"somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness"
March 28, 2013 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Black Is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter discusses the history and importance of black dolls. Resources referenced in the article include the Black Doll Collecting blog, The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture, The Philadelphia Doll Museum, and the trailer for the documentary film "Why Do You Have Black Dolls?"
posted by lalex (21 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
As a little white American girl in the 1950s my favorite doll was black. I don't remember playing with any other dolls. We lived in the projects in New York City. My parents were liberal and I played with black kids and white kids. Maybe one of my black friends gave it to me. Maybe my mother bought it. Maybe I demanded she buy it. I'll never know, she died many years ago. I still have this doll, her name is Susie.

I think many of us who are white would notice a white child playing with a black doll, even today. But how many of us would notice that a black child is playing with a white doll?
posted by mareli at 10:01 AM on March 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

Like mareli, I'm a white girl who had a black doll (a rubber Berenguer baby doll, who I named Jennifer). It was the 80s and one of my mother's friends, who was black, had a baby who I thought was the cutest thing ever. I begged for Jenny specifically.

A few years later, I asked for a hispanic-looking baby doll too. Michael, a soft-bodied boy with brown curly hair.

The white girls who would come over to play seemed to think it was really weird. I never really thought about it much, the pressure to have dolls that look like us (several doll lines exist for just that) and how few dolls of color exist in those lines. It's mostly just a sea of white. I mean how many variations of blonde hairstyles do you need?! Sad.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:43 AM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

This post made me think of this "This American Life" episode (act three). There was some kind of trendy, expensive doll, and the show is about what happened when the white dolls sold out, and how white parents responded as they came in to attempt to buy one of the dolls for their kids.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:55 AM on March 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Sometime around age two I received a stuffed bear that had a bow tie and sweater that I named Ski Bi (pronounced skee-bee). About a year later my maternal grandmother took me to a toy store to pick a gift for my birthday. I picked a little black baby doll I named Ski. Nobody seemed to mind, except my father, a man that held no compassion for blacks, a man who feels that blacks are the descendants of Cain, unworthy of a place in society. It was so early in my childhood that I don't remember what happened to Ski, just that my father was irate that I would have a black baby doll, let alone choose it for myself.

Later, while attending a service at our Baptist church, I recall that a black man rapped about Jesus (this was the late 80s) to hopefully bring the message to the younger generation in a way they (we) would appreciate. My father took us during the service saying something about "those goddamn n---ers are ruining everything."

Later still, I found myself in a Seattle program that brought middle class kids to inner city schools and vice versa. Surrounded by kids of all races I struggled with my own race issues imposed on me by my father. There were plenty of kids with issues, black, white, asian, it didn't matter. It occurred to me that we were all messed up. And yet there were also plenty of black kids that were perfectly fine people. I remember one kid Dominic who taught me how to play basketball. He was one of the nicest people I ever met.

I have plenty of stories like this about how my father tried to sway my opinion about "lesser races", and this makes me sad. But I have hope that with proper education these sorts of prejudices will be questioned, no matter one's demographic.
posted by brony at 11:04 AM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Now I have this mental image of a little girl with racist parents picking out a Curtis doll to be her Barbie's friend instead of Ken.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:08 AM on March 28, 2013

I remember back in the nineties, Mattel had this really neat line of African-American barbies with different skin tones, hair and (as I recall, but I may be making this up) slightly different face sculpts. They struck me as being sort of 90s-multicultural/Afrocentric in aspect, more adult-looking than a lot of barbies. But they were just regular barbies intended for kids, not special collector ones. I was in college at the time but even so I was tempted to buy them since they were so nice. I wish I had, in retrospect, as I haven't seen anything as nice since.

It was interesting to read that Mattel provided start-up funding for that Shindani doll company because they were afraid that urban unrest would imperil their offices. That was a different time, all right. It must have been so euphoric to live in a time when radical political action was seen to have some moral legitimacy and people could shake the towers of capital.

That was a really good article, and the dolls are just beautiful.
posted by Frowner at 11:09 AM on March 28, 2013

Outstanding article, very thought-provoking, and the photos are terrific. Thanks for posting this.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:13 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating. It makes me wonder if I can find out more about a doll I received as a child.

My mom's uncle, aunt, and cousins lived in Jamaica when I was young. We would go visit (I'm too young to remember those visits) and one time someone in the family bought me a little cloth doll. She was a Black doll and I want to say she was purchased for me because she had a name that was similar/same as my given name. She was dressed in her school uniform and had a few other outfits (maybe a Sunday dress and a party dress).
Maybe she was a popular character from books or maybe just like Barbie - a common toy in that country or maybe (and possibly exploitatively) something marketed to tourists.
I played with her a lot and I remember being fascinated by her school uniform because I thought having a unform would be so awesome and very grown-up (ah, childhood). I recently came across her in an old chest of keepsakes. Sadly, she's down to a blouse and pantaloons but she's still lovely and I wish I knew more about her.
posted by pointystick at 11:43 AM on March 28, 2013

I'm another white girl who had a black baby doll that I picked out for myself. Now I'm a white mom to a nonwhite daughter, and I find myself really frustrated at the inability to find a doll that looks anything like my medium-skinned kid. I can choose among several hair and eye shades for the white dolls, or one dark-skinned black doll or one light- or medium-skinned Hispanic doll, pretty much at every major retailer. I think it's important that she have dolls that look like her, just like we have books with illustrations showing people who look like her, and it would be really cool if the options for nonwhite dolls had anywhere near the variety of skin and eye and hair options the white dolls do. We actually ordered her a custom doll from Etsy for Christmas and she carries it around all the time.
posted by SeedStitch at 12:17 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was never much for dolls as a kid, but thanks to the Black Pride movement of the '60s and '70s my mom was able to buy me a black baby doll and a black imitation-Barbie. I don't know if she had to make any heroic efforts to get them, but I do know that she told me several times how lucky I was, because no one bothered to make black dolls when she was a little girl.

At some point, Mattel introduced their Barbie: Dolls of the World collection, and brought out some gorgeous African dolls. I was able to get her the Ghana doll and the Kenya doll as Christmas gifts. Mom damn near cried when she saw them, and until she died she proudly displayed those dolls in her house, and showed them to every black little girl she met. I think she even took them to church for a Black History Month program.

I have them now, also displayed. They are awesome, and whatever Mattel's failings may be, I'm so glad they made them. Mom's passion for those dolls I gave her awakened a passion for black dolls in me late in life. If I had the money, I would chase down that Sara Lee doll no matter what it took.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

I forgot: does anyone remember the My Buddy dolls? Hasbro made a black one that my little brother friggin' adored. He carried that thing forever.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:41 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lovely comment, magstheaxe. The story of the Sara Lee doll is fascinating:
One day in the late 1940s, Creech, a white florist, was leaving the Belle Glade post office when she happened upon two black girls playing with their dolls. What a pretty picture they made, she thought.

Then she realized the dolls were white - and she walked away disturbed, as she had been upon seeing such incongruities in the past.

"A black child playing with a white doll was not getting the correct self- image," she said. "And it was important for all children - black and white - to see a quality black doll, a doll representing the beauty and the character, the good features, of a black child."
posted by lalex at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Very nice post! I was also a white girl who had a black doll (this one; I wish I could remember what I named her, it's on the tip of my tongue). I vividly remember asking for her in "chocolate", though I don't recall how I knew she came in that color; maybe the Sears catalog or a TV commercial showed both, or maybe they were sold next to each other in stores. (This was in Madison, WI in the early 70s, pre-Toys-R-Us era; Dad used to take me to a local toy store called Uncle Paul's which always seemed huge to me, but then, I was 3.)

At the time when I asked for the doll, I know I would have seen lots of black people on Sesame Street, and quite a few at preschool or around town. But I still remember liking it because it wasn't that boring old white color. I'm one of those people that loves anything that comes in interesting colors. (Yes, I had a red cell phone for several years.) When I realized that the doll was not chocolate, but African-American (sheesh, this was even before THAT term came out!), I remember thinking, "Those dolls are for black kids, and the other ones are for white kids, and I must be breaking the rule...but I love her and I'm not giving her up," and no one ever asked me to, though I vaguely remember my peers asking why I had a black doll.

That was as far as my understanding went until I was in high school and somehow got introduced to the idea that teens should see themselves reflected in YA books so they know they aren't alone. We were starting to see articles (in the newspaper, g-d help us) about how few black people were on TV. I extrapolated from the YA books idea and from that: maybe people need to see themselves in the media and culture in general. And it occurred to me, that's what the black dolls were for! So little black girls could have their play-mommy experience with a doll that looks like them!

(Of course I'm older and jaded and I now realize that the only reason Mattel et al TRULY made black baby dolls is so they could get black people's money, because that's how corporations work, but let me have my nostalgia for a moment.)
posted by gillyflower at 4:15 PM on March 28, 2013

Onya! Her name was Onya! Pronounced "unya" and spelled with an O (I read/wrote early). I made it up out of my own head. People used to ask, "Her name is Onion?" when I'd tell them. Anyway.
posted by gillyflower at 4:20 PM on March 28, 2013

I'm black and grew up having black dolls and white dolls. My favorite doll was Dancerina, a ballet doll that was the black version of the white doll. I loved her because I wanted to be a ballerina. I know that my mother thought it was important that I have black dolls. I loved Barbies like most girls and I had a mix of mostly white ones but I had a few black ones as well.

My neighbor, who was younger than me, had a black Baby Alive that I coveted. I had grown past baby dolls and was more into Barbies but I liked that little real looking black baby.
posted by shoesietart at 6:50 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember where I was when I learned about the Clark Experiment
posted by TangerineGurl at 7:57 PM on March 28, 2013

I remember back in the nineties, Mattel had this really neat line of African-American barbies with different skin tones, hair and (as I recall, but I may be making this up) slightly different face sculpts. They struck me as being sort of 90s-multicultural/Afrocentric in aspect, more adult-looking than a lot of barbies.

Sounds like the So In Style (S.I.S.) line.

I remember being so excited as a little girl whenever I found a doll that even had dark hair like mine, amidst the sea of blue-eyed blondes. My sister had a mod 1970's Black Barbie clone doll I coveted for that reason.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:08 PM on March 28, 2013

(I also remember "borrowing" Mom's mascara to dye blonde dolls' hair.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:11 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you for posting this; I enjoyed the article. Since we have mixed race family members, we've been highly aware of how much a doll of similar color to the child is appreciated and of the lack of darker skinned options with dolls - if you look at any toy doll aisle you'll see about 1 darker doll for every dozen blonde and pale dolls.

My children aren't mixed race, but they are not blondes. While the girls were still infants, I gave notice they were NOT to be given golden-haired dolls. I didn't even want Barbies, with their unrealistic shapes, in the home but eventually relented when my oldest said, "Mom, they're -just- avatars, like the Venus of Willendorf; they don't have to look realistic."

(Your 4 yo uses the word "avatar" appropriately, pronounces Willendorf correctly, and provides that kind of logic, you give her what she wants! She wanted a Barbie.)

Luckily, in the 90s, there were A LOT of "Barbies of The World" and my daughters had their own United Nations in the bedroom- a wonderful collection of various skin tones, facial features, hair textures. And I did allow some blondes, cuz, you know, the Swiss.


It made my sister very sad that her pretty little mahogany skinned daughter would only play with dolls pale and blonde, saying they were "prettier, like mommy", despite the great effort and expense put into finding a lot of darker toned options. Luckily, 20 years later my niece is now (by looking in the mirror) highly aware of just how beautiful black can be... and buying black dolls for -her- niece.
posted by _paegan_ at 10:56 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love this! I'm Puerto Rican, not light enough or dark enough, just smack in the middle with a wild mess of hair that no doll had. Don't think they ever gave us any ethnic dolls. I wonder if having dolls that kind of looked like me with hair like mine would have gotten me to self acceptance a little earlier. Not feeling like there was a place for me being stuck in the middle.

How about black male dolls?? Off to google.
posted by mokeydraws at 8:06 AM on March 29, 2013

Kattis Dolls has a pictorial guide to Mattel's fashion dolls by ethnicity over the years, including Ken and his male friends.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:06 AM on March 29, 2013

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