It was the year 2000, and a friend of mine asked me to attend a (doll) event so she could prove to her friends that she indeed had Black friends; she was Chinese American. It seemed like an interesting and fun thing to do, because I’d never done anything like it before–celebrate the creation and birthday of a Black doll–Black Barbie to be exact.
I didn’t know that much about dolls, although Barbie was the last doll I would ever receive as a child, and I loved her. Plus, the first book that truly captured my imagination as child was a picture book about Barbie and her busy lifestyle.
However, I didn’t know a thing about Mattel or the Black Barbie doll. And now here I was about to celebrate Black Barbie’s 20th anniversary with the Black and Beautiful Doll Club of Los Angeles, and the theme of the event was “Isn’t She Lovely?”
It was incredibly fun. I sat in wonderment at all the festivities, marveling at Black, White, Latin and Asian women celebrating this little Black doll by Mattel. The program was well put together, and I even won a prize, another Barbie doll. And I met Byron Lars. Again, I had no idea who he was, but when I saw the doll he had created, I was speechless because of its beauty.
What fascinating, silly world was this? Grown women playing with dolls, having fun, laughing and enjoying another aspect of life I had totally outgrown. I wanted in. That event started me on an unexpected journey that I’m still deeply involved with today.
Flash forward to 2010, when I learned that Mattel has partnered with the Urban League to sponsor Black Barbie’s 30th anniversary. I was thrilled. Although I did not attend the event, I was overjoyed to see Mattel embrace the Black community with a very special celebration, and the Los Angeles Urban League being the host of such a wonderful occasion. It was extra special to me because of my journey with Black Barbie, Mattel and other Black doll lines in the last 10 years.
To me, Black dolls are more than just play things. They reflect the history and beauty of the Black woman’s image in America. For the most part, gone are the days of simply painting a White doll black. Now more than ever before, Black features, coloring, and hairstyles reflect today’s Black woman. Ethnic Americans are now putting their point of views on doll face modes, and Mattel, as always, continues to lead the way.
Black dolls became important to me because of my grandnieces. I purchased Black Barbies for my first grandniece, when I thought she was age appropriate. To my confusion and disappointment, I learned she didn’t like Black dolls, and I questioned her mother regarding the values she was passing on to her daughter. My niece told me her daughter had several White playmates, and she wanted to be more like them because to her their life was better. My niece went on to explain it’s difficult to fight the White images in television, films, and even popular books.
Because I’m an experienced news and documentary producer, writer and director, I decided to do some research and unexpectedly delved into a world that both broke my heart and fascinated me. My grandniece was not alone in her thinking; as a matter of fact it was rather common. Little Black girls preferred White dolls. From “Essence” magazine, “Woman” created by “American Legacy” magazine, to “Ebony” magazine and beyond, article after article talked about this sad phenomenon.
In the 1940’s, psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, designed a doll test that revealed the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. Understandably, the majority of the children selected the White doll as the better of the two identical dolls, differing only in color. This test proved to be instrumental in desegregating our schools in the 1954 landmark decision Brown vs. Board of Education.
What’s our excuse today? Ironically, these tests are still being conducted by young people as well as curious news folks, and the results continue to be the same, the White identical doll is selected.
My research has led me to read and speak with some of the greatest minds alive today. And I’ve delved into the world of girls of all ages like I never imagined. I’ve attended seminars, produced videos concerning girl’s self-esteem and met with doll makers including Mattel, presented Black doll exhibits, and taken Black dolls into the classroom wrapping African American History around them, and it’s been a wonderful, enlightening and sometimes disturbing journey.
Next time, I will share with you the wonderful world of Mattel. No, this is not an unsolicited ad for the makers of Black Barbie, but I will share with you the history, and contributions Mattel has made to the Black community, particularly in Los Angeles. My research revealed a history not many know. And keep in mind, Mattel started the whole phenomenon of teenage fashion model dolls, and continues to enjoy the most ethnically diverse doll line in manufacturing history.