CW: This review and the novel contains content that may be triggering to some readers (molestation, abuse, and violence).
Black Power Barbie Vol. 1: love lives of heroes by Shay Youngblood is described as being written in the form of a “graphic novel with cinematic sensibilities.” That possibly is the best way to describe a work featuring flashbacks of murders, dreams of loved ones who have transitioned, and finding love after a chance encounter in a shoe store. All of this is experienced by a black woman in her mid-twenties who uses a Barbie doll her late father gave her as a coping mechanism.
The novel takes place in New York City and opens in June 1995. Tabitha and her brother Jackson are in their therapist’s office. Tabitha arrives with her Black Power Barbie tucked into the waistband of her skirt. The opening passage involves them describing seeing their Civil Rights activists parents murdered. During follow-up sessions, Jackson describes attending college, getting a job and taking care of his sister. Tabitha struggles with visions of her parents’ death. She envisions transforming into a living Black Power Barbie doll to take revenge on those who killed her parents. It is not until she meets Madonna while trying on boots that she is able to break free and begin to explore a life where she doesn’t have to buffer her feelings with a doll.
Black Power Barbie Vol. 1 is written in the format of a comic book with interactions between characters or flashbacks separated into panels with caption descriptions. This helps to guide the story and lessen the blow of the experiences of the characters. Each character describes experiences of hurt and betrayal involving molestation, sibling violence, and the misguided attempt of a parent to deal with the death of a child’s pet. Sexuality as expressions of love and comfort is also explored. The subject matter is rather dark, but Youngblood handles the topics in a fashion that lends suitable weight without bogging the reader down. Even as Tabitha lashes out at the therapist and struggles to handle her feelings of her brother’s struggle with AIDS, there is a sense of hopefulness.
While, overall, the book’s exploration of Tabitha’s fantasy world as she takes down those who hurt her family doesn’t tap too much of her real life, there are passages that reference Madonna as one of the killers of her parents. Other details revealed about Madonna’s background would support this being a mental manifestation rather than reality. It’s unclear why Tabitha would cast Madonna in that role, which somewhat weakens how their budding relationship evolves. Aside from that distraction, the rest of the novel is a pleasurable reading experience, which challenges the reader to keep up with fanciful flashbacks and breakthrough mental health sessions.
Black Power Barbie Vol. 1 is not a typical novel. It offers a distinctive way of telling a story of how a broken childhood can be made whole even if a plastic version of womanhood has to be part of the process.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.