Angela Williams, a black writer in her 40s, remembers receiving her first black Barbie doll like it was yesterday.
“My first Black Barbie came as an inheritance from one of my sisters. I have three older sisters and I think she was probably six or seven when I got it,” she tells TODAY.com.
Although the doll was missing some accessories due to her sisters’ lack of consideration for the toy, Angela Williams said she still loved the doll like no other.
“I think by the time it happened to me, his shoes were gone. But I didn’t care that she didn’t have shoes or that she didn’t have anything special. She was special because of the way she looked.»
The doll reflected some of Angela Williams’s features, sporting preppy dark hair, a «plain» blue dress, and dark skin. But, the best part of the toy was how the doll could come to life just by using your imagination.
“You know there’s one person in the friend group who always tends to lead the pack and has the ideas and everyone wants to hang out with them because they’re so cool. That was my Barbie,” she said.
«She was almost like the queen of the core because she stood out and was different,» adds the journalist.
Having played with only white dolls before, a young Angela Williams knew exactly what she wanted to do with her new friend.
First, she built a house for her Barbie using boxes she found around the house, and when her doll took a walk through her made-up town, she would say, «Everyone would be happy to see her» by the way she «strutted around.»
“Everyone admired her. So I guess for me, I made my Barbie the very special person that I thought she was meant to be,” she said.
‘She is black! She is beautiful! She is dynamite!‘
The kind of inspiration Angela Williams received from playing with her doll was rare for black girls in 1959. That year, Barbie made her toy store debut, and the fashionista arrived equipped with platinum blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. While it seemed white girls could envision her future with the «country’s first mass-marketed adult-like doll for girls,» according to The New York Timesit was difficult for children of color to do the same.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, she made her first dark skinned doll.
His name was France And she came with a cool twist and turn feature at the waist that made her even more fun to play with. But although she seemed to promote inclusion in the toy industry, along with christiea more popular black doll than came out a year after hernone of them were seen as a black Barbie doll.
According to the Independent, Francie and Christie were part of «several black dolls» that Mattel released as friends of Barbie. Although they lived in the plastic world of the icon, they were only a shadow of existence compared to Barbie.
Black girls would have to wait at least 10 more years before the first official black Barbie doll would hit the market.
However, when it arrived, it did not disappoint. In 1980, the first black doll named Barbie made her debut wearing a fabulous red jumpsuit with a wraparound, snap-fit disco-style skirt. Her striking outfit was created by Kitty Black Perkins, a black fashion designer who eventually became Mattel’s Lead Fashion and Coll Concept Designer and is credited with creating more than 100 designs.
According to the National Game Museum, the Barbie was sold in a box that said: “She’s black! She is beautiful! She is dynamite!»
While its launch appeared to be a breakthrough moment in the toy industry, professor Patricia A. Turner, who teaches African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said people shouldn’t be so quick to think that Black Barbie was created solely to address issues of representation.
Black Barbie arose when black Americans began to experience upward mobility
Turner, a senior dean at UCLA, said society was changing rapidly in the years leading up to Black Barbie’s release, which was partly due to the civil rights movement that occurred in the 1950s and ’60s.
«It’s probably not a coincidence that the first black Barbie came out when she did,» she tells TODAY.com. «The ’80s take us out of the formal years of the civil rights movement.»
“During that time,” he continues, “there were boycotts of justice and civil unrest from the African American community.”
Because of the movement, Turner said, blacks began to progress in society, working their way into the «middle class, upper middle class, and wealthier ranks» that were available to them. As blacks began to experience upward mobility, he said it only made sense for companies to start marketing to them.
“Businesses that are interested in making a profit understand that they need to market to that community,” he said.
“I know it wasn’t uncommon at that time for African Americans to be invisible,” he adds. «One of the reasons girls and their mothers wanted Black Barbie was to correct that invisibility.»
As more and more Black Barbies were sold, Mattel decided to give the burgeoning dolls a bit of a refresh by selling them as career-driven women that kids could look up to.
In 1989, the company made a Black Barbie who was a pilot, and in 1993, there was another Black Barbie, who served as a medical sergeant. In subsequent years, Mattel released other Black Barbies, including a medic sergeant, a firefighter, and, in 2004, a president Black Barbie.
Barbie becomes the «most diverse line of dolls on the market»‘
By the time 2015 rolled around, Mattel found more ways to be inclusive, this time introducing Barbies with different body types and features to help people feel more visible in the toy industry. In 2019, the company introduced its first Barbie doll in a wheelchair and another that has a prosthetic leg, helping cement Barbie’s place as «the most diverse line of dolls on the market,» Lisa McKnight, executive vice president and global head of Barbie & Dolls, Mattel, said in a statement. statement.
Part of this inclusion can be seen in Greta Gerwig’s new film «Barbie,» which has been acclaimed for its diverse cast.
“I thought it was cool,” Nyla Smith, the 14-year-old daughter of Angela Williams, told TODAY.com of the film. «I liked the references they used to Barbie dolls and their style, and I thought it was cool how they made it more inclusive for everyone.»
In the film, Issa Rae, a black actress known for her entrepreneurial endeavors, plays President Barbie, a role that has yet to be filled by a woman in the real world.
When asked how she feels about a black woman being president, Angela Williams’ older sister Elizabeth, who is also an avid collector of black Barbies, told TODAY.com: «About time!»
“I think he’s great, and I think Issa Rae is a great person,” said Elizabeth Wilson, executive director of the Georgia Micro Enterprise Network.
“It just makes sense that Barbie would always lead the way and show us what’s next,” she adds.
Although the audience criticism of «Barbie» keeps coming, rivaling the launch of another critically acclaimed blockbuster, director Christopher Nolan’s «Oppenheimer,» Elizabeth Wilson said she is hopeful that girls of color will walk away with something positive after seeing the film.
«I hope they see themselves as a future Barbie,» she said. “Maybe they say to themselves, ‘Oh, I can do that too. I can be that.
Like her sister Angela, Elizabeth Wilson greatly enjoyed playing with Black Barbies as a child. Currently, she has eight black Barbie dolls in her can and she said she won’t be selling any of them any time soon.
In addition to collecting, Elizabeth Wilson also buys her niece Nyla a black Barbie from time to time. When she was younger, as a teenager she used to have an impressive Barbie collection that included a plane, a jeep and a cruise ship.
“I didn’t have much of that in my childhood. So I wanted to make sure that most of the dolls in our house reflected the world that she lives in and I wanted her to see that her dolls were as beautiful as any white doll you can get,” said Angela Williams.
But once Nyla reached a certain age, she donated most of her collection to a friend at her mother’s local church. Now, she only has a few dolls at home.
Thinking about the important role her Black Barbies played in her life, Nyla said she was very «excited» to «have dolls that look like me.» And if her toy came with straight hair, her mom would help her wash the doll’s locks so she would have the same “big fluffy curly hair” that Nyla wore.
Helping her son feel more represented in society is just one way Angela Williams is teaching her daughter that black is beautiful.
In an attempt to give her daughter a stronger childhood, Angela Williams makes sure Nyla doesn’t repeat the same mistakes she made.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize the value of having a doll that looked like me until I was older,” she said. “Until it was time to stop playing with them.”