How toy designers are improving diversity in dolls through hair

In the early 1900s, Madam CJ Walker was a household name in Indianapolis.

She was the quintessential example of Black excellence and the first female self-made millionaire.

“The legacy that she’s left for all of us is a blueprint for so many of us,” said Kristian Stricklen, president of the Madam Walker Legacy Center.

Early on, Walker discovered the importance of something that may seem minute: hair.

At the Walkers’ former hair product manufacturing plant turned theater, the evidence of Walker’s success is everywhere.

Walker knew that for Black women in history, hair was about more than the latest style.

“A lot of the hair care products were created, including for Madam herself, more as a treatment because they they didn’t have access to clean water, and so their hair was falling out,” Stricklen said.

Journalist A’Lelia Bundles says hair has been used as a tool for success. She would know — as both a biographer and Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.

“She knew what these women needed because she had been one of those women,” Bundles said. “She’d been struggling as a washer women. She knew that they wanted to feel good about themselves as Black women.”

Walker used that empire to employ thousands of Black people, support the early efforts of the NAACP and encourage healthy hair in Black women, whether straight or curly.

“They wanted a hair care product, but what they needed was education and economic independence,” Bundles said. “So she began to develop this army of sales agents so that they could make money to buy homes, educate their children, and be leaders in their community,” 

Walker’s story is part of the Black hair history, which has evolved over time.

“Hair was a big deal in Africa,” Bundles said. “Hair really did sort of signal who you were, what your status was, where you were in life.”

Historian Ayana Byrd says that pride wouldn’t survive enslavement.

“We hear about house slaves and field slaves and often the enslaved people who worked in houses had lighter skin and straighter hair,” Byrd said. “Usually that was because they were byproducts of rape, but it was also there became this hierarchy of hair.”

However, that power system was challenged over the years.

“College students who were in the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement intentionally made hair a political statement and stopped straightening their hair,” Byrd said.

Recently, that pride has reemerged in a peculiar place: toys. Big companies and entrepreneurs are filling the market with dolls that embody Black features, including hair.

“I really wanted the hair to have some texture because I wanted little girls to be able to touch that hair and feel themselves,” Bundles said.

There’s Mattel’s Madam Walker Doll and the Healthy Roots Doll from entrepreneur Yelitsa Jean-Charles.

“Hearing kids say, like, ‘Oh my God. She looks like me,’ when they’re opening the box — best experience ever,” Jean-Charles said.

There’s also Karma’s World, a doll from rapper and actor Chris “Ludacris” Bridges based on the hit Netflix show of the same title.

“It took us years to get these facial features in this fashion with their clothes and all that, like the hair, everything together,” Bridges said

Bridges and head writer Halcyon Person told Scripps News the dolls are a natural extension to the show which tackles real-life issues in a way kids can handle.

“Being able to have teachable moments and teach people about each other and our similarities and differences is extremely important,” Bridges said. “Not to chastise someone because you think that they’re purposely doing something wrong, but to enlighten them is the best way.”

“How do you stand up for yourself, stand up for your culture while also being an individual and calling out that you are your own person and that your culture is not a monolith is all things that we talk a lot about in writing,” Person said.

Bridges and Person say many of the themes in the show are based on real-life experiences. 

“I once had an executive reach out and touch my hair during a pitch meeting, which really threw me off,” Person said. “It was very hard to continue the pitch. Those kind of things I think still happen.”

The dolls have come a long way from the early 20th century where few dolls were Black and even fewer had accurate features.

In the 1970s, Baby Nancy emerged. It was the first with realistic designs and was the result of the Black Power movement.

Byrd says today’s doll explosion is also the result of a sort of a reawakening. 

“We have created a culture around it,” Byrd said. “This culture has its own language, it has its own tools, it has its own rituals, and it also has more and more celebrations around it.”

And even through they’re toys, Byrd says it’s a great way to start a conversation with kids about embracing culture. 

“Just notice Black hair that is beautiful, mentioning that to our child and our sons as well,” Byrd said. “It’s letting our children know that all of these textures are beautiful and none is higher than the other.”

“I do not want another generation of children to not be able to see themselves, to not be able to know the contributions of our ancestors so that they feel good about themselves, but so that their friends, who may be of another ethnicity, understand their value,” Bundles said.

While it’s naive to believe that a doll is proof that centuries of discrimination have disappeared, the people Scripps News spoke to say the mere existence is a good start.

“The No. 1 thing that I’ve heard from parents is ‘I wish I had this when I was a kid, but I’m glad that I have it now,'” Bridges said.

“You can choose to be natural, you can choose to have a relaxer, choose to wear braids… You have just so many options of what you want to do, who you want to be and how you want to look, and that definitely started from here.”

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