As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t know quite what to say.
“When you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of your beauty. Somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,” Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,” Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
“Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival in New York City, where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film Festival in Beverly Hills. In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls, they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,” Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of 1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton, Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts, Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it. When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me names.”
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Garrett, who runs the Black Doll Collecting blog and also recently published “The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak, I Listen,” went without black dolls as a girl in the segregated South in the 1950s and 1960s. “Black dolls were just not readily available,” says Garrett, who’s also written in the New York Times about how she started collecting in the early 1990s to replace the black dolls she never had as a child. “And those that were available, my mother felt were not true representations of black people. So all of my dolls were white. What saved me from having low self-esteem was the fact I lived in a mixed-class community. Doctors, lawyers, educators, and just everyday people, like the store owners, were black.”
“Some black dolls were painted as though they were angry. That was subtle racism in doll manufacture.”
Dolls—handmade to look like the children who love them or the deities their parents worshipped—have been found all over the world, in all cultures, all races, since ancient times. In early America, everyone, including slaves, made their own dolls. A controversial homemade doll that’s often found in the South is the “topsy-turvy doll,” which had, instead of legs, another head that could be hidden under the doll’s skirt. One head and set of arms would be white; the others would be black. Early doll manufacturers Albert Bruckner and E.I. Horsman later produced a topsy-turvy doll as a novelty toy, Garrett says.
The topsy-turvies existed, Britt says, because the slave masters actually didn’t want the slave children to have dolls that looked like themselves, which would give them a sense of empowerment. “When the slave master was gone, the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side,” she says.
Slaves living and working in the main plantation house were more likely to have access to high-quality scraps for doll-making, but slaves working the field would have to be more creative when it came to materials. They would make dolls from whatever they had, whether it be the bones of a chicken, a nut, a cornhusk, an empty gourd, a mop, a broom, or a black nipple from a baby bottle, after the baby had grown, Britt says.
The first manufactured dolls in the mid-1800s were produced in Germany and France, countries that dominated the porcelain and bisque doll industry in the Western world for decades. Even early American dolls would have heads and hands produced in Germany. Unsurprisingly, the aristocratic white European ideal of beauty monopolized the doll world, while the occasional black dolls portrayed the “exotic beauty” of dancers or opera characters. Even after the slaves were freed in the United States the 1860s, most black families could not afford European porcelain dolls, which were luxury items only available to the very wealthy.
The objects featuring racist caricatures that we now call “blackamore” or “black Americana” grew out of post-Civil War black-face minstrel shows where African Americans were depicted as watermelon-chomping simpletons with exaggerated features like googly eyes and big red-lipped grins. These caricatures carried over to children’s books like the British “Golliwogg” series featuring black-face humanoids, which were also made into rag dolls.
The matronly Mammies or Aunt Jemimas, the passive Uncle Tom, the aggressive Savage Brute, the sexually available Jezebel, the nagging Sapphire, and pickaninny children like Little Black Sambo and Topsy were all stereotypical characters that appeared as composition, celluloid, and rubber dolls in the early 20th century. Effanbee and Horsman, for example, made Mammies pushing baby carriages for decades. The Nancy Ann Storybook Doll Company made characters from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” while Reliable Doll Company was one of many that produced a Topsy, characterized by three knots of hair.
Minstrel caricatures were also prominent in advertising: Cream of Wheat adopted the male Rastus character in 1893, and that same year, the Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix was trademarked. For some poor black families in 1895, the paper dolls printed inside the pancake-mix cardboard box, featuring Aunt Jemima and her whole family, were the only black dolls they could afford.
But even in the 1910s, early civil rights activists like Marcus Garvey and R.H. Boyd were pushing back against these stereotypes, Britt says. Boyd started his National Negro Doll Company in 1911, importing elegant black porcelain dolls from European dollmakers and selling them in the United States before his firm went out of business in 1915. Between 1919 and 1922, Garvey launched his Black Star Line, a steamship company that helped found several other black-owned businesses, including a black doll manufacturer.
Part of the reason that Boyd’s company failed might have been that most black people didn’t have the money for fancy china dolls. But perhaps black families wouldn’t have wanted them. While Pat Hatch and Roben Campbell have discovered plenty of soft-cloth folk art black dolls made from the 1870s to the 1930s, Garrett knows that during that time that some black parents handmade their children white dolls instead.
“Because of the false belief that anything white was better than anything black, some early dolls that black parents and children made from household items were often in the image of white people,” Garrett says. “I didn’t personally make any dolls as a child, but I have heard of those who used a Coke bottle as the doll’s body and undyed rope as hair. The undyed rope represented blonde hair.
“In the early movies and television, there were not very many positive images of black people,” she continues. “White characters always had positive roles: There was Shirley Temple, ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ and Opie on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ to name a few. Black people had Buckwheat in ‘The Little Rascals’ and other characters that were not positive images for young children. The negative characterization of black people not only affected black children. It was a way to embed in the minds of young white children that all black people were like the ones seen in the media.”
The end of World War II in 1945 brought about a boom in U.S. manufacturing featuring new plastics developed during the war. Suddenly, vinyl and hard plastic dolls were cheap and easy to churn out of the factory. These manufactured dolls were so affordable that middle and lower class people didn’t have to hand-make their dolls anymore.
The mass-production of plastic dolls was so streamlined that, for manufacturers, making special molds of dolls with African American features seemed like an unnecessary cost. That’s why most of the vinyl and hard plastic dolls were white. The black dolls that were sold by companies like Horsman or Terri Lee were most often white dolls painted brown or dipped in brown dye, Garrett explains. “You couldn’t look at the doll and classify it as a true representation of a black person,” she says. “Because it was just a brown counterpart of the white doll.”
It was more difficult to make a caricature out of a doll that was originally meant to be white, but Garrett believes that at least one manufacturer painted the black doll’s features in a way that telegraphed prejudice. “The black version’s eyebrows were painted to look a little sinister,” she says. “They were thicker and arched up where the eyebrows on the white dolls were normally curved. The black dolls were painted as though they were angry. That was subtle racism in doll manufacture.”
“If black children are force-fed that white is better, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Research shows this bias about dolls is real. In 1939 and 1940, black psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a study wherein they presented black children with two dolls—almost identical, except one was white with blond hair and one was brown with black hair. The researchers asked the kids which doll was nice, which doll was pretty, which doll was smart, which doll would they rather play with, etc., and the kids overwhelmingly chose the white doll as the one with positive attributes. When student filmmaker Kiri Davis conducted a similar doll study in 2005 and when CNN asked black children about cartoons with varying skin colors in 2010, they both got almost identical results. But a 2009 replica of the original doll survey by ABC’s “Good Morning America” came up with more black children favoring black dolls.
The one exception to the white-dolls-painted-brown rule in the 1950s was the Sara Lee doll, which was created by a white woman named Sara Lee Creech, who took 500 photographs of black children to get her doll’s face just right. Ideal Toy Company sold her vinyl doll between 1951 and 1953; and these are next to impossible to find now.
The most famous vinyl doll, Barbie, who sashayed onto the world stage in 1959, got a cousin named Francie in 1966, Britt explains. In 1967, Mattel issued a Francie doll as a black woman, but customers rejected her, possibly because of the assumed family connection, even though “Colored Francie’s” box didn’t call her Barbie’s cousin. In 1968, Mattel produced another black fashion doll, Christie, probably made from an altered mold of Barbie’s less-glamorous white friend, Midge, who was accepted as Barbie’s pal. In 1969, Mattel introduced Julia, inspired by the TV show, “Julia,” in which Diahann Carroll played a widowed black nurse. It wasn’t until 1979 that Mattel felt assured enough to issue an official Barbie with black skin.
But more significantly, Mattel was alarmed by the Watts race riots of August 1965, which led to 34 deaths, fires, and the destruction of $40 million worth of property in South Central Los Angeles, uncomfortably close to Mattel headquarters, Britt says. To extend an olive branch to the nearby black community, Mattel contributed to a project known as Operation Bootstrap, Inc., which sponsored the founding of several new black-owned companies in the neighborhood.
“Mattel was afraid people were actually going to come up into their business and burn it down,” Britt says. “And so Mattel sat down at the table with the people of the community and said, ‘What can we do to help alleviate some of the problems in the community?’ And the people said, ‘We need jobs, and we want our own business.’”
“My mom would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to go through to get some of those dolls!’”
As a result of the meetings with Mattel, community leaders Louis S. Smith II and Robert Hall, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, and launched Shindana Toys in 1968, the one of the first toy companies that focused on making ethnically correct black dolls. (“Shindana” is the Swahili word for “competitor” or “to compete.”)
“Shindana was one of the first toy companies that regularly came out with dolls that actually had black features,” Britt says. “The dolls’ noses were a little bit wider, and they had shorter, nappier hair, or afros on them. The complexions were darker than most dolls that people had seen. It was also the first time an American doll company had ever used African names, like Baby Zuri, Malaika, Tamu. Before, the dolls were always Cathy, Nancy, Betty, or whatever. ”
Shindana produced baby dolls, talking dolls, cloth dolls, fashion dolls, and action figures inspired by black celebrities such as Flip Wilson, Jimme “J.J.” Walker, Marla Gibbs, Redd Foxx, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson. The box of Shindana’s Career Girl Wanda fashion doll contained pictures of black women in Wanda’s various jobs such as nurse, skydiver, tennis player, and singer. These dolls were heralded by magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Essence.
“They put forth remarkable efforts to promote African American pride,” Garrett says. “I was sorry to hear that they had gone out of business by the time that I was trying to build my daughter’s collection of positive playthings. I did manage to add several Shindana dolls to my adult collection.”
Around the same time as Shindana, a female African American entrepreneur and educator named Beatrice Wright Brewington started the B. Wright Toy Company in New York, which put out another line of dolls that accurately represented black people and other races called “Ethnic People Dolls.” The most popular today are the 19-inch toddler dolls Christine and Christopher, who have rooted hair and sleep eyes, modeled after Wright’s own children. Following in the footsteps of Shindana and B. Wright, companies like Remco started producing lines of black dolls, like its “Brown Eye” series, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Both Shindana and B. Wright, which sold its molds to Totsy Toys, went out of business by the mid-1980s, but other companies like Keisha Dolls and Golden Ribbon stepped into the gap. Another black female entrepreneur, journalist, and educator, Yla Eason, whose 3-year-old son had informed her that he couldn’t be a superhero like He-Man, started Olmec Toys in New York in 1985. Olmec made baby dolls, action figures like Sun-Man and Butterfly Woman, and fashion dolls like Naomi and Imani before it went out of business by the end of the 1990s. But Olmec had inspired Mattel and Tyco to come out with their own black fashion dolls like Kenya. In the 1980s and ’90s, Robert Tonner, Cabbage Patch Kids, Magic Attic, and American Girl also included black dolls in their lines.
Still, since the 1990s, options for parents who want to buy their children black dolls have been woefully slim. There have been some noble efforts, including the Big Beautiful Dolls, the first full-figured fashion dolls, created by Georgette Taylor and Audrey Bell in 1999; black designer Byron Lars’ African American Barbies for the Barbie Collector Series from 1997-2010; and Stacey McBride-Irby’s “So In Style (S.I.S.)” line for Mattel, launched in 2009. McBride-Irby went on to launch The One World Doll Project, multicultural fashion and play dolls. As far back as 2003, Salome Yilma led the founding of EthiDolls, which are made in the images of historical African women leaders and come with a true-to-life storybook. But as much as Britt and Garrett love these dolls, they’re emphatic that there simply aren’t enough.
“The black dolls manufactured today have gotten lighter in complexion, and I think the toy companies are trying to create a one-size-fits-all as far as reaching the African American market, the Hispanic market, and the biracial market,” Garrett says. “I’m not sure how well this is working. It’s rare for me to see a Hispanic child with a brown doll. They usually have a blonde doll with blue eyes.”
Britt says the National Black Doll Museum wasn’t anything she ever set out to do. While she started collecting black dolls at age 14 and her whole family already had some form of the collecting bug, it wasn’t until the 1997 that doll-collecting became a bonding hobby for her and her four sisters—Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton, Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas—and their mother, when her youngest sister, Thomas, had a stroke after giving birth to her daughter at age 25.
“The doctor was saying she’s got to move and you got to get her talking,” Britt says. “In the hospital, we were showing her an Essence magazine, which featured the first black Barbie designed by Byron Lars, called ‘In the Limelight.’ She kept saying she really wanted to have that doll. And we said, ‘We’ll take you to go find this doll and buy it for you, but you’re going to have to get up.’
“That’s what started us going doll collecting,” she continues. “Daily, we went out looking for dolls—in all the toy stores, flea markets, wherever we could go—because we just wanted her to get up. And we all started gravitating toward different things, which is how our collection really started getting crazy.”’
Once Britt’s sister had fully recovered, she wasn’t sure what to do with all the dolls she had accumulated. In early 2004, she called 15 nearby libraries to see if she could put her dolls in their display cases in February. The next year, she had even more libraries and teachers calling her and asking her not only for the dolls but an educational Black History Month presentation for their classrooms. That’s how the touring Doll E. Daze education project, led by Britt and her sister Felicia Walker, got started. Britt started teaching children how to make dolls in their own images, using her grandmother’s African wrap dolls technique on a Coke bottle.
“At the libraries and schools, I found some girls who were a little heavy looking at dolls and saying, ‘I could never be this beautiful,’” Britt says. “And I would tell them, ‘You’re absolutely beautiful. Just because you’re a little curvy doesn’t mean that you can’t be like this and just because you’re a little dark don’t mean that you’re not beautiful.’”
Eight years later, the National Black Doll Museum was borne out of Britt’s family wanting to share their collection of 6,200 and the history that goes with them with the Mansfield community. But the museum is not just a bunch of dolls in glass cases. It is truly an eye-opening experience. The first exhibition visitors are hit with is called “The Ugly Truth” featuring slave-made dolls like nipple dolls as well as Golliwoggs and other brutal caricatures of “darkies” in dolls, toys, and advertisements.
“‘The Ugly Truth’ talks about the inhumane treatment of humans by humans,” Britt says. “That display talks about all of the hurtful things that have been done to African Americans, and it actually talks about some of the things that were hurled at me: People calling me a ‘bush boogie,’ a ‘porch monkey,’ and a ‘coon.’ It talks about the n-word, and people saying, ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones and names will never hurt you.’ I always say that’s not true. Name-calling lasts a lifetime.”
The museum’s collection includes 50 different styles of traditional African dolls including Maasai warriors, lifesize Dogon dancers, and dolls from the Ndebele tribe. The dolls take you through both black history in the United States and the history of black doll manufacturing. There are Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen as well as civil-right leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Other galleries honor musicians and performers like Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson, Biggie Smalls; a wide range of sports figures; aviation pioneers and astronauts; politicians like President Obama; and celebrities like Raven Symone, Will Smith, and Laurence Fishburne.
In this way, Britt’s museum employs dolls to educate visitors about both the painful and inspirational moments in black American history, which hold lessons for Americans of any race. The message is similar to that of “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?”: Dolls tell us who we are.
“People just think of dolls as a plaything, and really, they’re not,” Britt says. “You can do so much more with dolls than just play.”
Learn more about black dolls at Debbie Behan Garrett’s Black Doll Collecting blog, Barbara Whiteman’s Philadelphia Doll Museum, and Debra Britt’s Doll E. Daze site and the National Black Doll Museum Facebook page. You can also watch the trailer for “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” below.