She was shy and art was her sanctuary. In that way, Arielle Wilkins was like many lonely children growing up at the turn of the 21st century. What set her apart was her father — an arts aficionado and cultural rabble rouser who found pleasure driving through the white neighborhoods of Houston blasting Public Enemy with the windows down.
"Dad was very outspoken, especially when it came to issues of race," Wilkins, 27, said in an interview. "He came up in the 1970s. Some of my first influences were the illustrations from his Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy [Collins] albums."
You can see Dad's impact clearly in her work. Wilkins is a graphic designer by trade. Her New York-based company, Brothas-N-Sistas, produces visuals that bring a pop illustrator's sensibility to the icons of black entertainment — an FKA Twigs portrait here, an NWA poster there. Think cartoons you'd want sewn onto your Jansport backpack in patch form, or stickered to the bottom of your skateboard, circa 2005.
Wilkins' latest venture, however, is more expressly political. Inspired by the United States' resurgent civil rights movement, the Black Army Men are her contribution to the debate around racism and policing — toy soldiers designed to bring hope and perspective to a war in which the body count is mounting by the day.
If the Black Army Men look familiar, it's because of what inspired them. Their predecessors, the original plastic army men, have been in circulation since 1938. They were in Toy Story. They have their own video game. Stores sell them in bulk because they are cheap, disposable and ideal for diverse and even hostile play environments — mud, swimming pools, sandboxes, the jaws of the family dog.
Wilkins' project adds a twist to this time-worn figure. Rather than World War-era U.S. military men, her toys are modeled after Black Panther Party members from the 1960s and '70s — afro'ed women with fists raised, men with leather jackets, berets and flags held at attention.
"I want them to be a silent protest," Wilkins said, noting that her toys — unlike the revolutionary groups they're modeled after — do not carry guns. "There are a lot of comments saying how violent Black Lives Matter is, how violent we are. This shows we're not who you say ... I feel like it's more powerful to not have weapons in these guys' hands."
The timing could hardly be more appropriate. The U.S. has been wracked over the last two years by a string of brutal police killings. Advocates and organizers have responded by pushing aggressive policy solutions to state-sanctioned anti-black violence. Many have brought protests to cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, marching under the slogan "Black Lives Matter."
At the same time, parallel awakenings have occurred in cultural spaces. Calls for expanded racial representation have taken the entertainment industries by storm. An online conversation united by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has tackled white male dominance in the film world. Less attention has been paid to less popular areas. Toys, for example.
"I'm a huge toy collector," Wilkins explained. "One thing I've noticed is that there's not a lot of toys out there specifically for [black people]. I feel like we need a powerful toy like this — to show that we are in all of this together."
The political and cultural are inextricably linked here. Toys in particular have long served as avatars for America's racial anxieties. One of the key factors in overturning legal segregation in the 1950s was the doll test performed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Conducted in 1947, the test had black and white children answer questions about black and white dolls that were placed in front of them.
"Which doll do you like to play with?" researchers asked the children, according to Brit Bennett's social history of the topic at the Paris Review. "Which doll is a nice color?"
Children of both races attributed positive characteristics to the white dolls and negative characteristics to the black dolls.
"When they asked the final question — 'Which doll looks like you?' — many black children, who had until this point preferred the white doll, burst into tears," Bennett wrote.
The test successfully demonstrated that racial segregation had a negative impact on black children's self-esteem. Equally disturbing is what happened when it was replicated 60 years later. A New York City high school student named Kiri Davis conducted her own doll experiment with children in 2005, with similar results. Anderson Cooper did the same for CNN in 2010. The results, again, had changed little since the 1940s.
Today Wilkins hopes her figurines will usher in more positive connotations around blackness. They arrive on the heels of a seeming uptick in black toy production: Dolls and action figures made in the likenesses of filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and actors John Boyega and Zendaya all hit shelves in the past year.
"I definitely see these in everyone's household someday. I see these in schools. History classes." — Arielle Wilkins
The main barrier to producing these toys en masse is cost. Wilkins and her business partner, Michael Cruz, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter this week to get the project off the ground. The goal is to raise $20,000 by Oct. 21. They'll also have a booth for Brothas-N-Sistas at the annual Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn on Aug. 27 and 28. Wilkins' vision is to have the Black Army in circulation later this year.
"I definitely see these in everyone's household someday," Wilkins said. "I see these in schools. History classes. I've also been working to find contacts with Black Panthers, old activists, so I can send these to them as a thank you."
If there was any doubt now was the time for Wilkins' project, it was relieved over the weekend. A group of white protesters waving Confederate flags staged a "White Lives Matter" rally Sunday outside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's offices — in Wilkins' hometown of Houston.
The demonstration was many things at once: a show of white racial solidarity, a counter to Black Lives Matter, a reaffirmation of white supremacist symbolism. It also took place around the corner from the house where Wilkins grew up, in a black neighborhood still occupied by her dad's artist and musician friends, and where her father still lives.
This, more than anywhere else, was ground zero for Wilkins' artistic education. What better way to affirm the Black Army Men's value? If the encroachment of white supremacists onto a black artist's home turf isn't enough of a sign she has to fight back, then what is?