This column by Carolyn Cooper appeared in Jamaica’s Gleaner. She discusses how children’s toys reinforce sexist traditions and notions of beauty and acceptability; she stresses the importance of a new exhibition of black action figures, Afro Supa Hero, by Jon Daniel at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in London.
The global toy industry is notoriously racist and sexist. Like gods, toymakers create puppets in their own image. And the supreme puppetmakers are white and male. Naturally, most toys, for both boys and girls, reproduce stereotypes. Anorexic Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes on steroids have long defined the ideal body type for real children who can never ever measure up (or down).
ICONIC ACTION FIGURES: G.I. Joe really wasn’t the ideal hero for black boys growing up in the 1960s. They needed heroic figures in their own image. That’s the compelling argument made by the British graphic designer and creative director Jon Daniel in a brilliant exhibition of black action figures and comics now on at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. It’s called ‘Afro Supa Hero’ and it documents Daniel’s journey to define his identity in a society from which he often felt excluded.
In the exhibition notes, Daniel tells the intriguing story of how he started his museum-quality collection. Round about 1994, when he was in his late twenties, he came across a photo of a Malcolm X action figure which had been produced by the black-owned Olmec toy company. He was hooked. You know what they say: the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys.
In Jon Daniel’s case, this toy wasn’t just a costly indulgence. It signified so much of what had been missing from his childhood. Black power! He now has a collection of more than 40 action figures. I gather that his favourite is Super Agent Slade, modelled on Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. Daniel has also collected black comic strips which are featured in the exhibition. These include Brother Voodoo, Lobo, Black Lightning and also a black historical comic featuring Martin Luther King, Pushkin and the heroic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.
Daniel’s long-standing commitment to documenting black heroes was again manifested last year in the spectacular installation he designed for Jamaica 50. Cleverly called ‘Jamaicons’, the outdoor exhibition was hung on the exterior wall of the famous Ritzy cinema in Brixton. It featured huge images of nine iconic Jamaicans – our own heroic action figures: Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Mary Seacole, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Merlene Ottey, Michael Holding and Usain Bolt.
NOVELTY VALUE: When I visited the Afro Supa Hero exhibition, it struck me that it ought to travel to the Caribbean. Our children need to see these relatively rare images of black action figures and comic strips. The National Gallery would be an ideal venue. But, alas, it’s not likely to happen. [. . .]
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
For full article, see http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130929/cleisure/cleisure3.html