by Daphne Young
Christmas has come early for 5-year-old Amala Gardner of Hayward, who attended the Black Doll Festival in Oakland on Nov. 4.
“I love this doll! She’s pretty,” said Amala, a young doll collector in the making who snagged a beautiful Black princess doll by designer Stacy LaGras.
Amala’s mother, Madison Gardner, told us this is the second year they’ve attended the event. But she says it’s been a couple of years since she brought her daughter because the Black Doll Festival was online in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic.
“We came today because one of my friends does this every year and my daughter loves dolls and fancy things,” said her mom.
“Well, I’ve been collecting dolls since I was actually a little girl,” said Roslyn DeCuir Gilder of Oakland. “I still have some of my original dolls from when I was a kid and I’ll be 60 years old in a couple of months, so I can say I’ve been collecting for I think at least probably 55 years.”
DeCuir-Gilder says when she was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Black dolls were limited, especially Black Barbies.
“When I was younger, I just didn’t have them,” said DeCuir-Gilder. “My granddaughters need to be able to have a doll that represents them and looks like them. And that’s why, when I go to stores, I go looking for Barbie dolls, and when I don’t see Black Barbie dolls in the stores, or enough of them, I promise you, I go to the manager and say, “What about the dolls that represent me’?”
This past summer was a phenomenal year for Barbie dolls, with the release of the “Barbie” movie. The film, starring Ryan Gossling, Will Farrell and Margot Robbie as Barbie, grossed more than $1.4 billion globally – $575 million in the U.S.
And next year the “Black Barbie: A Documentary” movie that award-winning producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes has acquired is set to be released on Netflix.
“I will say that Mattel has really stepped up and hired several Black artists who make dolls, like Stacy Eldridge. We had her at our show one year,” said Oyekanmi. “And then Dr. Lisa Williams started at Mattel and she had her own line of dolls. She did our show and spoke pre-pandemic.”
Over the 38 years the Black Doll Festival has come to Oakland, Oyekanmi has invited many top Black doll makers and innovators, including this year’s guest speaker, Ms. Bukola Somide, the founder and CEO of Innovative Technologies, LLC.
“I am honored,” said Somide, after speaking at the event. “To me this is purpose. This is not just a business for me. I’m purposely out here to inspire people and particularly to cultivate innovators in our community, especially underrepresented communities.”
Somide created Somi, the 14-inch computer science interactive STEM doll who comes with a voice box and she speaks over 220 words embedded into 12 different phrases, introducing young people to coding and AI (artificial intelligence).
“I decided to use my tech skills and create beautiful Black dolls so little Black girls can learn more about computer science,” said Somide.
The former software engineer at Intel and L3 Communications has created a Black doll that talks and teaches girls and boys about code, with the use of AI.
“AI has been huge this year,” said Somide. “Computer science has been known to be a male dominated industry, but we women can thrive there too. So, I’m here to inspire more young girls to pursue computer science and become innovators in that field.”
This year’s Black Doll Festival also showcased over a thousand dolls made by about a dozen other doll creators and designers, including Kissing Kousins Dolls, Stacelina Monique Custom Dolls, Lillian’s Dolls & Things, Black Pearls, Ms. Bourgeois Dolls, Adwoa Designs, Dolls for Our Daughters, Daisy’s Custom Dolls, Lady Sinclair’s Doll Boutique, Helena John Musical Dolls & More, Baby Daylee and Ruby Ruth LLC.
Many of the designers are retired educators and business owners.
But Adwoa Cooper is a registered nurse, who’s still working and says she just loves making dolls.
“I’m thankful for another opportunity to share my joy and passion of doll making with our community again for 2023,” said Cooper. “The feedback from last year’s show was priceless, and I applied all of that information into my work and display.”
The Fairfield resident makes her unique Amigurumi dolls, which are stitched, knit or crocheted dolls or toys. Recently, Cooper won first place at the State Fair for her unique rap dolls, which include top rappers like Tupac, E-40 and Rob Base.
Cooper is one of the nine members who make up the ABBDA.
“ABBDA is the oldest Black Doll Association, you know, and it is amazing the work that they have done,” says Veda Silva, project coordinator with the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
“Karen Oyekanmi is not only the founder of ABBDA, she’s also a fabulous artist as well,” said Silva. “She wanted to educate people about Black dolls and Black doll makers.”
Silva adds it has been a perfect partnership between the Oakland Library and ABBDA because children and adults alike can learn more about the African American history and culture of Black dolls and their doll makers.
“Our mission is to preserve African American history and culture,” added Silva. “That’s very important.”
The ABBDA has been meeting every month for years to create Black dolls and they also work with young Black girls and teens to teach them the trade.
“We do workshops with young children, teens and seniors,” said Oyekanmi. “We make dolls with them, just trying to get their interest into dolls of color, so they can see themselves reflected in dolls.”
Oyekanmi and her fellow dollmakers see dolls as more than playthings.
“I wanted to create dolls of color that would represent my daughter I had back in 1982,” said Oyekanmi. Three years later she began hosting the Black Doll Festival.
“It was very difficult [back then] to find dolls of color that look like us, in a positive way,” Oyekanmi added.
“They [dolls] actually stimulate the imagination in girls who can say, ‘I can be this. I can do this. I am beautiful,” Oyekanmi adds.
Oyekanmi says the goal of the ABBDA is to give Black girls and women a more positive self-image.
“Dolls can be a part of socialization experience and [help] build a racial identity, understanding yourself in that context,” said Dr. Tanisha Thelemaque, a licensed clinical psychologist who works on issues of race with the National Center for PTSD and as an equity consultant with Warner Brothers Discovery.
“We can put in those more positive messages that help people withstand the effects of racial discrimination later,” said Thelemaque. “And that just has positive impacts.”
Oyekanmi and the nine members of the ABBDA have been collecting Black dolls for decades. The group meets and creates their dolls from their doll studio in Oakland.
During a recent tour of her studio, Oyekanmi showed me some of her favorite dolls which include her porcelain Ida B. Wells doll and a doll she specially made for Ruby Bridges, the first little Black girl to attend a formerly whites-only school in Louisiana, which helped to desegregate New Orleans schools in 1960.
For more information about the American Black Beauty Doll Association, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out their beautiful assortment of Black dolls … maybe just in time for Christmas! Founder Karen Oyekanmi says their dolls price from $20 to $2,000, depending on the doll’s design.
I can’t think of a better way to ensure that a little Black girl has a very Merry Christmas!
Daphne Young is an award-winning reporter who’s worked in radio and television from coast to coast (Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas and now San Francisco). The Chicago native began her journalism career as an intern at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. Daphne has received honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the New Jersey Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Inc., and the New York Association of Black Journalists.