Daddy straddled the heap of toys that lived on the floor of our playroom in Brentwood, Long Island. Tiny plastic arms splintered out as though bidding for a chance to accompany me to Becky Carrigan’s* sleepover that night. Daddy sifted unceremoniously through water-damaged board games and the action figures that my sisters and I mostly used as our dolls’ eager boyfriends. Beneath the Sega cartridges and tufts of nylon hair, Daddy unearthed a land mine. It was part of a limited edition and in an unopened, double-wide package to contain its power.
I felt a sour feeling creep to my bowels: Daddy held out a Black Barbie.
Before that moment, I would have described Becky as a nice girl, my friend. The girl who would always share her snack, the girl who generously expended all of her patience trying to teach me how to do a backflip during recess. At that moment, it became clear to me that I also saw Becky as white. I somehow knew that held a sort of reverence, and that giving her a doll that looked nothing like her was out of order. It was confusing to even me because, as it often happens, the more Khaholis moved to Brentwood, the more Beckys moved out. Somehow the thought of gifting a Black Barbie to a white girl made me feel out of place in a town where most people looked just like me.
Then I thought, just for a moment, that maybe Becky would be glad to receive this doll. After all, she didn’t complain about the clothes she wore, though I considered them suitable only for sleeping and raking leaves. I was embarrassed by that thought and reminded myself that most of the kids got free lunch at school, and that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ could not apply to anyone living in the suburbs. It wasn’t okay for me to suddenly categorize Becky to ease my nervousness. Becky deserved better than my thoughts. And goddammit, Becky deserved a white Barbie.
Daddy noticed none of my hesitation and threw Black Barbie under his arm. He thought Barbie was still the default gift for any ambitious young gal. And why not? Barbie is a doctor, after all. She has the natural temperament of a flight attendant, and her feet molded only for heels let us know that she’s freak in the sheets. Oh, she’s also an astronaut. But he failed to realize that Black Barbie…Barbie with an asterisk…was not a toy for every girl. She was sometimes the gift you gave to other Black girls if their parents didn’t think her smiling while being dark-skinned set a bad example for their daughter. In fact, this particular Black Barbie moved to our playroom floor when a local toy store went under, so Daddy bought her nice and cheap.
Please, Daddy. Don’t make me take her is what I thought.
“Thanks Daddy,” is what I said.
We headed out to Becky’s, but first, we stopped by the sporting goods store to buy a sleeping bag. I couldn’t be the only girl at the sleepover who didn’t own one.
When we arrived at Becky’s, I was greeted by her mother. She wore a warm smile and a sensible brassy bob. The inside of their two-story house was tidy yet outdated; a symptom of a home without a father, I assumed. I think I remember faux wood finishing on the railing of the stairs and the wall molding, but that may be the color my memory associates with discomfort. I instinctively scanned the living room for other Black girls; girls I hoped would make me feel lighter about the gift-wrapped bomb I was carrying. There was a dark-haired, olive-skinned girl to whom I kept throwing glances, trying to figure out if she would be an ally if shit went down.
After settling in, the other guests and I sat scattered on the floor and couch, facing Becky who sat center stage on the big recliner. Becky’s mom lined up all of the gifts and began handing them to Becky one by one. I eyed mine the entire time, half hoping to get it over with, and the other half hoping the four horsemen would interrupt the party. It didn’t occur to me to hope that Becky would like the doll.
“This one is from…Ka…Kay-hoe-lee?” is what Becky’s mom probably said when she picked up my gift, and I probably didn’t correct her. Becky tore open the wrapping paper and there it was, with its suddenly ironic smile and crown.
Then, not a word.
For the longest second, the room felt both empty and stiflingly full. Like everyone in the room had suddenly become adept at hearing the tones of silence.
The remainder of “Black Barbie” is featured in our current issue, including short stories by 14 Black woman writers. Contributors include: Khaholi Bailey / Zakiah Baker / rebekah blake / K.B. Carle / Jeannine A. Cook / Cassandra Eddington / Johannah Fienburgh / Janyce Denise Glasper / Marissa Joy Leotaud / devorah major / Zuri H. Scrivens / Vanessa Taylor / Janelle M. Williams / Akilah Wise. Buy it today!