Toys can help with children and young people’s creativity, imagination and their learning skills. For me, the reality of growing up Black was playing with dolls and action figures that underscored white, slim eurocentric beauty, watching children’s shows with characters that didn’t look like me, and reading books primarily with descriptions of protagonists with strawberry blonde hair and pale skin that I couldn’t relate to. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the framework to understand why I felt like an outsider when engrossing myself in these toys and stories I loved. These are often the first interactions that Black children have with a society that does not place value on their needs or experiences and demonstrates why it’s crucial that Black people take it upon themselves to provide these foundational toys and tools to our community. We spoke to three Black British women who decided that they weren’t waiting on the toy industry to help Black children see themselves.
Jodi Vernon, 35, @clarkescloset
‘I started to create dolls because of my daughter Clarke. When she was about 4 months old, I went on a hunt for a black rag doll and I just couldn’t find anything that looked like her. The hunt was and is frustrating and even heartbreaking at times.
‘I want Black children to be able to be able to run through a toy store with the words that every child has a right to: “This one looks like me!” I make my dolls to empower children with self love and self-acceptance, to let them know that they have right to take up space and be represented everywhere they turn.
‘My dolls are entirely handmade, from the sewing, to the stuffing and embroidery. Most if not all my fabrics are sourced locally or upcycled. ‘Children mimic what they see and if only one narrative is being told, how will they ever gain insight into how beautiful their individuality is. Black toys help children understand their story because it mirrors their own. ‘In the new year, I’m launching my doll making workshop and a book is on the horizon. I also want to bring back sewing into schools children of all ages as it’s such an amazing skill to have. I have so many new products I’m excited about launching and to keep pushing the boundaries of my doll making.’
Clarke’s Closet dolls range from £20-95 and can be purchased through the online shop and instore at Diverse Gifts Brixton and United 80 Brixton Village.
Raine Lorraine, 26, @_theraine
‘I learned how to make my dolls this summer so that I could make some for a friend’s little sister who thought her skin was too dark. ‘I want my dolls to be as simple and accessible as possible, something that can be recreated easily.
‘I make them using wooden beads, pipe cleaners, thread and yarn. Each wooden bead is hand painted, though when it comes to the colour brown, what is available is extremely limited. I blend tones to my liking and always use a bronze base to create glistening undertones – we’re magical so it’s only right. ‘If we don’t see ourselves represented, we won’t know any better.
There’s one particularly moment that stood out to me at this year’s Black Girl Fest. There was a little girl looking at my dolls. She kept leaning towards the lighter ones because she thought they were more beautiful. The thought of someone so young dismissing their beauty was beyond heartbreaking. ‘I ended up giving her two dolls that looked like her and kept repeating how beautiful she is. A few hours later, she came running back to me and showed me a story she had written about three princesses – the two dolls and her.
‘My aim for next year is to broaden my range. I want to collaborate with the women who continue to inspire me to create personalised collections. I would love to get to a point where I could hold workshops on how to make them. Everything I’ve done is self-taught and I want to share that with the community.’
The Raine handmade dolls range from £3-12 and can be purchased via Instagram.
Chanti, 34, @sewchanti
‘I made my first doll because my friend told me her daughter was asking why there weren’t any dolls in the shops that looked like her. She wanted to know if it was because her hair and skin weren’t pretty; she’s a darkskin girl with 4C hair. I found it painful to hear a 6 year old already feeling this way.
‘I already knew how to crochet so set about teaching myself how to make a doll for her. Seeing her with the doll and the joy she felt let me to designing and making more dolls. ‘All my dolls and key rings are used making crochet techniques, using either cotton or acrylic yarn. I sell readymade dolls as well as made-to-order dolls with different skin tones, hair and clothing options.
‘It’s absolutely essential that black children see themselves in toys, books, and media otherwise their self image and self esteem is negatively impacted, my friend’s daughter being a prime example. ‘A Sew Chanti doll that has been particularly popular is the Princess Wavey mermaid doll. It is rare to see a darkskin mermaid character and there’s no reason why there can’t be one since it’s a fictional character.
I think it’s important for Black children to see themselves in a variety of characters, such as superheroes and mermaids. ‘I’m working towards holding some workshops next year and I’m also in the process of designing a wheelchair to come with a doll. In the same way that it’s important for black children to see themselves, it’s also important for disabled children to see themselves.’
Sew Chanti handmade dolls range from £35-70 and can be purchased on the online shop.
Written By: Paula Akpan
First Published 18.12.18: https://metro.co.uk/2018/12/18/meet-three-black-doll-makers-refusing-wait-toy-industry-improve-representation-8260875/