Tale of a Black Ballerina Barbie

January 3rd, 2014

*Today I got an itch to write a bit of memoir. I started this just trying to tell the story of being in a school play. It turned into something much bigger. Non-fiction writing never ceases to amaze me. Enjoy!

 

“This one,” I say, running my hand over the dark magenta floral print fabric.

I look up at Mom. Two lines of skepticism form between her eyebrows.

My excitement deflates. She doesn’t like it. I look back at the fabric to be sure I really want it. Calico, it says to me. That’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder wore on the prairie. I pictured her in floral print every time I read one of her books. I don’t actually know where I got that idea, but Laura never actually said her dresses weren’t floral print.

“I’m not sure this is right for a prairie dress,” Mom says finally.

“Why not?” My eyes are drawn back to the colorful fabric. I can see myself in it now, standing up on stage and singing all the words to my duet for the Davy Crockett play. Nobody will deny I’m the best-dressed. The rest of the kids are probably just going to throw something together that resembles clothing from the 1800’s. But my mom can sew. We picked out a pattern already. Mom was skeptical about that, too because I’d picked out the most complex prairie dress costume there was. It’s going to have a bonnet and a girdle and a long ruffled skirt.

“I think we need something more muted,” she replies. “How about this one?” She pulls out a length of striped material in brown hues from among a line of cotton prints.

I wrinkle my nose. “Eew. That’s ugly.”

“I thought you wanted to look like a real prairie girl,” Mom remarks as she thumbs through bolts of fabric, pulling out a few and assessing my reaction to them.

“I do.”

“Well they didn’t wear such bright colors.”

I consider it. She’s probably right about that. I look at a few more samples but I’m continually drawn back to the fuchsia material. I have to have it. How else will I stand out on stage? This fabric is me.

“I don’t care,” I tell Mom finally. “You already said I have to wear it as my Halloween costume, too, since it’s going to take so much time to make. So I want to get something I’m going to like.”

“You’re sure?” she says, watching my expression for some sign of backing down.

I nod eagerly, cracking a grin that won’t stay hidden. I don’t like to get too excited. Adults never take kids seriously if they act like whimsical flakes. And I always want to be taken seriously. It’s pretty much all I ever care about. Except for magenta floral print calico. And my duet delivered in the school play while adorned in a prairie dress.

I don’t like to admit I’m still a kid inside sometimes.

I asked for a Ballerina Barbie for Christmas last year. It was embarrassing. At eight years old I decided I was too old for Barbies. But I still loved them and I really wanted Ballerina Barbie. I wanted a Ken doll, too, but I would never, in a million years, admit that. Only little kids liked Barbies. And Ken dolls? If you have one, everyone knows you’re slated to act out romance and pretend weddings. I was too mature for all that nonsense. At least I wished I was. But I still desperately wanted Ballerina Barbie, so I summoned the courage to bring it up to Mom.

When I was done mentioning off-hand how I thought I might like to have a Barbie that was a ballerina for Christmas, my heart was beating wildly and I worried my cheeks had flushed. No way I can pull off asking for a Barbie without looking childish. If I get one though, I think it will be worth it.

In fact, I owned several already, but they were used ones Mom got from somewhere. I’d never had a new Barbie. I played with the ones I had on the top bunk of my bed. By myself. I was too embarrassed to be seen pretending. That’s what little kids did.

Except for my friend, Sarah. She owned a huge collection of Barbies and her imagination was better than mine. When I would spend the night at her house, we pretended. She also owned several Kens. And lots of clothes. And Sarah was never embarrassed to play pretend in front of her brother or her mom or anyone else. And she liked to pretend her Barbies were superheroes. When we were done pretending to be superheroes, we’d watch X-Men cartoons and Sarah would talk about how she wanted to be Rogue. Sarah loved Rogue because she could fly and she could absorb anyone’s powers.

“But you wouldn’t really be able to touch people,” I pointed out. “You’d hurt them.”

“Who cares about that if you can fly and pretty much have any superpower?” she replied.

I wished, like Sarah, I knew exactly what I wanted to be—and what I didn’t want to be.

When Christmas rolled around, I was quietly giddy to see the tell-tale Barbie box shape under the tree. As soon as I pulled the wrapping paper away from one pink corner, my dream was confirmed. I grinned excitedly (But not too excited. I wasn’t a kid after all.).

I yanked the paper off all the way and there is was:

A black Ballerina Barbie.

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I think I must have stared at it for a conspicuous amount of time. But my mom didn’t explain why she’d gotten me a black Barbie doll, and as a twenty-five year-old stuck in an eight year-old body, I wasn’t going to ask. If Mom wasn’t going to offer an explanation, that meant she assumed I would know. But I didn’t know.

I thanked her and tried to adjust my expectations. I was disappointed. That much I knew. Only I knew I shouldn’t be even though I couldn’t articulate why.

She’s a girl, just like you, I told myself. She has pretty, dark hair. A new outfit, just like you wanted. The only difference between this Barbie and the one I’d snuck a peek at in the store months ago was that this one had brown skin.

I opened Black Barbie later when no one was around. I turned her over in my hands, trying to figure out how to fit my imagination into her skin. I had daydreamed all the ways I would play pretend with my new Ballerina Barbie prior to that day, but in my head she was always white. My Barbies always behaved like the real me—the one I didn’t want to admit being. They were me. But I was not black. What was the black version of me?

On opening day of Davy Crockett, I don my fuchsia dress and matching bonnet proudly. When I show up at the school, my teacher oohs and ahhs over me.

“Where did you find such a pretty dress?” she asks.

“My mom made it,” I say self-importantly.

“Oh my. She’s very talented. Such a pretty color. Did you pick it out?”

A twinge of anxiety derails my excitement. She thinks it’s too bright. She must think I look stupid. Now I’m going to  look dumb in front of all these people. I should have listened to my mom…

And then I’m aggravated with myself. Standing out is exactly what I wanted.

“Yes,” I reply in my small, nine year-old voice. “It took my mom a long time to make and so I wanted to pick something I really liked so I could wear it again.” I rush through the explanation because it’s barely true. When Mom was making the dress, she did bring up that she’d appreciate if I’d wear the dress more than a couple times. I agreed heartily just because I wanted her to know I appreciated her hard work. I’m grateful for that now because at least I have a good explanation for why I’m going to stand out like a sore thumb at the school play.

At least now my teacher won’t think I picked the fabric because I wanted to stand out.

I can pretend like none of this was my fault.

Other kids in my class begin to trickle into the classroom where we’re waiting to go to the gym for the play. My best friend Brooke is among them. I can tell she’s jealous as soon as she sees me. She loves the color. What is that thing laced at my waist? I look exactly like a girl from the wild west. Can she try my bonnet on?

It looks like Brooke’s mom bought her a cheap pilgrim Halloween costume. Brooke is obviously not as thrilled about it as she was before she saw mine though. She’s the other half of my duet and her costume looks cheap and drab next to the colourful stitches my mother skilfully sewed me. But Brooke lets it go and smiles at me anyway. The two of us hold hands and giggle all the way to the gym to release the last of our nerves.

When our duet comes up, I stride to the microphone confidently, eager to show off my singing and my dress. I am fuchsia in a sea of blacks and whites and browns.

I am a Black Ballerina Barbie Doll.

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