Dolly My Beauty
I have a confession to make: I told a lie in previous posts. I apologize. I preached this good sermon about how my parents were my only influences and not TV. Well, that’s not entirely true. There were some TV shows that influenced who I am, but I think the biggest influence on and reflection of who I wanted to be came from my dolls. Listen. When I was a little girl my parents went out of their way to make sure I had every single doll known to man. At one time Mattel and Hasbro couldn’t put out dolls as fast as they could buy them for me. If they didn’t get them from the stores they had them made. I had dolls made from yarn, dolls made from cloth, dolls made from felt, dolls out the wazoo. The only stipulation to this doll craze that we went through (because they were just as into buying them as I was into playing with them) was that they had to be African-American. I think I had about seven Caucasian dolls in life. The dolls had to be black because I spent a strong portion of my time with them. I had to create my fantasy world based on them. How could I enter an imaginary realm where no one looked like me? I already had to deal with that when watching The Jetsons, a cartoon that suggested my people weren’t part of the future. In the world I created I had to be surrounded by people who looked like me, no matter what material they were made of. Good job, Mommy and Daddy. You shaped my artistic side with a blueprint of perfection. Maybe I’m still stuck in the world the two of you allowed me to create. That’s why I don’t fall in line with what the world thinks of me. Well done.
This thing with the dolls was serious. Although I had more Barbie dolls than anything, that dog-heffa didn’t add much to me as a person. The whole concept of Barbie was crazy to me because Barbie had everything in the world, but Barbie had no job. I always wanted a job. Better yet, I always wanted a career. My mom had a career that required her to carry a briefcase. I didn’t know what a briefcase was, but it made my mother look important; so I wanted one. Barbie had no career and no briefcase. Somehow she had all of life’s luxuries, though, and that alone was supposed to impress me. I wanted to work for the townhouse, the Corvette, the RV, the Jacuzzi large enough for eight friends, and the wardrobe so extensive that I never wore anything twice. And Barbie never really had shoes. I mean, she had those little things on her feet the size of Tic Tacs, but they never stayed on. I’ve been a shoe-whore for as long as I could imagine, so her walking around barefoot with those unreal arches in her feet just irked me to no end. Barbie always had on a ballroom gown but no shoes to go with it. And she didn’t have a man or children. My idea of adult life always included both. Yes, I know Barbie had Ken. My Barbies didn’t. It was decided by my father and my uncle that I wasn’t allowed to have a Ken doll because Ken had no penis. I had to get a G.I. Joe for Barbie because he had a penis and masculinity. Ken, they decided, was gay. Why they cared about a little girl having a doll with a penis, I don’t know. I don’t know why they thought I knew what gay was either, because I honestly didn’t learn what that word meant until high school. (It was like they sheltered me but wanted me to know everything at the same damn time). G.I. Joe was always off fighting King Cobra or complaining to Lady Jane about how Barbie never wanted to do “army stuff,” though. Outside of her wide range of friends – of only whom the minority sect made it into my home (Sorry, Midge) – Barbie didn’t lead a very envious life. Barbie didn’t even have a daughter. A black woman in ownership of all of those worldly possessions with no job to show for it, no husband, and no kids? No thank you. She was fun to play with but not someone I hoped to be.
My whole family was in on teaching me to take pride in my race through my playthings. Black women were working women. I never had a tea set because tea parties were for idle women who sat around and gossiped. The women in my family got on the phone and gossiped after work hours; after their families were fed, children were bathed, and while they cleaned their kitchens. They never drank tea; they drank coffee, and that was to get them to work to make their contribution toward the bacon being brought home. To them being a wife meant being part of a team. What part of a team sat around a table dressed up and drinking tea during the week? The only time tea was acceptable was when they went to sorority luncheons, functions that served the purpose of raising money. So every Christmas when I put a tea set on my list it got scribbled off and wasn’t given another thought. Not even pretending to be useless was an option.
There was nothing like taking that five hour trip from Syracuse, NY, to Harlem, NY, on a weekend to visit my mother’s people and hearing someone – anyone – say, “In the morning we’re taking the subway and going shopping. My mother’s side of the family consisted of professional numbers players. That is, they hit the numbers so much that they were able to supplement their incomes with Lottery winnings. (I’m still waiting for this trait to kick in). That meant I was going to reap the benefits of someone’s – or multiple people’s – money from hitting the three-way or four-way. Aunt Lottie was the best one to win, because she spoiled me stinking rotten. (I’m actually about to break down in tears from the memories. She’s gone on to Glory now, and I miss her so). We rarely had to take the subway, which was a good thing, because I was terrified of subways. She was a fancy woman who was all about cabs. A couple of times we took the bus just so she could try to teach me how to do it, but it was mainly cabs. Looking back, I believe she enjoyed buying me dolls because she grew up during a time when there were no black baby dolls. She never told me that, but I remember how adamant she was about me getting a black one whenever we went out. There was a time when I wanted a Jem doll, but she wasn’t buying it for me because they didn’t have the African-American member of the group available for purchase. She knew there was a black girl in the group, because she watched the cartoon with me before we left the house that morning. That day I got clothes and no toys until we got to The Bronx where I was sure to find a doll who looked like me.
In the first grade there was a book fair/rummage sale at school. I was one of those strange children who danced on the ceiling at the chance to buy books. I think my mom gave me twenty dollars to buy what I wanted. It may have been less, but I remember thinking I hit the jackpot. I could buy as many books as I wanted with twenty whole dollars! Then as I made my way to the register, I saw toys! Dolls! The only problem was there were no black ones. I bought one anyway- a hard, plastic one with short, brittle blonde hair and blinking blue eyes. I only wanted it because it came with a baby bottle and wet itself. Later I learned that the stupid thing didn’t come with diapers; so it was just a mess, especially after my cousin ripped its pants off and flushed them down the toilet. I sat her on my bed with the elite of my dolls which consisted of a cloth doll made of chocolate-colored cloth and long black yarn hair who was named Veroda after my favorite cousin; a yarn doll with cornrows whose name alternated between Alaina and Arajean depending on how I felt that day; a pillow version of the little black girl from Strawberry Shortcake; Montgomery Moose from The Get Along Gang; a Canadian Cabbage Patch named Feinfay (I did not name her that, so you will not hold me accountable for that wrongdoing) who was one of the first ones ever made, so of course she was Caucasian; and Rainbow Brite. There was no compromise with that one. Even if she was purple with lime green spots and orange polka dots on her butt I was going to have Rainbow Brite. I introduced the new doll to the elite crowd. They didn’t receive her well at all. Maybe it was because they were all dressed to the nines, and she didn’t have anything covering her butt by the time I made it to my bedroom to introduce her to them. Maybe it was because her hair was made of a material unlike anything in this world. Maybe it was the blinking eyes. Whatever it was they didn’t take well to her. She wasn’t even allowed to be among the peasants of my dolls. How was she supposed to teach me anything about loving myself? Her shirt was ugly, and she didn’t even wear draws. I looked at her and thought maybe I could do something to help her. Getting her pants out of the toilet was simply out not going to happen. I couldn’t borrow clothes from another doll. She was shaped too funny for that. Besides, she was already a bum. I couldn’t embarrass her any further.
“With all the black children that go to that school you’d think they’d have black dolls for sale,” I heard my mother grumble as she passed by my room. “There’s a black nun at the school. Why didn’t she tell them to get some black dolls?”
My mother thought everyone should join the effort in teaching her child to take pride in her race. Most of my friends’ mothers shared the same sentiment. Like my Aunt Lottie, they grew up during a time when there were no black dolls. To act like black girls didn’t exist in the lands they created during their recreation time was a crime. Even the mothers of my Caucasian friends agreed and thought it was great that there was now diversity on the shelves at Kidde City. So I committed a horrible crime by bringing this doll into my home. I felt bad for her. She was already a reject and an outcast. I didn’t even give her a name. So I decided to “fix” her. Rather I sought to fix the wrong I did by bringing us into each other’s lives. She wasn’t fancy, pretty, special, or well dressed. She didn’t look like she came from hard work or love. She was nothing to take pride in. She was just there, just something I got money to buy. She was a cheap hooker when I really think about it, a hooker who peed on herself. At least if she was black she could be considered a prize in my life.
I went into my parents’ room and got a pen. When I returned to my room with the life changing instrument, I sat in the middle of the floor and studied the little doll. She was a homely little thing. Buyer’s remorse consumed me. I only bought the doll because she was there. I never would have picked her out if she was at a toy store. Those horrible, prickly eyelashes would never have won me over. I decided that what I was doing was for the best. Over those rosy cheeks I scribbled with black ink. Rosy cheeks were an overrated concept of beauty, so they had to go first. I scribbled over her forehead and over her chin. Pleased with my act of kindness, I returned her to the elite society on my bed. I swear that all those faces with permanent smiles molded or stitched into them frowned. I looked back at the little homely doll that never had a name. My own face frowned. Except for ridding her of the rosy cheeks, I didn’t do her any favors. She was hideous. Into the Humpty Dumpty toybox she went, unloved and unnamed.
Only during the Christmas seasons was she allowed to resurface. That was the time when my mother swore I wouldn’t get anymore toys because I didn’t play with the toys I got the previous year. So during November and December I dumped out every toy I owned and made sure to position myself where my mother could see me playing with each of them. Cleanup time was like slave labor during that time of year. Soon I came up with the idea of putting on a Christmas pageant and giving each of my toys a part. The pageants never got put on as I could never get the scripts just right, but it let my parents know that I did need more toys because I did play with the ones that I had. The little homely doll with no name was always in the back playing some part where she would blend and not have to be recognized, probably in the choir of dolls shouting the chorus to “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Then came the year when she boldly asked to be Jesus in the Christmas play, and she had to go. I conveniently left her around the same cousin who took her pants. She had no legs when she returned to me. My mother thought it was tacky to have dolls with missing limbs, so it was bye-bye for the nameless little homely doll who added no sense of pride to my life.
November, 1991. I sat under the dryer at Miss Selena’s boutique, thumbing through Ebony’s anniversary issue of their magazine. The article that interested me was one complaining that there were never any medium to dark brown girls or women with long hair featured in the hair care articles. The writer was trying to point out that such a thing didn’t exist. I was confused because all of my dolls were medium to dark brown, and they all had long hair. Dolls like Dolly Surprise, whose ponytail grew when you made her hand touch the butterfly in her hair, and Lady Lovely Locks, who I called Lillian because the name just sounded so much better than “Lady Lovely Locks,” were famed for their long tresses. My own hair had me on hour two of torture under the dryer because it was so thick and long. At the time it reached the middle of my back when it was pulled into a ponytail and braided, so I was trying to figure out how I didn’t exist. I was a dark shade of chocolate brown, darker than a Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate bar. The kids in my class called me “burnt piece of toast” when they wanted to be mean, so how was this writer telling me I didn’t exist? The people pointed out that the magazine could feature Tatyana Ali, who played Ashley Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Chili from TLC. I wondered what was wrong with featuring me. While they were complaining I noticed every model in the magazine was caramel colored or lighter. The writer insinuated that women of darker shades weren’t as beautiful as the models they selected for their magazines. I was confused, because all of my dolls were beautiful and dark. Light-skinned dolls simply did not exist. The writer’s point of view was interesting, because he shared the same viewpoint as the kids in my kids who called me black. My blackness was just a fact to me. To them it was a way to hurt me. I did notice that when I called them “Brown” in that same condescending tone it didn’t have the same sting. So all those years of building up my pride were undone by just reading one article.
Then I turned the page of the magazine and laid my eyes upon the greatest prize conceivable. It was a Kenya Doll. A friend from school was sitting under the dryer next to me and bursting with excitement when she saw what I discovered.
“Isn’t she wonderful? I’m getting her for Christmas,” she gushed.
I was in too much awe to respond. She was the most wonderful thing I ever saw. There were three of her. One was of a lighter complexion, one was medium, brown, and one was dark. They all sported some pink hued version of kente cloth. All three were wide-eyed and beautiful. They had loosely curled afros and came with a variety of hair accessories, including a lotion that turned their hair straight. When you wet their hair the curl returned. Kenya boasted that all shades of blackness were beautiful, negating the entire article I just read. That made me love her. I squirmed in my seat while waiting for my mother to get to the beauty shop. Kenya was the must have Christmas gift that year. She smiled at the doll when I showed her, pleased with what the doll promoted I guess (or maybe she was elated that I finally stopped asking for Barbie’s Dream House, because two hundred dollars was just too much to spend on a toy). The doll became the topic of discussion for that entire season. My mother and my friends’ mothers were always looking for the best places to find them at the lowest prices. Which one would they get? I naturally thought they would buy me the dark one, but I heard my father make a remark so crazy I thought I dreamed him saying it:
“We gotta get the brown one for her. The chocolate one is just a little too chocolate.”
What did that mean?! After all the nine years they spent teaching me to take pride in myself, that I should be sought and no rest should come until I was possessed, they wanted me to believe that there was such a thing as being too black? I was the same color as my father. Did we both need to be punished for our complexions? Too chocolate? Really? I had found the advertisement in a magazine at home. My obsession with the doll caused me to carry the ripped out page around with me. Hearing my father’s comment made me take the page out of my pocket and stare at the dark doll. I thought she was gorgeous, magnificent even. I thought that since she was so dark that she was the most valuable among them all. Before then black dolls were right in the middle of Mother Africa’s color spectrum, neither light nor dark but a perfect compromise that met right in the middle. The dark Kenya Doll was just my complexion, causing me to take even more pride in myself. That is, until I heard my father’s comment. At that moment I had to wonder if the kids at school were right. Was I supposed to be ashamed of how dark I was? Apparently I wasn’t hurt enough when they called me “Blackey.” Well it did hurt then. I cried extra tears to make up for how hurt I wasn’t before versus how hurt I was when I learned the awful truth. It was a perplexing point in my life. I thought if anyone thought I was beautiful my own father did. But since he downed the black doll he downed me as well. On Christmas I received the brown Kenya Doll. By then I was more concerned with getting her than which one of her I got, so I danced on the ceiling and loved her. No longer did I have to write about her obsessively in my diary. I got to actually play with her.
That spring following spring, though, my father was gone but left behind the painful memory that I and the doll were “too black.” I had to do something to erase it. I needed that chocolate Kenya Doll. She had to know that we were worth loving, and we were in this thing together. First I had a different mission that needed to be completed. I had to buy an American Girl doll named Addy. Her stories taught of slavery, escaping to freedom, and building a life after. Addy was the definition of black pride. She had to come into my life. My mother made me save half the money to get her, then she put in the other half. It took weeks of saving allowance and even more weeks of waiting for the UPS man - who coincidentally was the father of the friend who was sitting next to me when I discovered the Kenya Doll – to deliver the package. Immediately after receiving Addy and making her queen of the elite among my dolls, I asked my mother to take me to Hills. I needed to put something on layaway. It only took a month for me to get the chocolate Kenya Doll off layaway. Every weekend I went to Hills with my mother to make a payment on the doll and to inspect her. There was no telling what kind of wrong they were doing to her in that back room. After all, wasn’t it part of their job to convince her that she was “too chocolate?” Father abandoned daughters who were too chocolate. I couldn’t let her think I would ever abandon her. My mission became more of a rescue party than one of pleasure and entertainment. When I got her home I decided she needed an even more beautiful name than Kenya. Ikea was what I named her. Do not judge nine year old me.
In my adult years the lessons taught to me through the dolls are still there, still fighting to be realized by the rest of the world. I guess I’m supposed to equate my blackness to ugliness, but I can’t bring myself to do it. According to what I’ve heard, I’m supposed to have low self-esteem because I’m dark skinned. In addition to this I’m supposed to be clinging to everything that is African in a struggle with identity. I’m supposed to accept that I don’t exist. Life is supposed to just hand me scraps. When it comes to men I’m supposed to accept whatever they give me in a relationship, because my dark skin makes me unworthy of having standards. I’m not supposed to desire to be anyone’s love interest in movies. I’m supposed to be attracted to the Shemar Moores and Michael Ealys because I’m supposed to want to run from my darkness. (Wait. I am attracted to Michael Ealy. Sexy is sexy and skintone has no dictation over that. Hey boo!). The Idris Elbas are supposed to be left to my lighter sistas. I’m not supposed to want a tribe of chocolate babies running around. Unfortunately I can’t conform to these ideas. It’s already been instilled in me that I have a beauty that has been suppressed for far too long. My value takes at least two subways and a cab ride to obtain. I am acquired in reality so that fantasy worlds can be completed. I shape futures. I’m something to take pride in. I teach self-worth. Society, just like the writer of that article and just like my father, has it all the way twisted. I am a thing of beauty.