Beauty of The Beholder

Award-winning costume designer’s latest venture is Black Dolls Matter

(Photo Left) Black Dolls Matter founder and CEO Mark Ruffin. He promotes Black dolls and makes custom clothing for them.  Photo by Sarah J. Glover.

Veteran dollmaker and Emmy-winning costume designer Mark Ruffin says his colleagues in the toy industry often told him “black dolls don’t sell.”

So, after a successful design career that also included being a puppet maker for the likes of Jim Henson and Sesame Street, the West Philadelphia native founded Black Dolls Matter, an advocacy campaign to prove that they do.

At the “Free First Sundays: Crossing the Line” event at the Barnes Foundation on Nov. 5, Ruffin presented Black Dolls Matter as a featured exhibit.

He pointed out a packaged doll. It’s part of a line of black and brown dolls, called The Fresh Dolls, created by a former Penn State professor who goes by the moniker Dr. Lisa.  Her line is carried by Walmart and Target and distributed throughout the world.

“When you go into the toy aisle, nothing competes with Barbie. These are now side by side,” Ruffin says of The Fresh Dolls.

Ruffin’s social and educational advocacy campaign includes a website (www.blackdollsmatter.com) that provides words of inspiration for black girls and parents, as well as a companion clothing line that features stylish attire for dolls of all shapes and sizes.

This year, on Black Friday — which Ruffin has dubbed “Black Doll Friday” — he will launch  Black Dolls Matter magazine.

“Children should see dolls that look like them,” Ruffin says.

Knowing what delights children is one of Ruffin’s specialties. Aside from building puppets for The Jim Henson Company, he has design credits on the Broadway musical “Disney’s The Lion King.” His work has also appeared in “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

In addition, Ruffin has designed collectible dolls, including The Princess Diana Birthday Commemorative Doll for The Alexander Doll Company.

Ruffin graduated from John Bartram High School in Philadelphia, and is an alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Some of his costume design work has become part of the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

As part of his Black Dolls Matter campaign, he distributes cards that allow parents to gauge their own child’s racial perceptions.  They are a variation on the 1940s experiments by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark known as “The Doll Tests.” The groundbreaking study showed that, when questioned, African-American children chose to play with the white dolls, deeming the black dolls “bad.”

The recent successes of Black doll lines, like Dr. Lisa’s The Fresh Dolls and the Queens of Africa Dolls, whose worldwide sales Ruffin says eclipse Barbie, certainly shows an untapped market for Black Dolls. Still, responses to his cards show there is a need for continued work on black children’s self-esteem and self-image.

 “We’re still failing this test,” Ruffin says. “We want to encourage the next generation of children to love themselves a little bit more.”


Beauty of The Beholder
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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