Published on December 10th, 2013 | by Aya de Leon3
AYA DE LEON’s Homemade Weaponry in the Battle Against Barbie
I’ve never been much of a holiday gift-giver. In my 20s, someone told me that the holiday shopping season is what keeps the US economy going. After that, I started telling people. “I don’t give gifts. Just doing my part to bring down capitalism.”
Despite my best attempts, my daughter is a girly-girl. She would faint from joy if I got her a makeup kit and high heels for the holidays. Not gonna happen. She also has started talking about Barbie. I tell her she can have all the Barbies she wants when she’s eighteen. She will also be allowed to wear high heels then. In related news, she has informed me how much she likes Belle from Beauty and the Beast. How did she even hear about that? We don’t let her watch Disney. I re-gift the stuff that we get. They don’t have those books at her preschool. Once I even scrubbed a Cinderella image off a pair of sunglasses someone gave her a year ago. She liked the “pretty princess” on the glasses. “It’s a sticker,” I lied. “It won’t stay on for very long.” The next day I got a tissue and some alcohol and rubbed the princess off. Underneath, the glasses were pretty cute.
So many of us African heritage parents are haunted by those studies in the forties of black children, quoted for decades in literature and captured on video. Which is the pretty doll? The smart doll? The good doll? The loveable doll? Time and again the children picked the white doll.
I’ve been vigilant I don’t allow her to have white dolls. Dora the Explorer is the lightest we get in our house. Her books are heavily weighted toward stories of African heritage girls. I have even written a children’s book of photographs of kids, adults and families with natural hair called Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity. My daughter would wear her hair out every day if I would let her. I don’t have time to comb the tangles out every night. On the days I do let her wear it out, she goes for the old school Michael Jackson fro. “Puffier mom! Make it puffier!” The Puffy book celebrates the perspective of the preschooler who is dazzled by hair that looks like a dandelion, a lollipop, a tree in bloom. I’ve been hustling to have the book out for the holidays, and somehow, as a working artist mom, I managed it. It’s available for pre-order on my website. But you can write all the positive African American hair books you want, but you can’t singlehandedly balance out the male domination and white supremacy that is whispering in your children’s ears from other parts of society.
Still, parents can fight back by creating the words and images we want our children to see. The Puffy book began as a personal book of photos I made online for our family. People said they wanted copies, so I developed the self-published project. It’s ironic – for the first time, as a momtrepreneur, I encouraged people to buy something on Black Friday. Although I called it #BlackHairFriday. So, I guess I still have a subversive holiday agenda, but this time it includes a gift-giving scenario. But that’s one of the things I’ve learned as a mother. While I can’t change everything about the world (at least not in time for the holidays) I can change my daughter’s experience of the world. As long as I stay vigilant with the Barbie army, stealthy with the princesses, and steady in creating alternative images, I’m hoping that will be enough.