When I was ten years old, I asked my godmother for an American Girl Doll for Christmas. On the exciting day, I opened not one, but ten presents from her, all African and African-American baby, Barbie and stuffed dolls. Some were robed in Kinte-cloth, others wore contemporary American clothing, but the skin color was all dark. It seemed a little weird to me as a white kid, more like she was trying to make a statement, but now I really appreciate it. It was the first time where I realized that most of the representation in movies, toys, and books showed white kids, which meant I saw myself in their image but others didn't. When I asked my godmother about it (eighteen years after the fact), she said, "My intention was simply to bring more diversity into your life, more possibilities, since what’s there in our culture is pretty one-sided, as we’ve been speaking about. However, I actually really loved those dolls. They were the best! That’s why I got so many! I remember feeling that they were well done, special, had good faces (to me), which is very important to me."
My Cameroonian-American daughter is fifteen months old now and something interesting happened last month. She had not really attached to any of her toys (mostly stuffed animals), but we were going through old things at my parents' house for a yard sale and tucked away in a dusty box were a set of African dolls that had been given to me decades ago by a Zimbabwean friend. They had never been loved, always held on a shelf by metal doll stands which propped them under the arms. The dolls are named "Maya" and "Malick" by their manufacturer and are clothed in beautiful traditional African fabric. My daughter crouched over the box and swooped them into her arms, hugging them like babies. Since then, she has cared for them as her own, feeding them (generously sharing "mama's milk"), nuzzling them, reading to them and introducing them to friends and I can only assume that has something to do with their resemblance to her. I try to buy children's books with black protagonists because I want her imagination to run wild living vicariously in the image of these characters. I'm glad she found that for herself in a box I had forgotten to dust off.