“Barbie Signature” dolls designed to represent famous Black women are displayed in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives at Florida A&M University.

Barbie’s gone to college at Florida A&M University.

With the movie of the same name becoming the summer blockbuster, FAMU is embracing the symbolism of the doll that has been a top toy through the generations.

Five “Barbie Signature” dolls who live in the school’s Black Archives, representing five historical and iconic Black women, were posted at various colleges on the university’s Facebook and Instagram pages Monday, getting over 5,000 likes on Instagram and nearly 300 shares on Facebook.

The dolls, created by toymaker Mattell – mostly in 2018 on International Women’s Day – feature NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and acclaimed poet Maya Angelou. An older doll portraying groundbreaking television show character Julia Baker played by actress Diahann Carroll also joined the fun.

A Barbie figure representing civil rights activist Rosa Parks was not a part of the posts but is also included in the small collection, which is displayed on the third floor of FAMU’s Carnegie Library in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives Research Center and Museum.

“It’s a good thing that we have them on display,” the Black Archives’ Digital Humanities Program Manager Barbara Twyman, 34, said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat Wednesday. “People can see where we came from and how much further we have to go.”

Barbara Twyman is the Black Archives’ Digital Humanities Program Manager at Florida A&M University.

The Pennsylvania native is a two-time Florida State University alumna who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in humanities and a master’s degree in digital humanities. She spearheaded efforts to give the dolls a virtual spotlight.

“They can look at the Barbie dolls to see the different types of features on them and how they come into play,” Twyman added. “It’s inspirational to have them on FAMU’s campus.”

The exposure of the small Barbie Girls collection on FAMU’s campus follows the popular Barbie movie that opened in theaters July 21. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the summer blockbuster made $356 million during its opening weekend around the world and has been highlighted as the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman, according to an article in The Guardian.

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“Barbie Signature” dolls designed to represent famous Black women are displayed in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives at Florida A&M University.

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In the FAMU social media post, life in plastic for the Barbie figures involved being displayed in front of the FAMU colleges that they potentially would have studied at if they were students attending the HBCU (historically Black college or university).

While the Johnson Barbie doll was placed in front of the university’s Jones Hall that houses the Department of Chemistry and the Baker doll was positioned next to Tucker Hall, home of FAMU’s Essential Theatre, the Fitzgerald doll was pictured by the Foster Tanner Music Building and the Angelou doll was in front of the J School (School of Journalism and Graphic Communication).

“Barbie Signature” dolls designed to represent famous Black women are displayed in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives at Florida A&M University.

“The way we shot them might get people to thinking that they could be the next Barbie of the different colleges within FAMU, and I think that’s great,” Twyman said.

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But although the Barbie dolls have recently been spotted by a large social media audience, the figures have been in the FAMU’s museum since last year, according to Black Archives Research Associate Murrell Dawson.

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Florida A&M University's Carnegie Library houses the Meek-Eaton Black Archives Research Center and Museum.

Besides the Barbie movie, the Black Archives team also decided to shine some light on the dolls as the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority — the oldest Black Greek-letter sorority in the National Pan-Hellenic Council — recently established its first-ever For Members Only Federal Credit Union, Twyman said.

The credit union is the first Black-owned, woman-led, sorority-based, digital banking financial institution in the history of the U.S. and coincidentally, all five of the Black women represented by the Barbie dolls were members of the sorority.

“I thought about how it’s a big week for Barbie and a big week for AKAs, so it was only right to put it all on display,” Twyman said.

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Barbie in African American culture

The first Barbie was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler, cofounder of the global toy-manufacturing company Mattel, and named after her daughter Barbara.

But the African American community was not offered a version of the children’s toy that physically represents them until the Black Barbie was created decades later, according to Twyman.

In 1980, Mattel released the first Black and Hispanic dolls named Barbie. Although diverse dolls were available through the company over the years, they were always “friends” of Barbie and did not carry the brand’s name.

“We didn’t have any Barbies that looked like us, and I think Mattel took key to that,” Twyman said. “I remember when I was younger, my first Black Barbie was Brandy (singer-songwriter and actress).”

The Barbie figures in FAMU’s Black Archives were owned by Gloria Irene Clark — a Civil Rights volunteer who passed away in 2019 — and they were later donated to FAMU’s museum by her daughter Victoria Brown, according to Black Archives reports.

“Barbie Signature” dolls designed to represent famous Black women are displayed in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives at Florida A&M University.

Twyman hopes for more people to donate African American Barbie dolls to the university’s Black Archives in order to possibly have a Barbie exhibition.

The Black Archives Museum is open to the public and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for anyone interested in viewing the Barbie figures among other historical collections and artifacts.

Contact Tarah Jean at tjean@tallahassee.com or follow her on twitter @tarahjean_.

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