My mother made sure that positive representations of Black women were in every part of my world, even if that meant missing out on a few things. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
It seems almost revolutionary these days when a brand makes an effort to acknowledge a set of customers that had previously been marginalized (if not outright ignored). We cheer when a Black model becomes the face of a luxury brand, or when a plus-sized model breaks barriers, and we hashtag their every move on Instagram #slay, #werk, #serve, and #fierce. We celebrate them, and we should.
We especially go nuts when iconic products like Barbie give a nod to the Brown girls, or more recently different body types (I want a plus-sized Barbie; don’t judge me!).
I love it all, but it’s not exactly new for me. My mother made it a point to fill my toy box with nothing but Black dolls, and she made sure to comment on how beautiful they were. Baby dolls, Barbies, and Shani Dolls (am I the only one who remembers those?), my mom was always on the hunt for Brown dolls for her little girl.
Everyday, I picked up a beautiful Black doll, and that’s just the way mother wanted it. I didn’t get it at the time, but my mom had a multi-layered plan to make sure that I knew Black is beautiful and it started with my dolls.
I may have faced other struggles with my self esteem growing up. I questioned whether I was too big (nope, just had a different body structure), if I was too loud (almost certainly, yes), or even if I was likable (that’s a matter of opinion). However, I never had to question whether I could be Black and beautiful.
In school, other girls were hostile to me because all of the dolls I brought in for show-and-tell were Black (even my cousins thought it was a little strange). Of course, none of them ever questioned the fact that all of their dolls were white, but kids aren’t known for using the power of logic.
Desperately wanting to fit in as a child, I thought it was such a ridiculous rule for my mother to impose. It didn’t make sense to me. Why did all of my dolls have to Black? At the time, it was incredibly frustrating because it meant that if a doll I wanted didn’t come in my color, I couldn’t have it. It would be all that I could think about for days.
Looking back on it now, though, I see the huge value in what my mother did. In this society that does everything it can to demean, and attack, and reduce Black women, she was dedicated to bringing me positive images of us. She started sowing that seed using the dolls I played with every single day. The dolls I sent off on imaginary adventures looked like me. And so, I began to believe that I could go on those same types of adventures when I grew up.
And I saw the beauty in us. All of us. Every shade and shape of us.
After a while, I became keyed into looking for the Black version of toys I wanted. Subsequently, I began to question their absence in the toy stores, and that thought process expanded to the world around me. I began to look for Black faces in movies and TV shows, in fashion magazines, and in books. It opened up my mind to the topic of equitable representation. And not just for Black women–for everyone. When you can spot one missing thing, it’s easier to see what else isn’t there. Like every other ethnicity.
In a way, having nothing but Black dolls helped me to develop my observational and analytical skills earlier on. That’s an outcome that I don’t think mom anticipated.
Astonishingly, not even this was new for my family.
I came to find out that exclusively buying Black dolls was something that had been passed down to my mother from my grandmother. Undoubtedly, my grandmother had a much tougher time with this mission than my mom in 1960s Georgia, but I’m glad to be part of the legacy that taught me not only to love Black womanhood but also to become a thinker.