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Dear Barbie: How My Favorite Doll Became My Favorite Confidante

What she did for a black girl growing up in New York City in 1970.

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Large variety of Barbie Dolls
Levi Brown/Trunk Archive
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When I was in the fourth grade, I decided that I would begin to keep a diary. My class had just completed reading, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and it struck a chord with me. It didn’t matter that I was a Black girl growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights in 1970 and that Anne was a Jewish girl hiding out from the Nazis with her family in Amsterdam in the 1940s. We both wanted a place to reveal our deepest thoughts. I decided that my confidante would be my favorite doll, and started all of my entries, “Dear Barbie.”

As an only child, it was easy for me to imagine that Barbie was more than a doll, because she felt like my non-judgmental friend. I had plenty of real friends, but Barbie was the ever-available playmate that I could dress up or dress down and take on all kinds of journeys. We could travel from her apartment, that I fashioned out of my mother’s shoe boxes, using egg cartons decorated with fabric scraps for sofas and chairs to trying on a variety of careers, ranging from dancer to teacher to lawyer to scientist.

Vintage Barbie dolls in boxes
Don Bartletti/Getty Images

Making Barbie my secret diary listener was a no-brainer. Who else could I complain to when my father got busy with work and missed one of our scheduled weekend visits? My parents separated when I was four and divorced when I turned seven, so having a “weekend Dad” was the norm for me at nine. I didn’t realize it then, but multi-career Barbie also made me think of my Mom, who I watched go to night school to get a college degree while she spent her days working as a school secretary. My Mom worked hard, but always made time for me, and opened my eyes to the ability of women to re-write their futures by educating themselves for new careers. That was even more phenomenal when I realized that women could not even get credit cards in their own names until the early 1970s, unless they were co-signed by their husbands or fathers!

When it came to my diary, the Dear Barbie entries were a place to speak up for myself and also where I could try to understand the protests for women’s rights, fair housing, equal pay, and civil rights that were happening in 1969 and 1970. I expressed my own take on the civil rights struggle for Black people to Barbie in diary entries about my Mom having trouble getting us an apartment in a New York City building that had a silent “whites only” mantra when it came to new tenants.

Most of my early Barbie dolls had pink “skin”, but I felt they understood me no matter what color their plastic was. Eventually, I did get a few Black Barbie dolls, like Christie, the friend to Barbie introduced in 1968, but to my nine-year-old mindset, all the Barbies I owned were progressive and understood what it was like to be a Black girl, growing up with my family in my world. They all cheered right along with me when Shirley Chisholm was sworn in as the first Black woman elected to Congress, no matter what their hue was.

I even wrote entries to Barbie when a few of my fellow Black schoolmates accused me of not being “Black enough.” Some were under the false impression that excelling in school was “selling out.” On the plus side, I was in a public-school class labeled “intellectually gifted” and filled with mostly Black, a few Hispanic and some white kids, which provided a buffer from being bullied, and feeling “othered” at recess.

My diary Barbie also was the place where I could register my regular kid complaints without getting in trouble. I loved my Mom and my grandmother, who I called Nana, dearly, but I do remember that disagreeing with them by confiding to Barbie on the pages of my diary was often a better strategy than disagreeing out loud, especially if I was hoping to get a new outfit for my Barbie doll.

Film still of Issa Rae in Barbie
Warner Bros/Everett Collection

More than anything, writing my diary entries to Barbie got me in the habit of writing down my feelings and even envisioning that I could consider being a writer when I grew up. I had a passion for dance, so being a ballerina was still number one on my list. Writing to Barbie with her multiple careers showed me that perhaps I could have more than one passion. When I look at Barbie today, I hope she is still inspiring girls to seek out a variety of interests and occupations. With Issa Rae cast as President Barbie, why not?

What memories of playing with Barbie do you have? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Lifestyle