A new Marshalls opened up in the next town and I went with a friend to check it out. We spent a good ten minutes in each section, claiming what we would buy if we were rich or decorating ideas we had. I was wearing my one dress with the stripes with a blue cardigan, my black booties ( which I’ve affectionately named my school marm boots), and my hair was twisted in a clip. My left knee made a clicking sound as I turned the aisle, as it often does since I’ve gotten older – when I saw her through my glasses that had slipped to the end of my nose. A baby doll. A brown baby doll, with shiny curly hair and pretty brown eyes that opened and shut. I took a picture.
I still love the smell of the toy store, it’s comparable to that new car smell. There used to be one in the local mall when I was a kid, (the closest one was twenty minutes away). It then later moved to an outdoor plaza, and then it was gone completely. I would wander the aisles. I loved the old electronic toys before they became computers and tablets and were just mechanical dogs that flipped and virtual pet keychains. I enjoyed science kits and anything dinosaur. When I got older it would become mostly video games.
I did not like dolls. I avoided the long corridor lined with pink. Besides, that particular aisle didn’t smell like a toy store but more like baby powder. All the baby dolls were white. All the Barbies were white. The standard for doll was white. (White was the normal. White was the standard. White was the expectation. No other kind of person mattered.) As a child I of course did not consciously articulate my feelings on this, I would just say I didn’t like dolls because none of them looked like me. To find a black doll, (brown was unheard of), would be a novelty. The message I still struggle with at times is the lie that white is normal, and I was only a novelty. We did have a black doll at home. It was hand stiched by a friend of the family’s and she had black spots for eyes, and crudely drawn red line for a mouth. Her hair was not soft or pretty, but the material used was fuzzy black carpet. Her head was square. I disliked that doll more than any white doll. White dolls were pretty with eyelashes, smiles, and perfectly designed hair. They came with outfits and even hobbies. The black doll didn’t even look like a person, let alone something I wanted to either nurture or emulate.
I remember the first brown doll I got for Christmas, I was about seven years old. She was light skinned like me and she even sang. (She had a microphone that you plugged into her back and she would move her mouth and project your voice when you spoke into it – which isn’t creepy or anything.) But she had a pretty outfit and pretty shoes. Her hair was crimped and soft but platinum blond. Her eyes were purple, yes purple. Not so dark that they had violet undertones but light lavender purple with literal drawn stars in them. Natural brown girls apparently weren’t appealing enough. Then the American Girl Dolls became a thing. I got the doll Kendra when I was nine years old for Christmas. My parents ordered her from a catalog and she smelled like a toy store. She was beautiful, but she was also was just one of the white dolls that they made black and put that similar thin black scrub sponge hair on. I was not a kid for dolls. But dolls were not for non-white kids. They do now make dolls in all sorts of colors and cultural outfits. Now, as a full grown woman, I get very excited when I see a brown doll in the store. The little girl in me celebrates and I take a picture.