Disney cable channel Freeform defended the casting on Instagram, reminding readers that the author of the adapted fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen, was Danish and suggested that the mermaid could have been, too.
"Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black," read the statement, titled, "An open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls," a reference to one of the animated movie's songs.
Mermaid legends have been passed down between generations and have represented different races as well as cultural and ethnic backgrounds from around the globe.
These are just a few:
The goddess Yemaya of the Yoruba religion in Havana during the celebrations for the day of Yemaya.
Originating in the Yoruba religion, Yemaya or Yemoja is a West African water spirit known as the goddess of the ocean, who's associated with positive qualities to help regulate social and spiritual practices.
Spelman College English professor R. Nicole Smith said some artists have depicted the African deity as a mermaid as her story is shared in Western culture.
Smith said it's important for people, especially young people, to see themselves represented in stories — whether it's fantasy or mythology — because it allows them the opportunity to imagine what their futures could be.
"Most of us may not actually believe in mermaids, but it's what the mermaid represents," said Smith, who researches contemporary American literature and Afrofuturism.
And Bailey as Ariel represents an opportunity for African Americans to be seen in mainstream media.
Mami Wata, sometimes represented as a snake charmer, is seen throughout Africa as a powerful water spirit.
Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution
The image of Mami Wata, also a water spirit, has taken on many forms, including a mermaid.
Mami Wata represents the finer things in life, such as luxury goods. Her story began long before Europeans crossed the ocean to Africa's shores.
When people saw the European ships' figureheads, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Deputy Director and Chief Curator Christine Kreamer said they saw a powerful, long-haired. The African people linked her beauty and her relation to the Europeans to powers that could bring protection and wealth.
"These are depictions as imagery that came across and set into an existing set of beliefs," she said. "These images that we look at as mermaids fit into to an existing sort of broader belief of powerful water spirits, and then how that's picked up in the visual arts changes over time."
Benton, also called Benzaiten, is one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
Benton, a water deity, presided over Japan's geishas and educated classes that later adopted her as a goddess of prosperity.
Mermaids are more than what some people have grown up seeing in Disney's animation, Alexander said. They are more diverse and multidimensional.
"Mythology usual tells the truth in a symbolic way," she said. "And to me, it shows that if we -- all around the world far before we had internet or postal systems or any other way of communicating with each other, we all had similar stories. And those stories, to me, signify that we have more in common than we have in terms of divisiveness."
The cover art for Jason Porath's book "Rejected Princesses" features the mermaid Iara.
Courtesy Jason Porath
Iara, also spelled Uiara or Yara, is Brazil's "Lady of the Lake" and is associated with the ancient Tupi people. According to Jason Porath's book "Rejected Princesses," Iara was the courageous daughter of an Amazon tribe's spiritual leader.
Mythology says Iara's two brothers were jealous of her and plotted to kill her in her sleep. But as soon as they got close to their sister, Iara killed them in self-defense. She was hunted down for her actions and drowned.
Porath said Andersen's version of "The Little Mermaid" may not give young readers the best lessons for life. In that fairy tale, the mermaid mutilates herself with a potion from a witch so she can be with the prince with whom she has fallen in love.
"Iara's story has a lot more agency and gives a totally different message to people who are reading," Porath said. "Iara isn't necessarily a role model, but she's a totally different direction."