“Did you have a Black doll growing up?” asked host Kristen L. Pope at the start of this week’s episode of Basic Black about the history of Black dolls.
As a child in Haiti, Widline Pyrame’s only dark-skinned doll was one that her uncle brought back from New York. “She was so precious… we preserved our doll, put her back in the box,” said Pyrame. Later, as a social worker in Massachusetts, she founded Fusion Dolls so that kids could play with dolls that look like them.
“My first doll was a white doll, a Jumeau. I fell in love with it and my parents took it away because they said it didn’t look like me,” said Debra Britt, Founder & Executive Director of the National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture. “My grandmother, who was a maid, brought home a white doll, took it apart, put it in a pot with some red dye, dyed it black,” she said. That was her first Black doll.
Lisa Simmons, Executive Artistic Director of the Roxbury International Film Festival, mostly played with stuffed animals. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t a Black Barbie… I do remember getting a Madame Alexander doll,” she said.
Dr. Tahirah Abdullah-Swain, who teaches psychology at UMass Boston, was the outlier in the room: she remembers having three Black dolls. “My favorite one was Kenya—[I’d] braid her hair, put beads in her hair, all of that,” she recalled.
Britt’s museum, now located in North Attleboro, Mass., has amassed a collection of more than 8,000 dolls over the decades. That includes about 2,000 Black Santas, which she began collecting when her nephew, who was five at the time, told her he didn’t want to be Black and that Santa Claus would never come to him. “I made it my business, my mission to make sure that when Christmastime came around, he would see a Black Santa,” said Britt. Her nephew is now in his thirties and helps her set up and take down her Santas every Christmas. “It meant so much to him to be able to go to school and say, there is a Black Santa,” said Britt.
“We are so inundated with messages that are communicating inferiority,” said Abdullah-Swain. “It continues to be important for us to see representations of ourselves and to build up our pride as Black people,” she said.
The one dark-skinned doll that Pyrame shared with her sister in Haiti had straight hair, she recalled. “I remember wanting my hair to be straight like my doll’s,” said Pyrame. Fusion Dolls, which Pyrame launched in 2019, sells multicultural dolls with hair that children can style. “Kids grab their parents and run in the store because they finally see something that they can connect with,” said Pyrame during a conversation about the importance of representation in dolls. “Sometimes I cry… what would you do for your younger self?” she said.
After viewing a clip from the 1959 film Imitation of Life in which a light-skinned young Black girl rejects a Black doll, Simmons reflected on how media depictions of Black dolls have changed. “As we’re moving from the 1970s to the sitcoms like ‘Good Times,’ and then ‘Living Single’ and ‘Martin,’ we’re seeing that the Black dolls are used in a positive way, that they’re used for comfort,” she said. “It’s really important that these shows stepped up… and really used those Black dolls as a way for Black women, men, children to understand the value of Black people,” she said.