Ida B. Wells Barbie doll keeps legacy alive in the face of ‘critical race theory’ pushback

EXCLUSIVE: The rebranding of American history has placed an overcast of taboo on the stories of figures like Wells, a pioneering investigative journalist.

Black History Month can be a hit or miss for businesses and corporations. Some consumers welcome new merchandise with a Black focus, while others view it as purely a marketing strategy. 

Bath and Body Works rebranding lotions and bubble baths in February was lampooned online and met with great angst. But Mattel’s Ida B. Wells Barbie inspired the Black journalist community and received high praise. 

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells and Mattel Barbie doll in her honor. (Photo: Getty Images/Mattel)

“It’s just a really great way for people to learn about my ancestor, be excited about her, to be inspired by her,” Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells told theGrio.

Duster has amplified the work of her ancestor through books, speaking engagements, and a host of partnerships. She has never shied away from a conversation about the pioneer investigative journalist. 

In an exclusive interview, theGrio asked Duster about her thoughts on Barbie honoring Wells during a moment when history, particularly as it relates to race, is such a hot-button political issue. 

“It is important for people to know their history, know the history of their country, know the history of their people” Duster highlighted. “I think that it is a disservice to all of us to sort of hide or skew, you know, the truth.” 

In the United States’ primary education system, conservatives have stoked fears in parents that their children may be indoctrinated with critical race theory. This rebranding of American history has placed an overcast of taboo on the stories of figures like Ida B. Wells, and literature from authors like Toni Morrison and journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones

But despite the political rhetoric, Duster has found ways to reach younger audiences as she retells her great-grandmother’s life. In addition to the Ida B. Wells Barbie doll, Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth: Educator, Feminist, and Anti-Lynching Civil Rights Leader debuted at the top of 2022 in the children’s biography genre. It does not take a sheepish approach to acknowledge the injustices Wells challenged during the Red Summer of 1919. 

Ida B. Wells
Michelle Duster looks at the plaque of her great-grandmother’s portrait under the The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP)

“The doll is creating a lot of interest from people who need that inspiration. They need to see images and be reminded that people came before them who were dealing with very difficult situations and they figured out ways to triumph,” Duster added. “My great grandmother is a perfect example of somebody who spoke truth to power. She challenged the status quo. She was a truth-teller, regardless of the danger that was involved.”

Preserving the history of Wells is one that demonstrates the integrity that scholars and many others in the Black community hope to see for all of its heroes. 

Johnny E. Williams, who chairs the sociology department at Trinity College, takes great concern with corporations and governments playing a role in shaping the narrative of Black historical figures. He views interpretation as the greatest tool of whitewashing history as it is presented through goods, services and currency. 

“With these dolls, with putting people’s pictures on currencies and stuff like that we can use it as a way in which to rearticulate the truth about what either Ida B. Wells stood for, what Harriet Tubman stood for,” he explained. 

However, he affirms that it is not easy to water down Wells’ legacy and message with a full understanding of who she was and the history of the country. 

“It’s time for 6-year-olds to see themselves in a doll,” Williams added. “But in a way in which is truthful, and not distorted.”

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