasy and creativity has played a major role in the proliferation of mermaid imagery online across the last few years. The drawing challenge quickly made its way into the vibrant visual culture of the mermaid aficionado community active on social networking sites such as Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube. There are many people who in some ways are fans of mermaids, adopt mermaid aesthetics into their self-image and lifestyles, consume mermaid content, and even cosplay as mermaid characters. However, there is a smaller and even more close-knit network of who I call “swimming mermaids” those for whom the sport of “mermaiding” (i.e. swimming with monofins and tail skins underwater) are central to their mermaid identity. Mermay has become so popular in this mermaid subculture that many mers do not know that it originated as a drawing challenge. Mermaids post themed images of themselves every day of the month, some mermaid pods, organizations, and content creators create their own daily prompts, and several individual mermaids and mermaid organizations hold events.

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My first Mermay trip was to New York for the last few days of Wangechi Mutu’s Intertwined, a 25-year retrospective of Mutu’s works. Wangechi Mutu is a renowned Kenyan American artist whose multi-genre work, particularly her haunting collages, have frequently been taken up by Black feminist scholars, including myself, for their troubling of discourses of agency, horror, and desire. Mutu creates visual fusions of human, animal, plant, and technology through the assemblage of sources from sites of Black women’s exploitation and abuse: biology textbooks, fashion magazines, pornography, and National Geographic. While, as I am a longtime fan and cultural critic who has yearned to see Mutu’s work in person, I was also largely driven by the inclusion within the show of pieces from Nguva na Nyoka, or “Serpents and Sirens,” Mutu’s 2014 exhibit focused on African water spirits. While watery and animal hybrid imagery appeared throughout the exhibition, I was mostly drawn to one room that held Mutu’s several of Mutu’s bronze sculptures, including Water Woman (2017), Crocodylus (2020), and Musa (2022). Water Woman, a graceful, sinewy life-sized mermaid sitting in serene and noble repose combines the shapes of traditional African sculpture with more naturalistic lines. With her sleek tail, back dorsal fins, and webbed hands she exists as a more harmonious reconciliation of the human and fish form and makes me think of the similarly described merpeople of Rivers Solomon’s haunting 2019 novel, The Deep. It was hard for me to walk away from her. Crocodylus, a powerful sentry mounted upon, but also blending inextricably with, a crocodile, also challenges the distinction between human and animal and makes me think of a new interpretation of Indigenous African water spirit sculptures which, prior to the influence of European mermaid imagery, were more likely to show human figures in combination with other forms of aquatic life, such as serpents, crocodiles, turtles. The chilling and hypnotizing Musa, a feminine figure with an anaconda body, coiled into a large bronze basket of bubbling water is heavy with lifelike energy, vulnerability, and potential danger. She makes me think of so many serpent woman tales: Mami Wata, la Melusina, Medusa, Mama D’Leau… she could simply be relaxing in her bath or lying in wait ready to strike—or both.

Jalondra A. Davis and Water Woman Wangechi Mutu (2017). Bronze. The New Museum May 6, 2023. Permission Granted by Artist.

On my last evening in New York, I emailed the press manager of my university to finalize the details of a feature story.4 The story included interviews about my research, filming of my fantasy fiction course focused on mermaid lore, and an underwater shoot of me and my friend Mermaid Tiva swimming in one of the university pools. The piece went live that evening, I posted to a few networks, and I went to bed. I traveled home the next day unaware that after being subtweeted to a conservative group, the Youtube video and my Twitter account were swarmed with nasty comments. Racism, I had expected, sadly, but what I was less prepared for was the mocking of my work and my teaching as unimportant, frivolous, an example of the alleged excesses of an out-of-touch ivory tower. My story was taken up by content creators who made videos using it as an example of “lack of rigor” and the uselessness of a college education. Unwittingly, I had become part of a new culture war in which troll accounts haunt the feeds of university social media accounts, looking for ammunition for their agendas of defunding the humanities and higher education itself. I received baiting and mocking emails and was told that as I worked for a public institution, users on the university’s social media platforms could not be blocked unless they made a direct threat, and my email address could not be removed from my public profile. It seemed that while my institution benefitted from the traffic driven to the story and the highlighting of me as a faculty member, it was not equipped to fully protect me from the personal fallout. As much as I knew my work was wholly supported by my institution, my academic department and multiple communities to which I belonged, I did feel some self-doubt. In my multi-modal approach to this work and effort to connect with publics outside of the academy, had I leaned too far into the fun and the play of it all? Had I made myself into a joke? I know the answers to these questions are no. However, it was a difficult experience that reminded me of the risks of being a public intellectual, even about a topic as seemingly innocuous as mermaids, for a Black woman scholar.

Jalondra A. Davis as Mami Melusine. Photo courtesy of UCR/Stan Lim.

But Mermay must go on. On May 20, I attended the California Mermaid Convention, held in Sacramento at Hagan Community Park. This was an enjoyable, laid-back, family-oriented convention. I met so many new mermaids and reconnected with several Black mermaids I had met at the Afro Mermaid Summit the year before: Carrie Wata,Mermaid Che Monique, Mermaid Tiva, and Z Wolfie. The Saturday events included a diversity panel featuring underrepresented mers whose very existence in mermaid space pushes the boundaries of race, gender, and age. The apparent increase in diversity (this was my first mermaid convention other than AfroMermaid Summit) did not go unremarked. As many of the Black, Indigenous, and mers of color posed for a scheduled “BIPOC” picture a white byswimmer exclaimed, “Wow there are so many!” A moment which reminded me, no matter how diverse the overall mermaiding community becomes, there is still a need for spaces where Black mermaids are not an anomaly.

Black Mers at California Mermaid Convention. Left to right: Mami Melusine, Carrie Wata, Mermaid Che Monique, Z Wolfie/Mermaid Z. May 20, 2023. Permissions granted by all pictured.

Which brings me to Black Mermay Day, held on May 27 at MomoCon in Atlanta Georgia. Noting the whiteness of most Mermay imagery, cosplayer and entrepreneur Anita “Tranquil Ashes” Riggs, founded Black Mermaid Day in 2022. From the beginning, Black Mermaid Day was not just about sharing the visual culture of mermaids online, but a reflection of “the desire of the Diaspora to get back to the water.” Speaking to some of the historical and contemporary complexities of Black people’s relationship to the water: the transatlantic slave trade, the segregation of pools, hairstyling concerns, and higher rates of drowning deaths because of what I call aquatic racism (structural and interpersonal denial of equal access to aquatic spaces and aquatic education), Riggs claims Black Mermaid Day as an “initiative to enjoy mermaids and fantasy and to enjoy swimming and survive in water.”5 Riggs’ sentiments on the connection of Black mermaids to Black history and survival is shared by many Black professional mermaids and Black mermaid-oriented creatives, content creators, and entrepreneurs.6 Where it is common for professional mermaids to have “platforms” around ocean conservation and environmentalist issues,7 Black mermaids often combine this with (or de-prioritize these issues altogether in favor of) racially and culturally specific concerns.

The majority Black audience included MomoCon attendees, families, and aspiring mermaids. While the overall day was hosted by Black Mermaid/Mermay Day founder and cosplayer Tranquil Ashes, the three panels featured members of the swimming mermaid community: Clover Jene Mermaid, Black Mermay Day ambassador and owner of Black Mermaid Shoppe; Mermama Naja, mermaid, tailmaker, producer, and affectionately known as the “mother” of many Black mers; and The Seashell Queen, mermaid and owner/designer of the Iona Parris seashell jewelry. Mermaiding 101 covered safety, beginning swimming, and, as Clover describes, “accessible, affordable routes to mermaiding.” This discussion takes into consideration the lower rates of swimming proficiency among Black people and the barriers that the expensive equipment of mermaiding: monofins and tails may present. The Mental Health and Mermaiding panel touched on issues of body positivity, PTSD, and Black maternal mortality in a conversation about mermaiding as a method for accessing water and lowering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in Black women and children. And the Mermaid History panel addressed topics rarely mentioned in merculture: aquatic racism, African water spirits, and the specific genealogies of the Black mermaid community. Panelist Mermama Naja is key to this history as one of the first Black mermaids, one of the first Black tailmakers in the world, and mentor to so many in the Black mermaid community.8 The specificity and layers of these conversations show the depth and distinction of what the act of mermaiding means to Black mermaids.

Flyer for Black Mermay Day at MomoCon. May 27, 2023. Fair use.

Black Mermay weekend also included a screening of Disney’s live action The Little Mermaid, which premiered the night before. Social media posts from that screening and others trips to see the film throughout the month (including my own) are filled with excitement, thrill, and sometimes tearful emotion, as we dressed up and gathered with friends, family, daughters, nieces, to watch Halle Bailey take on the iconic role. Many Black mermaids credit “Hallariel” with launching their own mermaid journeys. Mermaid Tiva, founder and owner of Mermaids at Any Age, was already a strong swimmer and interested in mermaiding when the announcement of Halle’s casting as Ariel gave her “the courage to put on a tail.”9

Black folklorist and art quilter Cookie Washington scheduled the fiber arts exhibition “Celebrating Black Mermaids: From Africa to America,” the same weekend as The Little Mermaid release not in support of the film but to “counteract that patriarchal story”. Though she recognizes the significance of the Bailey casting, Washington speaks frankly about how The Little Mermaid story fails to provide a powerful example of femininity for young girls, “Why, if you are a goddess of the entire ocean would you give up your tailfins and your power and your magic to go hang out with someone who’s not even a king, he’s just a prince?” Washington sees Black mermaids and water spirits as a site through which Black women and girls can recover their “divinity.”10 The exhibit featured quilts, dolls, sculpture and paintings of many different imaginaries of Black mermaids. The majority of the pieces explicitly referenced African water spirits such as Mami Wata, Yemoja, Oshun, and Oya. I had the honor of being invited to speak at the closing day of this exhibit alongside Dr. Henry Drewal, one of the foremost experts of Mami Wata, curator of a major Mami Wata global arts exhibit in 2008 and author/editor of two major volumes about the deity and her various manifestations. Many works showed a water deity either attacking slave ships or rescuing those cast overboard. This mermaid warrior spirit is captured by Drewal’s comments, “One of Oshun’s key praises is the ‘knife of honey.’ She can be sweet but if you mess with her… you feel the sharpness of the knife. She embodies fierce womanhood, as these mermaids embody fierce womanhood…there are battles to come, fierce battles, and we need fierce womanhood if we are to survive.”11

Cassandra Allen, Not Today. Fabric, Mixed Media. 2023. At Celebrating Black Mermaids: From Africa to America. City Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina. May 27, 2023. Photo by Jalondra A. Davis. Permission granted by artist.

Washington intentionally selected the City Gallery for this exhibit, located less than a nautical mile from Gadsen’s Wharf on the port of Charleston, a major port through which African captives were transported. Before pulling into port, slave ship crews would throw the weak, dying, and diseased overboard to give the appearance of a healthy “cargo.” Washington spoke of mermaids dwelling those waters, caring for the souls of those interred in their depths.12 The events of the weekend included a water ceremony to Oshun, led by Ifa priest Otunba (High Chief) Nathaniel B. Styles, Jr.. While walking to the river with offerings of fruit, flowers, and honey, we spontaneously broke out singing “Wade in the Water”, an African American spiritual that can represent momentary reprieve, spiritual rebirth, or flight. This moment reminded me of the water ceremony held at the close of the AfroMermaid Summit, which I had attended the previous year. That these Black mermaid events by very different organizers ended with similar ritualistic acts just drives home the rich spiritual significance that mermaids carry for Black people. They are a site of play, yes, but also a site of resistance, survival, and the divine.

By the end of Mermay, I was exhausted. And, as any perfectionist overachiever, anxious. I was overwhelmed by all the photos, video, and conversations that I had captured and worried about my capacity to follow up on both my research plans and the project ideas I had brainstormed with the people I met. I am doing all of this as a Black female mother and wife under the conditions of White supremacist heteropatriarchal ableist capitalism in a body that is—while my claim to the category of the human is dubious and ambivalent—at least biologically human. I am tired. I am continuously reminded that I cannot actually breathe underwater. Some of my energy was restored somewhat by the last mermaid event that I experienced in May: binge watching Netflix’s Merpeople docuseries, strategically released that month. A sharp contrast to previous coverage of the professional mermaiding world, at least four of the mermaids featured in the docuseries are Black mermaids who I know personally: The Blixunami (merperson, dollmaker, animator, and musical artist), Mermaid Che Monique (founder of Society of Fat Mermaids and Merfolk for Black Lives), Carrie Wata (founder of AfroMermaid Co. and AfroMermaid Summit), and Mermama Naja (mermama, tailmaker, costumer, and owner of Najestic Entertainment and Atlantsea Productions). In a community that often traces its origins to the segregated all-white Weeki Wachi mermaid show, that sometimes takes for granted access to pools and swimming lessons, and where non-white mermaids and their projects are often not spotlighted, the docuseries showed that Black mermaids are central to the story—and they are here to stay.

Still from Netflix Cynthia Wade’s Merpeople. 2023, Episode 3. Mami Melusine and Merman Akylis. Fair Use.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Tracy Baptiste, “Mermaids Have Always Been Black,” The New York Times, July 10, 2019. Accessed August 7, 2023.
  2. Jalondra A. Davis, “Crossing Merfolk: Mermaids and the Middle Passage in African Diasporic Culture,” The Routledge Handbook of Co-Futurisms, edited by Taryne Jade TaylorIsiah Lavender IIIGrace L. DillonBodhisattva Chattopadhyay, New York: Routledge 2023.
  3. Halisia Hubbard, “What is Mermay and Why Are People so into Drawing mermaids this Month?” NPR. May 30, 2022. Accessed July 20, 2023.
  4. Sandra Baltazar Martinez, “Black mermaids, history, and spirituality,” UC Riverside News. May 8, 2023.
  5. Latisha Jones, “Tranquil Ashes: Cosplayer, Entrepreneur, and Founded of Black Mermaid Day,” Interspectional: An intersectional, sci-fi podcast. 2023. Christienna Fryar, “It’s Time to Address the Persistent Stereotypes that Black People Can’t Swim,” Media Diversified 2016.
  6. Jalondra A. Davis, “She Carries Water to Her People: My Interview with AfroMermaid Founder Carrie Wata,” The Merwomanist Podcast. June 15, 2023.
  7. Sara Malou Strandvad, Tracy C. Davis, Megan Dunn, “Skills and strategies of activist mermaids: from pretty to powerful pictures.”Text and Performance Quarterly, 2021. 41:3-4, 262-282.
  8. Clover Jene Mermaid, phone conversation, August 8, 2023.
  9. Mermaid Tiva, in-person conversation, March 7, 2023.
  10. Jalondra A. Davis, “Cookie Washington’s Mermaids,” The Merwomanist Podcast. May 23, 2023.
  11. Henry Drewal, Lecture at Celebrating Black Mermaids: From Africa to America. May 27, 2023.
  12. Jalondra A. Davis, “Cookie Washington’s Mermaids,” The Merwomanist Podcast. May 23, 2023.