I was about five or six years old, and I only wanted one thing for Christmas. A Barbie hairstyling doll head. I had seen the ad on tv a million times, two fair haired girls pulling a mini comb through the corn-silky tresses that flowed from Barbie’s smiling, enlarged and decapitated head. Her body was cut off just where her cleavage would be, and fanned out into a catch-all tray for barrettes, rollers and such.
Three’s Company was my favorite tv show, and the doll was a Chrissy, not a Janet. Everyone knew that a Chrissy (or any of the blondes paraded in to replace her) was hotter than a Janet. Even though she was actually smarter and prettier, never had a Jack or a Larry tripped down the stairs or dropped a jaw over a Janet.
In my mind, the Barbie was a consolation prize, a chance to redeem myself after The Prell Shampoo Incident. Christie Brinkley was their spokesmodel, and she was a Chrissy. In every commercial, the models lathered up seductively. Then afterward, they shook their heads side to side as a blonde satin curtain cascaded around their shoulders.
Meanwhile, I spent many a Saturday in the kitchen being tortured with a hot comb that got heated on the stove. It sizzled and popped with bergamot hair grease as my immense, coarse afro was fried into submission. My locks did stretch down my back by the end, but depending on humidity, or if I dared play outside long enough to work up a sweat, it would not likely last beyond Sunday’s church service. I cried bitterly as the fine metal teeth yanked at my kinks and tendrils of smoke nipped at my ears and the nape of my neck. Come hell or high water, I had to get me some of that Prell.
I tried to explain to my folks that Prell puts the “Ooooo in shampoo” but they were faithful to Revlon’s Crème of Nature (best detangling & moisturizing shampoo to this day.) “Black people don’t use Prell” did not compute to me, so I raided my piggy bank and coaxed my babysitter into taking me to the drugstore one day after school. Somehow, I managed to buy the bottle on my own and sneak it into my backpack. When we got home, I told her I wanted to take a bubble bath and locked the door behind me.
Kneeling over the tub, I poured the thick green product into my hand. Just like the commercial, I lathered up, rinsed, grabbed a towel and wrapped it in a turban around my head. Balancing on the sink in front of the mirror, I was ready for my big reveal. I shook my head side to side and the towel fell to the floor. Stripped dry by the soap, my hair stood out from my head like a burr. Devastated, I cried harder and longer than I ever had from the hot comb.
So, the Barbie styling head looked like Christie Brinkley. Christie seemed smarter than a Chrissy and was prettier than a Farrah, in my book, so of the queens dominating my screen she was tops. If I could not transform my own hair, I could at least have a vicarious totem to act the fantasy out on. All she needed was some Prell and I had leftovers. I made sure to write the doll’s name out carefully on my Christmas list, double checking to be sure it was spelled correctly so Santa made no mistakes. On Christmas morning, I tore into the wrapping of the box that looked the most like it might be my coveted gift. There was a styling doll head inside alright. It was made by Mattel, right company, but her tray was some weird shade of orange not angel blue. She had the same face as the doll I had asked for, more or less, but not the dewy skin. Her hair was some kind of orangutan copper. She wasn’t a Barbie. This doll was called, ironically, Christie and she was as black as I was.
This is the part when I say I was not raised to think black was anything but beautiful. I come from “Say it Loud!” kind of people, which is why when “Santa” saw the item on my list, of course he searched high and low to find one that looked like me. I had plenty other black dolls that I adored, but I was pissed about this one. Not because she was black, but because she wasn’t the one in the commercial. I asked for the puppy in the window, and they brought out some random from the back. I wanted the REAL one. Barbie was the one on tv. Barbie was the one in the newspaper. Barbie looked like Chrissy on Three’s Company and the real Christie, Christie Brinkley, from the Prell ads. This chick didn’t even sing backup in the commercial. The little plastic comb didn’t even work right on her hair.
My protests did not last long. My father sternly informed me that there would be no blonde Barbie coming into his house, even moreso now that I had made such a stink about it. My grandparents had known Kenneth & Mamie Clarke for Lord’s sake, the psychologists who invented the Doll Test. This would not do. I would learn to see the beauty in this perfectly good doll, or have no doll at all.
This is what I remembered today when I was shopping for a black Barbie for a photo shoot I’m working on. I want to re-enact a scene from a few months later, when I had grown to prefer dolls that looked like me, thanks to my parents’ hard line. I now live on an island that is 85-90% black. One thing I love about being in this part of the world, is that I can so often see myself reflected in marketing. Beautiful black and brown faces smile at me from billboards. There is no ethnic section in the beauty aisle because products that cater to people of color are not niche, they are just products. It sends message that says, “When we think customer we see your face. You matter.” This is my current side of the road flow:
But when it came time to go to the children’s section in search of a black Barbie, in 2017, this is what I found:
The second shot is three rows of the updated version of the exact same doll head that had taught me my lesson, over thirty years ago. Not a sidekick Christie in sight. There was one racially ambiguous doll, tan with bone straight chestnut hair, cool because, yes, we come in every shade, but there was only one. So, even on a predominately black island, when a little girl with dark skin, hair and eyes plays make believe, she’s still imagining someone who looks nothing like herself?
I had to go to several stores before I finally found a brown Barbie. There were two to choose from among the many versions of white dolls that obviously sold better. The two that were there had more plain outfits than the others, but I snatched one from the shelf, vowing to pull together something more fabulous for her on my own.
There has been a lot of talk about Hidden Figures, lately. Not just the film, but the overall concept. To see these faces celebrated in our media is crucial not just for the historical record, but for the impact it has on our psyche in the here and now. Long before Janelle Monae played a Hidden Figure in the film, she was creating this legacy just by being her gorgeous, unapologetic self. I will never forget the moment during an interview with Queen Latifah, when she broke down while speaking about the effect her presence has had:
“Never in a million years did I think I would see a young black girl wanting to look like me.”
Many of us have our own version of The Prell Incident, or something like the seven year old in the “Girl with the Long Blond Hair” monologue from Whoopi Goldberg’s first one-woman show. As she whipped that shirt on her head around, with dreams of guest starring on Love Boat, we laughed because we got the joke. We laughed because it was all too familiar. We laughed to keep from crying.
Don’t tell me we’re all the same so it doesn’t matter. Don’t tell me I’m dwelling on the past. Anderson Cooper re-enacted the Clarke’s Doll Experiment on CNN not long ago, with heartbreakingly similar results as to when it was first done during Jim Crow. It is, as ever, plainly clear that people who look like us, and people who don’t, need to see ongoing portrayals of blackness as something positive and beautiful. The training wheels have long been off where my sense of pride is concerned, but I’m here to advocate for these babies. They deserve better. I shall not be moved until they get it.
This Oscar season has been a cool breeze on a long road. Thank God, the Ancestors, the Universe, Mother Nature, The Force—whatever you deem to be the great power—for Denzel, Viola, Janelle, Octavia, Taraji, Mahershala, Naomie, Ruth, Barry, Tarell and all the black supernovas across sectors pushing their way into our collective consciousness. They speak their present truth and make it a point to call the names of the silenced glorious who came before them. Thank you for busting down walls to give us the chance to fall in love with you and, in turn, ourselves. Over and over again.
They say when you see a star in the sky you are looking into the past, because it takes quite some time for their light to be visible to us here on Earth. The magnificent people among us are called stars, but they are not made of hydrogen and helium. They are flesh, bone and blood. We don’t have to wait for their greatness to be revealed by time. They are shining right here, right now, for all to behold, applaud and emulate. Every day. Every one of us, bathed in blue, looking out on the horizon.
We’ve got it, been had it, and we mean to flaunt it. ASÉ.