As the mother of two daughters, holiday shopping has now turned into an annual quest for black dolls. And not just any black dolls.
I’m not talking about those white dolls that look like they’ve been dipped in chocolate or dyed that ubiquitous shade of candy-bar brown in an effort to pass for black.
I’m not talking about those olive-tinged, brunette-headed ones, either.
And I’m certainly not talking about those turn-of-the-century mammy dolls and minstrel figurines that took the best of our features and exaggerated them into vulgarity and revulsion.
I’m talking about black dolls that resemble my daughters—ones that look like real black girls and women. I’m talking about black dolls that represent some reality of our tonal diversity. They have fuller lips, brown eyes and soft noses, like the doll I had when I was a little girl, like my daughters and millions of other little black girls have now, despite a toy aisle that renders them obsolete, never in-style and endangered.
I want dolls that show my kinky-coiffed, pouty-lipped, caramel-colored offspring. They, too, are beautiful enough to be center stage even amid an aesthetic that normalizes straight-haired, milky-skinned whiteness as the default and ideal. I’m talking about a representation seldom seen in commercials or coloring books. I’m talking about integrating images of blackness so standardized in their world that the very idea of preferring a doll that looks nothing like them sends chills up their innocent spines.
Around this time last year, at a major national chain, I was told by a sales associate that they are instructed to place the white dolls out front, with the black dolls, if any are available, behind them on the shelves. In order to find a black doll in this circumstance, one would have to remove front-facing white dolls in order to reach the back of the display where a few privileged black dolls might share shelf space.
Like the back of the bus or the back of a restaurant in the Jim Crow era, black dolls are restricted to a toy hinterland, where the dolls of desire are ruddy-cheeked, blue- or green-eyed and flaxen-haired. This year, I was reminded that Toy Land is an apartheid state, even in 2008.
This weekend, I scoured toy aisles and Web sites in search of black dolls with black hair. And I don’t mean the color black. I mean hair with texture, coils, kinks, curls and waves reminiscent of the cornrow-capable, dreadlock-driven, twist-turning and Afro halos, hair types in my household, my family, my circle, my people.