“It’s Black, Like Me”: The Toy Doll and Our Self-Image

black dollsLadies, do you remember your favorite doll as a child? The one that you always played with and took with you everywhere you could? Maybe you featured her in fashion shows every afternoon or tried every hairstyle you could imagine on her. Or perhaps she was the type that didn’t come with interchangeable accessories, but she was still your most prized possession and was given the best place amongst your other toys. Perhaps when you played house with your doll she was always your representative, and you even gave her a unique name of her own. When we are that young we don’t always care about the ethnicity our dolls are, but did you find yourself gravitating to ones that actually looked like you? Growing up, I remember hearing elders talk about how pretty the Black Barbie dolls were, not realizing how uncommon it was in previous decades to see a widely marketed Black doll, much less a Black Barbie doll.

Remember the Barbie heads that were basically a head full of hair, so that you could practice being a hairstylist and makeup artist? You could braid and style the hair any way your mind could imagine. I was hyped when my mother bought one for me — even if the hair texture wasn’t the same as mine. As a young girl, however, I didn’t think about the texture of the doll’s hair; I just knew that it wasn’t like mine. And, growing up as an only child, it was the only type of hair that I could practice hairstyles on, since I wasn’t allowed to do my own hair as an adolescent.

I was lucky that my mother introduced me to the American Girls Collection by Pleasant Company. The 18-inch dolls sold by the company each had a book series, and an extensive back story that related to a part of American history that was relatable to any American of any ethnicity. I had two dolls from the collection, Samantha and Addy. Samantha’s character was a wealthy girl from the Victorian era, whose story was focused on issues of child labor and classism that were relevant to the early 1900s. Addy’s story was that of a fugitive slave who escapes to freedom with her mother. Addy was my favorite. It wasn’t because her book series told stories of slavery and freedom and warm Black family values. It wasn’t because she was a brown-skinned doll. Addy was my favorite doll of my childhood because her hair was kinky like mine. The same hairstyles I could wear myself and even style Addy’s hair in, I couldn’t do for Samantha.

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