Black Toys R Us
Trymaine Lee: When I was a kid growin' up, we never dreamed of a white Christmas. Snow, maybe. But a white Christmas? Nah. In our house, Christmas was Black. The Temptations' Christmas album played on repeat and Santa Claus was definitely a Black man.
Archival Recording: (SINGS) Silent night.
Lee: And on Christmas morning, my mother filled my head and my hands with an endless stream of positive Black images. My gifts were books by Black authors, and aside from my collection of G.I. Joes, the imaginary world that I inhabited was one where Black folks like us were heroes. And sometimes, villains. But either way, they were Black.
Now that I'm a parent, I can understand how much effort my mom went through just to make sure that we could see ourselves. I know I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but raising a Black child in America isn't easy. From a very early age, our kids are bombarded with conflicting messages about who they are and who they are not.
Black girls are not often seen as royalty in fairy tales, and Black boys are not usually the ones given superpowers. From children's books to cartoons to the worlds of fantasy and make believe, for so long we were sidelined or unseen. Now, I know things have changed since I was a kid. There's a new multiracial generation of characters and story lines.
There's a Black Disney princess now, and we've got Black Panther. Rest in peace, by the way, to Chadwick Boseman. But it can still seem as if Black characters are sidekicks in the commercial market. So as Black parents, we've had to get creative, especially now around the holidays, just like my mother had to do back in the day.
We're stalking store shelves for Black action figures and baby dolls. We're scouring the internet for children's books with a Black protagonist. And Black parents keep making this extra effort just to give our kids a true reflection of themselves.
Nola Lee: So you need people shown in that. You need people to be there to show people, like, "I am here."
Lee: I've had to think about this with my eight-year-old daughter, Nola. That's her, if you couldn't guess. And I promise, you'll be hearing more from her in just a bit. She's got a lot to say about all of this. I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. Today we're talkin' about how the things kids play with, the books they read, and the gifts they receive are a crucial part of showing them that they're as beautiful and courageous and special as any princess or superhero, or any other kid.
Yla Eason: I remember one toy that I liked the most was a Shirley Temple doll. (LAUGH) I remember that one. I don't think I even saw Black dolls until I was much older.
Lee: Yla Eason is a professor of business at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Back in the early 1980s, Eason and her husband were raising their son, Menelik, in Brooklyn.
Eason: We didn't even have a television in our house his first three years. We only got one 'cause they said, "You'll never get a babysitter if you don't get a TV." (LAUGHTER) But we did a lot of LEGOs, we did a lot of building blocks. And then when He-Man came out, we bought the He-Man line, and I have to admit, without thinking, even though it was a blond, blue-eyed character that I didn't even think, "Oh, he's playing with a white action figure toy."
Lee: Now, for those who don't remember, He-Man was a superhero character created by the toy company Mattel in 1982. The franchise included comic books, cartoons, and even a live action film. In addition to his superhuman strength, He-Man had long, blond hair and white skin, something that Yla's son noticed. He said something to Yla that she'd never forget.
Eason: "I can't be a superhero because I'm not white." And the kid was only three years old at the time he said that.
Eason: He said it with such a matter-of-fact tone as if, "This is fact." And when we explained that, you know, "Your skin color's-- God's given you a--" he looked at us as if to say, "Really?" At three. He's got two Black parents. We're middle class, we're college educated, go on and on and on, and he thinks this way. "Who taught you to--"
Eason: --"hate yourself?" I come back to Malcolm X's words. "Who taught you to hate yourself?"
Lee: As the-- the parent of a Black child myself, I-- I can't imagine the gut punch that I would feel if she came and said, you know, "I can't be a princess, I can't be a superhero, I can't be," anything she wants to be because she's not white. H-- how did that feel, when you actually heard your son, three years old, say those words?
Eason: It was frightening. It was terrifying because what it said is, "My God. This child has accepted a white supremist message. He has bought into an inferiority complex. He has bought into an image that brown skin is not worthwhile." So I started asking other mothers, "What's going on with this toy? What are you thinking?"
And they told me they were worried about it too. And they were also worried because the name of the toy line was Masters of the Universe. So you've got to assume the word "masters," historical slavery time, carried with it its own detrimental kind of message.
Lee: When you think back on the-- on the landscape of th-- at the time, were there any nonwhite superhero toys or anything that he would have had access to?
Eason: No. I think there might have been a Mr. The. (LAUGH) But--
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Of course. Right.
Eason: But he was a real person, he wasn't a fantasy character that you could let your imagination run with. He was an actual person. But, no, there were no Black superhero toys. Because we came back, after our son said that, we said, "Oh, we'll find you a Black superhero toy." That's when I found out there were none on the marketplace.
Lee: Yla started to do some research.
Eason: I started looking at early childhood education and trying to understand what are the representations? And then how much does that matter? And I had the honor and privilege of speaking to Dr. Kenneth Clark who, with his wife Mamie Clark, were the people who initiated the doll study.
Lee: The doll study was a groundbreaking paper published by the Clarks in 1950 titled Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. Four years later, the study was cited and helped win Brown versus Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed school segregation. Dr. Clark explained to Yla how the study worked.
Eason: "We presented to Black kids a white doll and a Black doll." He would ask, "Which one is pretty?" They would pick the white doll. "Which one is smart?" They would pick the white doll. "Which one would you like to play with?" They would pick the white doll after looking at both of them, believing that's the color that is important.
Lee: Yla asked Dr. Clark about their findings.
Eason: And he said, basically, that when children don't see themselves, they develop a sense of inferiority which then also leads to their lack of achievement in education and everything else in their life. That it's-- it's that powerful, the imagery is that powerful. And I asked him, "What do you think would happen if you were to do that study again?" He said, unfortunately, in 1985, he believes the study would be the same.
Lee: It wasn't long after that conversation that Yla decided she had to get in the game.
Eason: I think I couldn't live with it. I think it was just like, "I can't live with this. I have got to do something about this." It was just-- it was so in my face.
Lee: That decision gave rise to Olmec Toys, a multicultural toy and doll company.
Eason: When we decided we were gonna do this business, we knew we needed $60,000. My husband and I got on the phone and, within a weekend of calling people, telling them what we were doing, we were able to raise that money. And it was all Black money that we raised.
Lee: The company officially launched in 1985 and Yla started making trips to China where the big toy companies went for their production.
Eason: When I first got into the toy business, and I was saying to one of the factories in China, "Wha-- why don't you do more Black dolls?" what he explained to me was this. In the process, the injection molding process of using resin to make the dolls, when you are doing the white dolls you're putting in the pellets that are pink. Then when you make a Black doll, you're putting in the pellets that are brown.
When you get ready to go back to the white dolls, which the pink pellets are most of plastic that you're going to use, you've got to clean the machine or else some of the Black is going to be on the white doll. And they don't want to clean the machines.
Lee: Mm. And so when it comes to, like, the actual colors and the actual design of a thing, was it just seamless? Or did you have to kind of educate them on some things too?
Eason: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Lots of mixing of the colors in order to get things right. So we made sure that, "No, no, no, this is not right. The-- the-- the nose has to be right. The lips have to be right." There-- there was a lot of work put into the sculpt, and that the sculpt actually was going to reflect the way that people look in real life.
Lee: The first figure to emerge from Olmec Toys was Sun-Man.
Eason: Sun-Man's skin was brown, chocolate brown. He had a little fro. He had a wide nose, a great set of full lips, kind of a little high-ish cheekbone. So he had that appearance. And, okay, there's this concept in the toy industry call quote/unquote "fit into play."
If you introduce a new product, they will ask you, "Well, what does this toy fit into play with?" If you come out with a fashion doll, she's got to wear Barbie's clothes and fit in her car and sit in her chair. That's fit into play. So he was specifically designed to fit into play with the whole He-Man line of characters.
He had the same muscles, he had the same little shorts on. He had the same big thighs and boots on, although his colors were different. He was in red, yellow, and green. And Sun-Man's power came from the magical melanin in his skin. And now I know everybody talks about melanin, but back in '85--
Lee: Yeah. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Eason: --you know, it wasn't melanin magic and all this stuff. But that's where he derived all his energy from.
Lee: And so how much time passed between the time your son says, "I can't be a superhero 'cause I'm not white," to now you have this action figure, like, in your hand?
Eason: It was very rapid. We probably had a product out within seven or eight months.
Eason: We had the product in June. And all the buyers I went to said, "You've missed the window of purchasing. The toy fair happens every February, and that's when we write our orders. So we're not buying from you." So who did we sell to? Barbershops, beauty shops, and street vendors. That's how we kicked it off the ground.
Lee: What was your son's reaction?
Eason: He loved it. I can tell you this. One time I went to pick him up at his nursery school, I get to the door, and all these kids swarm me. They're on my legs, everything, and there's yelling. And I'm like, "What's going on?" And they said, "Menelik told us you could get us any toy we want." (LAUGHTER)
Lee: He was like, "Look, she's the plug. She'll take care of everybody."
Eason: Right. So--
Eason: --he was very proud. And he spread the word.
Lee: Olmec Toys started to grow. At one point, Yla took out a full-page ad in Ebony magazine, which in the mid-'80s was reaching nearly half of all Black adults.
Eason: We ended up making fashion dolls, baby dolls, a preschool line of toys, as well as games. And we did a couple of historical figures through a licensing agreement. We did a Malcolm X doll and we did a Martin Luther King.
Lee: At its height, Olmec Toys made over $5 million in sales. But even though customers were buying the dolls off the shelves, selling to corporate retailers came with challenges.
Eason: When I used to sell Sun-Man, I never used to start with, "Here's the toy. Here's his quality. He fits into play with He-Man," blah-blah. I used to have, back in '85, a complete demographic discussion. I would tell the buyers that, by 2020, it'll be the first time that the under 18 segment is multicultural. And by 2044, quote/unquote minorities will have swung over to be the new majority. And I remember being at one company where, when I said that, one of the buyers yelled out in this meeting room where they were all white, "I'll be glad I'll be dead when that happens."
Lee: Wow. So they're saying that to your face?
Eason: Oh, the things that were said to my face were pretty amazing. And shocking for me because here I was, armed with a brand-new MBA from Harvard University and just learned all about capitalism and (LAUGH) how one grows businesses, et cetera, et cetera. I should have known that once you expand economically, that's when the hammer's going to come down the fastest on you as a Black American.
Lee: And so how long did the company stick around? How long did we have Sun-Man?
Eason: Okay. We were in business for 13 years. And I can tell you, 'cause I assume the next question is, "So what happened?" (LAUGHTER)
Lee: So what happened?
Eason: What Biggie said, "More money, more problems." I can tell you successful businesses can go out of business if they can't supply the demand. I called on Walmart for eight consecutive years before they would buy the product. And I told 'em, "But when I do this for you, you've got to give me 12 feet of spacing in your shelf," which is a lot.
They did in these stores, and then what happened? The products sold faster than I could supply them. Okay. So what happened was they came down on me, Walmart, very angry with me 'cause mothers were coming and saying, "Where are the Black dolls?" So what did they do? They told their factories in China, "Start making 30% of your production in Black."
Lee: Yla told me that Walmart actually started producing their own Black dolls. We reached out to Walmart about this, but didn't hear back.
Eason: Of course they could sell cheaper than I could. They continued to do that, other retailers followed. And my business went down, down, down, down, down to where I had to close.
Lee: So all these years later, how do you think the market is doing in terms of providing-- Black families with toys that-- that look like them-- at a certain quality also? How-- how are they doin'?
Eason: Great for girls; zero for boys.
Lee: There are actually a handful of Black superhero toys targeting boys, but they're tough to find compared to what's out there for Black girls.
Eason: Even when the Black Panther toy came out, I was really excited because I was like, "We're getting ready to have another Black superhero toy out here." And they sold it with his mask intact that did not come off, so you didn't see Chadwick Boseman's face or Michael Jordan's face. You only see the Black Panther in his panther uniform, not his rich brown skin.
Eason: Black boys are still not represented for superhero toys in this country.
Lee: Obviously it's important for Black children to be exposed to positive Black imagery in toys and in the media that we consume. But how important do you think it is for white parents to also have their children exposed to positive images of Black people and Black children?
Eason: Oh, I think it's extremely important because you've got to start with the base of equality in this world. You can't go around believing that your skin color makes you superior. You cannot accept that as truth. If you can see everybody as equal, then perhaps you can not be oppressive yourself, or use your privilege to hurt someone else. So I think when white children are denied the importance of Blacks then they think, "Then, yes, we are better."
Lee: Well, what advice do you have for Black parents of young Black children who also wanna make sure that their children are seen and not erased in toys and books? What advice do you have for them?
Eason: My advice is you've got to have lots of conversations. You've got to buy positive books. You've got to speak positively about Black people. You've got to explain our history, because you are having to counter opinions that are already out there that they've already soaked in.
N. Lee: I was making a braid so it kind of looks like--
Eason: Do I hear your daughter?
Lee: Yeah, she came in. School is over so she came in. I'm like, "Shh." She's like, "Who is that?" (LAUGH) So.
Eason: How old is she?
Lee: She's eight years old.
Eason: Can I ask her what's her favorite toy?
Lee: Okay, Noly, come here a second, baby. This is Miss Yla. She made a line of toys for her son back in the day.
Eason: Hi. How are you?
N. Lee: Hi.
Eason: I wanted to ask you what is your favorite toy?
N. Lee: So I really like Doc McStuffins.
N. Lee: So that's my favorite toy.
Eason: Well, that's great. See, we didn't have a Doc McStuffins, and if your listeners don't know who that is, that's a Black doctor doll. You know, she's aspirational, she's cute, she has a nice little world she lives in. That's great.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). (LAUGH)
Eason: I'm happy to hear that. (LAUGH)
Lee: All right, Nola. Say bye, Noly.
N. Lee: Bye.
Eason: Bye-bye. Thank you.
Lee: More with Nola after the break.
Lee: Okay, so I have a very special guest today. (LAUGH) Don't be nervous, now. So how ya doin' today?
N. Lee: Good.
Lee: Yeah? Ya havin' a good day?
N. Lee: Yes.
Lee: After my talk with Professor Yla Eason, I wanted to see what my daughter Nola thought about the issue of representation. So do you know why you're here with us today?
N. Lee: Yes.
Lee: What do you think representation means? And what does it mean to you?
N. Lee: Representation means, like, represent Black people.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
N. Lee: Could be to show people, like, I am here.
Lee: Why do you think it is that you only have Black dolls?
N. Lee: Well, you want me to be like, "Well, I'm special. I can do this. I can do that. I can be a journalist, I can be a doctor, I can be this, I can be that." Blah-blah-blah.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
N. Lee: I may be different, but I'm smart. I am brave. I am a number of other things.
Lee: For a while, Nola wanted to be a doctor. That's because of Doc McStuffins, who she told Professor Eason about earlier. Nola's doll is based off a cartoon character who practices her dream of being a doctor by fixing toys. Doc McStuffins' mom is also a doctor.
N. Lee: Seeing another person that looks like you, like, literally Doc McStuffins looks like me. She would always have different hairstyles, like, she would always have--
Lee: She really did look like you. Y'all look just like twins.
N. Lee: (LAUGH) And just seeing someone who's like you just makes you inspired to really believe, "I can do it." And, okay, let me tell you this story. So I had this Tiana doll. And I played with her all the time. Now--
Lee: Who is Tiana? For those who don't know, who is Tiana?
N. Lee: The first Black Disney princess, (LAUGH) as you know.
Lee: Just like Nola said, Tiana is the very first Black Disney princess. She came out in 2009, and she's still the only one. What do you like about Tiana?
N. Lee: I like that, first off, she's in New Orleans. She's not like all the other princesses that were born a princess, blah-blah-blah, something happens. She was, like, a working woman. She--
Lee: She started her own business. Like, she wasn't just--
N. Lee: Yeah. Yeah. She--
Lee: --handed things. She worked hard.
N. Lee: Yeah. And not that the other ones did not work hard, but they were--
Lee: A lot of them did not work hard. (LAUGHTER) A lot of 'em did not.
N. Lee: Like, 'cause they were already, like, in the royal family with codes. And, yeah.
Lee: A couple years ago, Nola asked for a Jojo Siwa doll, a singing doll based on a white teen pop star. Jojo came with a microphone, a shiny pink jacket, and a long, blonde ponytail. There was zero chance I was buying that for her.
N. Lee: So, like, yeah.
Lee: You think you could handle? You're like, "You know what, I could have a little white doll," or that you're like--
N. Lee: Well, I understand what I have to. Well, I have to have, like, a lot of Black dolls. But (UNINTEL) like, dude, like why can't I just have just like one toy? It's not (LAUGH) like it's gonna affect me. If I have, like, 100 dolls, 100 Black dolls--
N. Lee: --one of them are white, not really--
N. Lee: --a harm with that.
Lee: Okay, look. Logically, she has a point. One white doll shouldn't make that much of a difference in how she sees herself. But white supremacy isn't logical, it's insidious. And it often creeps up on you in ways you don't expect. And as a parent, I know that too many of the messages she'll get from the white world especially will tell her that her hair or her skin or her lips or nose aren't good enough. I'm not willin' to risk her thinking that any of that is actually true. But Nola gets that.
N. Lee: I think that you are focused on it because, you know, a lot of times we are under-- I don't know how to--
N. Lee: Yeah. Like, somehow we're, like, usually that. So I think like the average person would be like, "No, I want my daughter, I want my son, and I want whoever it is to know that, 'I can be anything I want.'" I think--
N. Lee: --we should be represented.
Lee: So Nola got kinda tired of talkin' about dolls after a while and she really wanted to talk about somethin' else that's been on her mind. And in this moment, as a father, I felt kinda proud but also a little sad. So I wanted y'all to hear this.
N. Lee: A good thing to add to this was, like, if we at some point talked about police brutality. And that would be good.
Lee: Okay, let's talk about that. When you, you know--
N. Lee: After we answer the original--
N. Lee: --questions.
Lee: No, I think this is what we call a segue. I think that's a good opportunity for a segue in. How do you feel? And we've talked about this before but, you know, Daddy covers a lotta this stuff. And we see the news and we see police brutality and we see terrible things happening. Obviously George Floyd this summer was a big deal, right? When you see that kind of imagery on TV of what's goin' on, how does it make you feel? And what do you think? I know you watch the news all the time.
N. Lee: First off, it makes me feel mad. But at the same time, it makes me feel good because, as you see people from all over the world, different countries, different faces come together to protest, peacefully protest, and make sure that it never happens again.
N. Lee: Like, racism is all around us. Honestly, racism will never stop.
Lee: You don't think it'd ever go away?
N. Lee: It will never go away. Now, that's a fact. But there's ways we can stop it from having a big impact. I just realized, you know, all this is over our skin color, the way our skin looks, the way we look.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
N. Lee: It's not that our (UNINTEL) are different. We're all humans. We're all the same people.
N. Lee: There's literally a scientific reason we're darker than them.
N. Lee: First off, let me just explain it. Because our ancestors come from hotter areas like Africa and other areas. And it's just because we have melanin than them in our skin because it's just how we adapted to living in that environment. The body produces more melanin than in other places--
N. Lee: --or whatever you like to call it. So it's all over some simple thing. They could have, like, left us alone. Like, literally, we were a whole different country and they just had to come over here, start a big fight about somebody nothing just because of our resources? Just because of the color of our skin?
N. Lee: Now, that's totally shameful. That's--
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). But you're right. But you know what you said? The first part I think you said resources. Like, they said Africa has been poor, and they show that image. But, like, there's gold, diamonds--
N. Lee: No, no. They are the ones who basically made that an image. They are the one who enslaved us.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). That's right. Let's bring it back to what we're talkin' about here, 'cause I think all that is connected, right? So, like, do you think we should be pushing more of a positive image of us because we know there are so many negative lies about us?
N. Lee: I think that's an easy answer. Like, of course. Like, we should be represented in more ways than we usually are.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). So your final thoughts on representation. Why do you think ultimately it's so important, especially now, with everything goin' on?
N. Lee: People have been literally dying, literally being choked to death just because of the color of their skin. It's just important for us to be recognized and shown in the world that we all live in. We all live in this world, and in this world we should all be equally recognized. We should equally share this world. We should equally be a part of this world.
N. Lee: Yeah.
Lee: Well, that's good, Nola. Well, I wanna thank you. You--
N. Lee: Oh--
Lee: Oh, okay, we're not done here. Okay. Okay.
N. Lee: I made a little rap. It's not-- (LAUGHTER)
Lee: You wanna rap now?
N. Lee: Yeah.
Lee: Does your positive representation of Black folks go by the rap?
N. Lee: Sha. (MAKES NOISE) (LAUGH) Every day's a new day.
Lee: Ooh. Ooh. (LAUGHTER)
N. Lee: Every day's a new day to rock out.
N. Lee: We all in this world just like how you are in it. So I want us to be recognized. We live in this world too. We deserve (UNINTEL) hug. Every day's a new day. Every day's a new day. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: All right. All right, baby.
N. Lee: That was silly.
Lee: Yeah, that was good though. All right, Nola, say good-bye.
N. Lee: Bye. See ya later.
Lee: Do the Merry Christmas.
N. Lee: Merry Christmas to you and all (LAUGH) have a merry, jolly Christmas.
Lee: Let's bring it down.
N. Lee: Ho, ho, ho.
Lee: All right. All right, Nola. Bye. See ya later. (LAUGHTER)
N. Lee: See ya later.
Lee: Later, dude. Later, dude.
N. Lee: Can I have a snack?
Lee: That was Nola Lee and Professor Yla Eason. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.