The Huggy Bean Doll: An Iconic Toy that Changed the Game for Inclusivity and Representation

In the late 1980s, a small business in Brooklyn, New York made history by creating a toy that would not only become a beloved childhood companion but also a cultural phenomenon.

The Huggy Bean Doll, created by entrepreneur and artist Yvonne Rubie, quickly gained popularity for its soft, cuddly design and diverse representation of skin tones and hair textures.

The Huggy Bean Doll has since become a symbol of inclusivity and representation in the toy industry.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Yvonne Rubie, the creative mind behind the Huggy Bean Doll and a trailblazing entrepreneur in her own right.

the huggy bean doll
Yvonne Rubie

Can you describe some of your entrepreneurial pursuits leading up to the creation of the Huggy Bean Doll and its accessories?

Our business venture began with the purchase and sale of African fabrics. By 1976, we were excited about the idea of traveling to the continent of Africa and took our first trip to Ghana with our son, Osei, who was about 5 years old. It was an amazing experience, so much so that we started to think about living in Africa.

Placing all of this in the context of what was happening in the U.S. at the time is important.  We had witnessed the immensity of the Civil Rights struggle. We were influenced by our great leaders of the time, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Our people were re-blossoming with the knowledge of ourselves, the continuing battles for our civil rights, and a reaffirmation of our amazing link to Africa. We were adjusting our self-expressions through music and art, the way we dressed and adorned our hair.

Independent Black schools expanded, always with an emphasis on the inclusion of teaching African History ….and so much more. So to us living in Africa would be a dream come true. We did our research and decided to move to Liberia in West Africa, and did so in 1978, which is also the year our daughter, M’Balia, was born.

We established 2 retail stores in the capital, Monrovia. In short order, we also opened a garment factory where we manufactured school uniforms. Up until then, school uniforms were being imported.  

Then a coup took place in 1980, and we left in 1982. 

Upon our return, based on what we had observed in Ghana and while living in Liberia, and the research that we did, we realized that rice was a very important basic food item in many parts of the world. So we started a rice export business.

This opened the door for additional travel to other countries in Africa. We also traveled to a few European cities to participate as an exhibitor in food expos. That business took off very quickly. 

the huggy bean doll

What inspired the creation of the Huggy Bean doll?

Our daughter M’Balia widened our visual on playthings, what was present, and what was glaringly absent. We began to take notice of the absence of Black dolls, the presence of other dolls that little girls played with, and the absence as well in stores.

Suffice it to say, of course, we researched and realized that this was an important gaping aperture that needed to be filled. 

It was, is, and will always be relevant and necessary to have representation of ourselves, our vast cultures, and our accomplishments front and center for our children and the world. 

One of the influencers in the young lives of children are the spaces and images that are created where they play; this can impact and shape their imagination and can influence how they see themselves in the play world and the real world.  

We started with a positive representation of ourselves in the day-to-day playthings of our children. We created Huggy Bean, the first Black character doll to be mass-produced, and was the lead character within her own storyline. The doll line was launched in 1985. 

the huggy bean doll

What were some of the challenges you faced when creating and marketing the Huggy Bean Doll in the 1980s? What was the response to the Huggy Bean Doll when it first hit the market, and how did it evolve over time?

One of the first challenges was where would the doll line be manufactured. Based on projected costs and quantity, when we looked at domestic versus production in Asia, the latter was more attractive. We searched intensely and found a production site that met our needs. Black businesses were willing to and did support us from the very beginning. 

The sales of products to the mass market, e.g. Toys R Us, Kmart, etc., were needed to sell the product in large quantities, which helped to keep the cost price and sales price affordable. The positive reactions and encouragement of consumers to Huggy Bean greatly encouraged our sales approach to the mass market. The public relations introduction of the product was also helpful in getting entry into those markets.

Based on the receptivity to our products, the messages and lessons associated with them being received positively, we continued to introduce new products to the line. Huggy Bean’s good friend, Oni Bean doll, and the Kulture Kids Kwanzaa Doll are some examples of additional dolls that were added to the line.

The Kwanzaa doll included a Kinara and Unity cup along with the doll, as well as information on what Kwanzaa was about. We also introduced a lunch box and a clothing line for young children. 

About 8 to 10 years into product sales we began to experience challenges that affected the survival of the product line. It appeared that by then, the toy industry had started to take notice of the growth and success of our line.  

So, for example, while our products were still in demand by our consumers and Black-owned stores, the mass market outlets began to drastically reduce the quantity of products ordered, claiming the products were no longer in demand.

Some decided to stop purchases altogether. Their actions did not line up with the demand that we saw and the success we saw that Black-owned stores were having. 

Describe the Buy Black movement around the time of your company’s launch. In what ways did it affect your business?

During that time the advantages of the internet and social media did not exist, yet Black entrepreneurs worked hard at getting their message out, primarily by using radio, newspaper, and word of mouth. There was tremendous support of Black owned businesses by Black consumers. Those businesses were respected…cherished.   

In what ways do you incorporate different Black cultures in your product line?

In addition to the Kwanzaa doll line I explained, let me give further information on the Huggy Bean storybooks. The first book, Huggy Bean and the Magical Kente Cloth provides many things. It explains where Huggy Bean is from, The Chocolate Forest.  

The story introduces the origins of Kente Cloth, how it is made, and that it originated in Ghana, West Africa. The story takes Huggy Bean back in time to ancient Ghana. The books were also made also as a teaching tool, with questions towards the end for the reader, a glossary of words in the story, and a map of the continent of Africa. 

Each of the 3 books written, followed the same pattern while introducing other African cultures. 

Additionally, we wanted to have ways that we could interact with our communities, and one way was through the creation of the Huggy Bean Radio show that was done live on WLIB, New York radio station.

My daughter, M’Balia played the Huggy Bean character, then spoke with and interviewed other children about things that were fun and of interest to them.  

What advice would you give to Black entrepreneurs who are interested in creating products or media that represent their communities?

Be purposeful and focused, and know that you are fully self-empowered. Know that you are highly valued! Do as much research as possible, and stay in touch with real people as determined and focused as you are. I did my best to stay in the mindset of being on an adventure. 

Do you have any plans to revive the Huggy Bean brand in the future?

I think re-introducing the full product line or any portion thereof could be beneficial, especially the books. The Chocolate Forest is a place where our children can feel they belong. They can feel joy in creating and seeing themselves while continuing to learn about our vast African history and cultural heritage. 

I do leave the possibility of re-introduction of the product line to my children and grandchildren to consider doing. I am grateful that we could take our children wherever we traveled and that they witnessed what we did.

Regardless of what happens, I am also grateful that I am blessed with my children, Osei and M’Balia, and my grandchildren.  They continue to provide me with insight, laughter, and love. The persons whom they are continues to delight my soul.  

by Tony O. Lawson


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