Play Stuff Blog

Finding Race and Play at The Strong  

The Strong’s research fellowship program not only provides an opportunity for scholars to view rare material in the museum’s collection and archives, but it also expands the potential for the study of play in academia. Being surrounded by the artifacts of play with which we all have experiential knowledge helped me realize the importance of studying play objects and children’s culture. Although my research focuses specifically on Mattel’s historical production of Black Barbie dolls, The Strong reminded me why my research topic is significant. My dissertation, “Fashioning Black Barbies, Princesses, and Sexual Expression for Black Girls: The Multivisuality of Nicki Minaj,” explores the ways in which popular icons use girl play to popularize their brands. Julia doll, 1968, gift of Joan M. Hopkins. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Because of its extensive collection, The Strong provided the documentation I needed on Black Barbies to trace the historical legacy of Black Barbie dolls from the first  “Colored Francie” in 1967 to Nicki Minaj’s version of Barbie in the late 2000s. I have found that since 1968 with their first dolls, Julia and Malibu Christie, Mattel has attempted to aestheticize blackness through material culture. Both Julia, based on a Black actress Diahann Carroll, and Malibu Christie had the same doll bodies and aesthetics as Mattel’s white dolls. However, as Mattel’s relationship to Black communities grew—through its relationship with Black-owned Shindana Toy Company and by hiring Black women designers—the dolls reflected more characteristics of Black communities in the United States. Thanks to The Strong, I was able to learn firsthand about each doll and how play provides a space for Black women and girls to imagine and create their futures despite obstacles.

Built on a commitment to the importance of play, The Strong illustrates the importance of leisure and what’s at stake for those who find pleasure in fantasy. The museum has a wealth of material; its collections not only explore the ways that technology has shaped and continues to shape our ability to imagine the fantastical, but also provide children (and adults) with multiple opportunities to imagine themselves differently. For this reason, visiting the library as well as the exhibits helped me develop new avenues for research in the future. Aria Halliday with Big Bird at The Strong

Additionally, the library and museum staff went beyond my own expectations and requests of archival research. Their wealth of knowledge and willingness to provide materials I never asked for gave me the depth and breadth I needed to make my arguments robust. Staff members also pointed me to important aspects of the museum that could benefit my work. Naturally, this meant I had to play a few arcade games, display my dancing acumen on Dance, Dance Revolution, and take a few selfies with Big Bird in Sesame Street.

My experience at The Strong benefited my research and my own spirit of play that lies dormant most days in graduate school. I encourage researchers and curious people alike to engage all that The Strong has to offer because it can uncover some of your best play memories while also making new ones.