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Welcome to the dollhouse

The line the new black Barbies won’t cross

By Francie Latour
October 25, 2009

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In every black family, there are two kinds of daughters: daughters who have good hair and daughters who don’t. For much of my childhood, knowing this was as painful as raking a comb through my own locks, whose strands fell into the “don’t” category: stubbornly short, easily broken, at war with the detanglers designed to tame them. And, like most black hair in its natural state, densely coiled and woolly. In the words of my aunties: coarse, bushy, difficult. In the words of history: nappy, picaninny, slave-girl.

It’s no coincidence that the first black American self-made millionaire, Madame C. J. Walker, made her money turning that kind of hair into straight, shiny, behaving hair. That was 100 years ago, and black women everywhere have been on the same, self-denying quest ever since. Years ago, a cousin of mine perfectly articulated the power of hair over the psyches of black girls. When I told her about a new college boyfriend, who was white, she said, “You’re so lucky. If you stay together and get married one day, your daughters will have the best hair.” I acted shocked, but I was intimately familiar with the longing and loathing that prompted those words.

Now I’m a mother of three with a 2-year-old daughter of my own. (Yes, she’s biracial and has smooth curls, but I swear that’s a coincidence.) When it comes to cultural clashes over girls, beauty, blackness, and hair, I worry and pay attention. The latest controversy? The arrival of the new “So In Style” Barbie dolls, brought to you by Mattel. Created by an African-American mom and launched in stores last month, Grace, Kara, and Trichelle are black, and they’re the new BFFs in Barbie-land. Like their fair-skinned friends, they have long, silky hair that is either bone-straight or loosely wavy.

Don’t answer yet, there’s more. To keep Barbie’s new friends in style, Mattel offers a hair-straightening kit, with which girls can fantasize about a ritual of black womanhood most of us would gladly avoid if we could: regular, two-hour sessions at the hair salon to have our woolly manes straightened with harsh chemical straighteners. When that news hit the blogosphere, black mothers, scholars, and childhood experts everywhere got loud, many of them condemning Mattel for reinforcing white standards of beauty. Can’t Barbie rock braids or an Afro just once? they cried. The controversy erupted up just as “Good Hair,” comedian Chris Rock’s new documentary about America’s $9 billion black beauty industry, hits theaters this weekend.

For those of you unfamiliar with the complexities of black hair care, straightening is a process in which a stylist sections your hair and applies a cream that starts out cool but becomes unbearably hot. The cream contains sodium hydroxide, commonly found in drain and oven cleaners, and so corrosive that stylists have to use rubber gloves. When you absolutely can’t stand the heat anymore, the stylist rinses it out. Straight hair, and sometimes scabs, result. The longer the cream stays in, the more you burn, but the straighter your hair gets; walk into a black salon and the most common thing you’ll see is a woman gripping the armrests of a chair to manage her pain. In other words, hair-straightening is no ride in Ken’s convertible or trip to your dreamhouse closet. (I’m not sure if Mattel was giving an ironic wink to the sisters out there, but like the real version of hair-straightening, “So In Style” hair kits are also wildly overpriced, costing more than a pair of the actual dolls.)

On the one hand, it seems that Mattel has finally awoken to the Sasha-and-Malia demographic of middle- and upper-class black America: The girls of “So In Style” have wider noses, fuller lips, and a spectrum of realistic skin tones. But one look at these dolls suggests that even in our so-called post-racial world, there are some places America’s culture-makers still aren’t willing to go. Among them, apparently, is the hair black girls are born with.

But is it really fair to expect a toy conglomerate to be at the vanguard of ideas about race and beauty? For that, we would presumably look to real black women leaders. And when we look up to them, what we find is more straight hair. Actually, straight hair with blinding sheen and cascading, otherworldly flow. Beyonce, Tyra, and Oprah all have it. Ditto for black women leaders in politics and business.

These are not dolls; these are the living, breathing role models of black America. But they all understand that straight hair is the key to unlocking mainstream success. It’s the unspoken, elephant-in-the-room euphemism that remains as true today as it was during slavery: Straight hair is “good hair” because straight hair is white hair. And when blacks were slaves, straight hair could literally mean survival: Slaves who looked less African were treated better, often lifted from the fields to housework, which meant food, warmth, and maybe even education. Over time, straight hair became synonymous with nonthreatening hair. And that is the black Barbie formula Mattel has counted on going way back.

Mattel birthed the Barbie doll in 1959, a period when the notion of a black friend, real or pretend, was unthinkable for many white Americans. It was the same year a white journalist named John Howard Griffin took extreme measures to darken his skin and write about his travels through the deep South passing as a black man. The stories of the intense hatred he experienced were eventually published in the landmark book “Black Like Me.” It’s safe to say that when an entire race is struggling for recognition as human beings, nobody quibbles over whether a toy reflects their daughters’ self-image.

I recently learned, to my amazement, that the first-ever brown-skinned Barbie Mattel dared to put on shelves bears my name. “Colored Francie” made a short-lived appearance in 1967, her dark-ish complexion painted onto a doll with the same features as her white counterpart, including a glistening mane of straight hair. Other versions came later, including the defining “Christie” in 1968 and the nameless “Black Barbie” in 1980. In 1997, Mattel took a turn that left some blacks outraged and others speechless when it teamed up with Nabisco to launch “Oreo Fun Barbie.” The African-American version (also short-lived, it turns out) was strangely blue-black, which I’ll chalk up to an effort to coordinate with the cookie’s electric-blue packaging.

When “Black Barbie” arrived on the scene in 1980, I was 9, well within Mattel’s target audience. But I never owned her or any other Barbie. I think it had something to do with the dolls I saw at my friends’ houses. Whether the dolls were white or any other color, I got a creepy, not so-stylish feeling: Barbie wasn’t black like me, or any other black girl or woman I knew. The makers of Grace, Kara, and Trichelle say the new dolls give black girls a truer mirror of themselves. But when I look at them, all these years later, that same feeling comes over me.

Here’s what I remember about the black girls I knew: They had Mickey Mouse afro puffs tied in giant gumball barrettes or tight cornrow braids, or hair that was bound by nothing at all. For a little while, they had no idea what the word “nappy” meant, until one day they knew exactly what it meant. The black girls I knew marked their entry into womanhood reluctantly, with a first trip to the hair salon that often lived up to their worst fears. Caught in an in-between time when they were too old to sit for their mothers and too young to know what to do themselves, they climbed into swivel chairs and waited for the smell and then the feeling of chemicals that seared their scalps, leaving clumps of hair and Afro-puff innocence to be swept from the salon floor. As time goes on and products improve, many make peace with their unnatural states. Others find their way back to the beginning with locked, coiffed, or otherwise regal crowns. What I call Toni Morrison hair.

I haven’t heard of anything in the works for a Toni Morrison doll. But I’m not waiting for one, either. Because here’s the thing about black girls and hair: Dolls and straightening kits can scar, but so can people. And we do. It’s easy to fill the blogosphere with Barbie commentary, and much more difficult to confront the messages we hand down ourselves. When we complain about how tough our daughters’ hair is to comb, when we run our fingers through their cousins’ smooth tresses and smile, when we drag them to the swivel chair before they are ready, we tell them how important it is to try to be something besides who they are. Those messages predate Barbie. They were shaped by blacks’ need to survive in a white world, but how the messages began matters less than taking responsibility for them now.

I still straighten my hair, although I often wet it and let it dry naturally, making it weirdly wavy. For a long time, I believed that while straightening didn’t make my hair “good,” it made it better. Then one day, a boyfriend (and now husband) perfectly articulated something that was totally new. He described a stray coil of my hair as “helicoptering” across his computer keyboard. I thought: My hair helicopters. My hair helicopters. And it occurred to me that a word of poetry could rewrite painful history. Straight hair may make black women more acceptable in the workplace or the White House. But straight hair can’t helicopter.

Was I magically healed? Did I go off to my happily-ever-after dreamhouse, never to question my hair (or beauty) again? Well, no. That’s for fairy tales. But for several moments, then and afterward, I felt detangled. It was the kind of hair balm you can’t get from a bottle.

Francie Latour is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine and a former Globe reporter.

(Mattel via AP )