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.
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. 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.”
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 film interviews one woman named Debra Britt, who was the only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts, and grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. Then, 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. “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.” Today, Britt runs the National Black Doll Museum.
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. On plantations in the South, slaves would have their children put a pebble in their dolls to represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens.
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 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 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.
But even in the 1910s, early civil rights activists like Marcus Garvey and R.H. Boyd were pushing back against these stereotypes. 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.
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. But 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. “You couldn't look at the doll and classify it as a true representation of a black person,” says Garrett. “Because it was just a brown counterpart of the white doll.”
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, but 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 she didn't sell well. 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.
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.
The Black Doll 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.
Photo: Three Baby Nancys, the first doll produced by Shindana Toy Company, dedicated to making ethnically correct black dolls, in 1968. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on Collector's Weekly. Read the full version there!