CNF: Dolls, Brown Like Us: A Chronology

by Jessica Kehinde Ngo



Brown dolls will do the trick, my white American mother must have said to herself as she searched for Christmas gifts for my three siblings and me, all under ten years old. That will help them connect with their father’s Nigerian roots.

She purchases four Cabbage Patch dolls, all with skin the color of dark chocolate, like our father’s. Two boy dolls for my older brothers: one with a flat-top and the other with dreadlocks. Two girl dolls for my twin sister and me: both with long wavy black hair. The dolls become our constant companions.


My brothers are too old and masculine to be seen with dolls. But my sister and I are given Nigerian Barbies from Mattel’s Dolls of the World Collection for Christmas. We scream with excitement but admire the dolls from a distance, leaving them in their perfect pink boxes for safekeeping. These dolls are much too precious to play with.


American Girl releases its first brown doll: Addy, an escaped slave. My sister and I read of her daily routine of cooking and cleaning and sewing and think how tiring. Her skin is brown like ours, but her world is so different. Though we can’t afford the actual doll, our intrigue leads us to spend our allowance on Addy’s cookbooks, storybooks, buttons, and paper-doll likenesses.


My sister and I move away for college. We read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and learn of character Pecola Breedlove’s obsession with blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls because they are pretty and she, with her brown skin and brown eyes, is ugly to the world and to herself. Wow, we think. Poor Pecola.


Mom sets up a shelf full of brown dolls from our childhood in the guest bedroom. Home for a visit one weekend, I tear up.
You saved all of these?
Of course. They’re for my future grandkids.


I’m at my parents’ house for my baby shower. I’m having a boy. I unwrap a gift from my mom’s friend: a handmade brown boy doll with replicas for my sister and mom to have at their houses when they babysit. My eyes water.


My son is one year old. Perusing the clearance rack at Hallmark, I happen upon a brown boy doll. I pick it up and take it to the cash register. It’s a representation of social media phenomenon Kid President. Back at our house, guests notice the doll is wearing a suit.
Is this Barack Obama? they ask.
Sure, I say. Close enough.


My two-year-old son and I are visiting my parents. My mom hands him one of the decades-old brown Cabbage Patch dolls off the guest room shelf. He smothers it in kisses. I look into my mother’s blue eyes. We share a smile.


Jessica Kehinde Ngo studied creative nonfiction in the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing program. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Times, Entropy, Artillery, and Hippocampus. She teaches writing and literature at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Dolls, Brown Like Us: A Chronology”?

I wrote a first draft of the story a couple years ago when I was taking an online flash essay course. I took the class to encourage me to get back in the habit of writing regularly and to play around with the flash form. A couple weeks into the class, I went home for a weekend to visit my parents and came across a shelf full of brown dolls from my childhood (Barbies, Cabbage Patches, and the like) that my mom had saved. I laughed (she is quite the saver of all things from when my siblings and I were kids). Meanwhile, my two-year old son grabbed one of the dolls and began hugging and kissing it. A few days later, I was deep into drafting the story of my life as told through brown dolls.


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