Abstract: Black Power in the Dollhouse: Shindana Toys and the Business of Social Change

Rob Goldberg


In early 1968, black community activists Lou Smith and Robert Hall sat down with Mattel president Elliot Handler to discuss how the world's largest toy company might help out Operation Bootstrap—the community development organization that Smith and Hall had founded in South Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts uprising. Six months later, with Mattel's financial and technical assistance, Shindana Toy Division was born as Bootstrap's new subsidiary. Over the next decade, thanks in part to a loan from Chase Capital Corporation, Shindana's line of politicized, racially coded dolls changed the face of the American toy industry by redefining what it meant to manufacture a "black" toy. From 1968, when it brought its pioneering dolls to the national market, through 1974, when it became the first black-owned firm to lease a permanent space in New York's Toy Fair Building, Shindana institutionalized Black Power as a set of community ideals, material practices, and commercial representations. In tracing the origins and development of Shindana Toys, this paper seeks to cast fresh light on the possibilities and limitations of business as a black freedom strategy; the impact of black liberation on the making of "relevant" consumer culture for children; and the interplay between black nationalism and corporate America in an era of socially responsible business idealism.