On Little Black Girls, Beauty and Barbie Dolls
Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 5:35PM
Danielle Belton in African American culture, Malia Obama, PopCulturalist, PostRacialist, Sasha Obama, beauty, the snob

Ryan Booth, "Harlem's Flyest Toddler," submitted by someone who loves her dearly.In my effort to show the world how beautiful black and brown children are (and that Sasha and Malia aren't the unicorns of black children that Madison Avenue is making them out to be), I've received more than 40 emails from happy friends, relatives and parents all wanting to be part of The Black Snob's efforts to show the true beauty of our daughters.

Because that's what this is really about for me.

For some background on why this issue really stuck in my craw and the statement that sent me over the edge, click here. But I want to give you some background as to why I feel so strongly and as to what I plan to do with your beautiful girls.

Along time ago at a kitchen table in an all-black, middle/working class neighborhood in St. Louis, Mo.'s North County a young Danielle Belton, age five, loved to draw and color more than anything in the world. My older sister, aka "Big Sis, bka Denise, didn't like to color, so I inherited all the coloring books she never used.

I could draw for hours and color for hours, but all I drew and colored were white people.

I would take out my Barbie coloring book and select the yellow crayon for her hair, the blue crayon for her eyes and the pink "flesh" colored crayon for her skin. I would make her "beautiful" in what my little noggin thought was beauty.

What's funny is my parents, like many black parents, were trying their hardest to make sure myself and my sister had positive images of other black women and ourselves. My mother constantly fought with the toy store owners about getting in more black dolls because she wanted to buy me Barbies, but worried about how having a gaggle of blonde Malibu and ballerina Barbies could effect my young mind. She immersed us in our culture. She told us we were beautiful all the time.

Yet I still drew and colored nothing but white people.

Then one day, at that kitchen table, my father approached me. Rather than go into a lengthy speech or be embarrassed or shame me, he approached me as you would approach a five year old.

He asked if he could color with me.

I, of course, was pleased that he wanted to join in. My father worked in management for McDonnell Douglass at the time. He was almost always busy at work or winding down from stress. Plus, he was the sole wage earner in the household, hence we didn't get to spend as much time together. I loved playing with my father. I never turned the man down if he was in the mood.

So he took one Barbie page and I took mine. I, quite proudly, made my Barbie look just like the one on the cover, blonde and blue-eyed. Then I looked over at daddy who was coloring his own Barbie but he had done something entirely unexpected to me. He'd taken the brown crayon and made her skin brown. He'd taken the black crayon and gave her beautiful dark hair. He showed his finished picture to me and said sweetly, "Don't you think she's pretty too?"

This was my first "mind-blown" experience. At five it had never occurred to me that I could make Barbie or any drawing anything I wanted it to be. I was following "the rules." Barbies were white. Beautiful people were white. I had never occurred to me that I could "break the rules." I looked at my dad's coloring and thought that was the most beautiful Barbie in the world.

I never colored a white Barbie again. I wanted them to be all as beautiful as the one my father had made.

He didn't have to lecture. He didn't have to get mad. He understood that I just needed my eyes to open to the possibility.

Years later I would do the same thing for my baby sister Deidre, seeing her do the same thing I did as a little kid, coloring all the people white. I showed her my black drawings and she too agreed, the black Barbies were beautiful too.

Whether we realize it or not, no matter how hard we try, the world is sending a message to our children: You are not good enough. You are not pretty enough. You are not wanted.

This is told to Asian girls about their eyes. To Latinas about their brown skin and dark hair. Told to anyone with a permanent tan and a flat nose.

And it's told to us.

We see it and hear it all the time. I went to a great elementary school with great teachers, yet I had a principal who seemed to relish in telling us how awful we were. I had a third grade teacher once tell our class we should be proud we were brought here as slaves from Africa because people in Africa were starving and poor. (My mother had a few words with that teacher and she later apologized to the class.) My mother did find us black dolls that we loved. My mother continued to tell us we were beautiful as we were. And it was an all-day, everyday struggle when every image in magazines, on TV, at school and even from other children is telling you -- not good enough.

All three Belton Sisters (left to right) Danielle, Denise and Deidre

From being in elementary school and hearing other little black girls my age fantasize about marrying white men to have "pretty babies," to being a freshman in high school and having a jealous friend berate me for having "thick lips."

Of course by then, all my parents' hard work had not been in vain. When someone criticized my thick lips I blinked at them like they were insane. I knew my lips were beautiful. I knew some woman in Hollywood was lying on a plastic surgeon's table getting injections to get what God gave me naturally. How could it be ugly if people were paying for it?

I was sensitive about being called a nerd (although that never stopped me from being nerdy) and sensitive about having such a big ass (but that had more to do with not liking negative male attention from perverts), but when it came to my large nose, thick lips, big eyes and undeniable black features I knew I was the shit and everyone else was wrong.

That's why you have to wage a war from the time your son or daughter crawls out of the crib to get them to where my parents got me. You have to show them over and over images of our beauty. My mother bought us the book "When and Where I Enter" and "I Dream A World." I read "The Color Complex" as a teen. We had regular study sessions over the works of Jawanza Kunjufu. She even dragged us to his one film, "Up Against the Wall."

She told us over her pride in having an "African nose" when people mocked her flat, wide nose. She encouraged us in music and dance and art, surrounding us with as much good energy as she could. Because it was her versus the world, a world that wanted us to believe we were not beloved or lovely.

Our father took thousands of pictures of us. My grandfather introduced us all as his "pretty, smart granddaughters from St. Louis." And no matter how bad a day I had at school I would look in the mirror with tears in my eyes and see myself as beautiful and tell the world it was crazy if it couldn't see what I saw.

I was lucky, but I can't say other black women were. And even with all my mother's work, I still had complexes over my hair, dealt with other people's complexes because it's hard to block out that message that says you're wrong.

So now we have the beautiful First Daughters, two girls who remind me of my sisters and myself. Of my cousins and elementary school friends and to hear someone talk like Sasha and Malia are some rarity, two lovely black girls, as if they were some anomaly you can't find, enraged me.

Here finally, finally an image little black children could see and go "that's me!" They could see everyone complimenting their beauty and feeling proud knowing they shared in that beauty. But then this statement was made by Marlene Wallach, president of Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, was like a kick in the teeth.

(T)he First Daughters are tough subjects to match. “It’s a very specific age and a very specific ethnicity, so there aren’t that many girls that would necessarily fit the bill.”

I wondered if I was making too much of it, but then remembered five year old me coloring those pages and pages of white women and thinking every white woman I saw was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen simply because she was white. I remember once arguing down to my mother that I DID have blue eyes, fixated on a slender, non-existent blue ring around my dark, dark brown eyes. Then to cry, reading Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" nearly 15 years later and finding that Pecola Breedlove was inside of me and just about every black woman I knew, even if they fought that negativity every day. And when I framed it that way I knew I wasn't over-reacting. I was taking a stand.

Enough is enough. Light or dark. Long hair or short. Curly or straight. I'd seen many beautiful little black girls in my lifetime, yet they were growing up just like I had, watching MTV and wondering what's wrong with me. Flipping through the pages of Elle and Vibe Magazines. Stuck between Jennifer Anniston and a video ho in what you were supposed to be.

So with this project I wanted to both bring to light the true beauty of all girls, especially those battling that negativity that destroys self-esteem and makes for a deep sadness of feeling unwanted and unloved. I wanted to not just make a piece of literature to combat ignorance, but a love letter to all those little girls I wanted to embrace. That I wanted to sit down next to and color with. That I want to tell "you are special, if to NO ONE ELSE, but to me."

One part political piece, one part tribute, I'm going to take the beauty of these ordinary girls and show that Sasha and Malia are simply part of the bigger picture, simply two stars in a galaxy of lovely, little girls. That many black parents love and see the beauty in their children just as Barack and Michelle cherish the wit and brilliance and beauty in their daughters.

And that's why I'm doing it.

Out of the pictures sent to me I will select from many of them and send a brief questionnaire to the parents, relatives and friends who submitted the little beauties asking about their personalities and talents and put together a tribute piece to our children.

Then use it as a weapon against ignorance.

I will post the full work on the blog and in a hardcopy form to be sent out to the blind so that they may hopefully open their eyes, hearts and minds and see how shallow they have been.

If it heals the heart or helps prevent the pain of another Pecola, another me, another black woman struggling with her own self-image, it's worth it.

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If you still want to be part of the project you have until Feb. 8th to send pictures to moi, via email.

Article originally appeared on Danielle Belton's The Black Snob (http://blacksnob.squarespace.com/).
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