Black Is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter

Posted: April 17, 2014 in History

Black Is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter

— February 21st, 2013

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, and one of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?”, 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!’”

Top: Jillian Knowles, Samantha's younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from "Why Do You Have Black Dolls?" Above: 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.

Top: Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” Above: 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.

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.”

Debbie Behan Garrett poses with a group of vintage to modern dolls.

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.

Laura Larue and Lou-Ellen are artist dolls made by black artist Gloria Young Rone, from her Massas Servants doll creations. Photo by Debbie Behan Garret.

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.”

Two girls visited the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts, in August 2012 to show off the wrap dolls they made. Via the National Black Doll Museum Facebook page.

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.

Collectors Weekly Show & Tell poster stepback_antiques has this topsy-turvy doll from the 1870s in his collection.

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.

A 1920s Mammy doll, made from a black rubber bottle nipple. Via Stonegate Antiques.

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.

Paper dolls of Aunt Jemima and her family were printed on pancake mix boxes starting in 1895.

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.

The Walking African Girl, made by Pedigree of England in 1950s. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

“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.”

This antique European porcelain doll depicts a black woman with green eyes.

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.”

Patty-Jo was a black version of the popular hard plastic doll Terri Lee made by the Terri Lee Doll Company between 1947 and 1949.

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.

A 1971 Live Action Christie. Barbie's black friend, Christie, made her debut in 1968. She was probably made from a mold of Barbie's white friend Midge. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

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.

Starting in 1968, Shindana Toy Company, a project out of Operation Bootstrap, made dolls like Malaika, with black facial features and Swahili names.

“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. ”

In the 1970s and '80s, Sasha Dolls, created by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler, included black dolls in the line. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

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 EbonyJet, 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.”

Black doll maker Beatrice Wright Brewington started producing dolls in the late 1960s that resembled her own kids. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

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.

Debra Britt will bring this Big Beautiful Doll, featuring fabulous fashions designed by Britt and her sisters, to schools to show the children that size 16 women are beautiful. From the National Black History Museum Facebook page.

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.”

A display at the National Black Doll Museum. Via the museum's Facebook page.

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.’

This Barbie Collector edition doll, called "In the Limelight" the first featuring clothing by black designer Byron Lars, got Debra Britt's sister Kareema Thomas out of her hospital bed to hunt for dolls in 1997.

“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.

A girl poses with the African wrap doll she made at a class at the National Black Doll Museum. From the museum's Facebook page.

“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.

Three artist dolls: Rashahn and Lil Bitty Kayla by Lorna Miller-Sands; and doll with painted cloth face by Rita Williams at Crafty Sisters. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

“‘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.

A 12-inch action figure representing a 10th U.S. Cavalry First Sergeant Buffalo Solider. Photo by Debbie Behan Garrett.

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.

45 comments so far

  1. Les Toreadors Says:Hi,

    I just want to say this article is a fascinating read!

    Thanks to Ms. Garrett for the Facebook link 🙂

  2. Tracey Roberts Says:My very first black doll was Mandy,Pippas’ friend,in the 70s.As a little girl,I was in awe of her beauty.I still have her,& I still love her dearly.It wasn’t until I became an adult that I started to accumulate more black fashion dolls,the majority being Barbie dolls.To me,they have facial features that give them more character,& personalities,than the usual blond haired blue eyed dolls.
    Reading this article has shown,to me,that my love,for my black dolls,is very special in more ways than I knew of.
    Thanku,Debbie,for sharing onto Facebook.
  3. Goldie Wilson Says:I enjoyed reading this article and I will reconmend it to my club members.
  4. bj Says:I find this article very interesting because of something that happened to me a few years ago. My church participated with local DHS in an “angel tree” to provide Christmas toys for underprivileged children. The children actually had a wish list. I chose a 6 or 7 year old girl who had listed, among other things, a doll. I am white, but I didn’t want to assume anything so I asked if I could find out whether my child was white or black. Do you know that they wouldn’t tell me? The only reason I wanted to know was that I wanted to make sure that, if I had a black child, she got a black doll. I thought that was important. They told me to just buy a white doll…that she’d love it just as much if she’s black. I wound up getting everything else on her list because I thought the issue was important. Yes, a black child can love a white doll, but shouldn’t have to. Maybe I was being too picky Don’t get me wrong, the child was showered with gifts. I just couldn’t do the doll unless I knew and they wouldn’t tell!
  5. Vanessa Morrison Says:What a great article! So nice to see a young woman so enthusiastic about the history of Black dolls. Definitely a topic that needs to be shared and understood. Thanks Samantha!
  6. Vernessa Gipson Says:FINALLY!!! Someone else who believes in the “necessity” of having dolls in the lives of our daughters that look like them and the trials and tribulations to find them when in a non urban city! Our Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School scholars in Champaign Illinois discovered the reality of racism when trying to find Black folks in THREE local Walmart stores only to have a manager say.. We don’t carry BLACK dolls because Black people don’t buy them besides the White ones are prettier!!! Really???? The than staged a Boycott !!!
  7. Lisa Says:Thanks so much Collector’s Weekly for this beautiful article!
  8. Chloe Betton Says:I greatly appreciate this article! I am 34 years old and black. As a child growing up my mother allowed us to have black and white dolls until the day my younger sister began to take issue with her own skin color. I can remember being in stores and my sister wanting a new barbie and there only being white dolls available. We would leave the store sans the barbie until one that resembled us was found. I didn’t know it then but my mother was teaching us a lesson in self-esteem and I am forever grateful for actions.
  9. Daniel G. Bunn Says:Black dolls matter because they reflect the way America is looking at Black People at that time. It also reflects they was Black people are looking at themselves, when they have the artistic control of the manufacture.
  10. Della Says:Problem: most AA adults can’t pass the black picture test
    When does the concern for them choosing white dolls stop
    Many AA suffer from colourism
    Black is not beautiful unless it is a man
    Light is better for women
    Many adults can’t pass this same these and mask it as preference
  11. Blain Kukevitch Says:I have always liked the black dolls, even being a male.. Something about them attracts me. As an adult, I now consider myself a serious Kewpie collector, and still love the black Kewpies. Thanks for the article, very enjoyable.
  12. Patricia Thombs Says:Wonderful article
  13. Ruby Davis Says:I enjoyed this article. I have an 18 year old daughter and she had black dolls (barbie dolls, rageddy ann dolls, baby dolls, cabbage patch dolls and walking/talking dolls). I wanted her to grow up embracing the fact that “black is beautiful” because if we don’t teach our own, no one else will.
  14. Dana Cook Grossman Says:This is a fascinating and thoughtful article. But I was surprised — and even dismayed — to see no mention at all of the importance of buying black dolls for white children.

    I am white (as is my husband), and we live in one of the whitest states in the nation. So I felt it was especially important that our two now-grown daughters have dolls of all colors. I wanted to do what I could to keep them from seeing white skin as the norm. I didn’t make a big deal about it, but just made sure that probably about a third of their dolls were not Caucasian. (While they were growing up, we also referred to skin color with descriptive rather than the typical terms: “pinky-tan” instead of “white,” “chocolaty” instead of “black,” etc. But I quite agree with the point made in the article that this issue is about more than just skin color — I’ve been pleased in recent years to see facial features that are also more reflective of reality.)

    I may never know in any definitive way whether or how this affected my daughters’ perception of race — but I do know that one of their favorite dolls, one that’s now regularly brought out to interact with our three granddaughters, is black … I mean, has chocolaty skin.

  15. Sherry Crumity Says:I have been collecting dolls since 1997. I have always surounded my home with multicultural items for my children to mirror. Collecting dolls in all different hues made a connection for me and my children in their African American, Native American, Creole, and Spanish heritiage.
  16. Samela Says:Thjis is a great article. I have a Black Raggedy Ann that I got in the late ’90s and I am determined to now give one to each of my granddaughters. I appreciate this story.
  17. Stevie Says:This was a great article and beautiful subject. I remember how important it was to even have brunette over blonde dolls so that when creating stories during play time, I could imagine that this dolls was a representation of myself. Play and imagination are so important for young children. My grandmother hand sews Raggedy Ann or Andy (you get Ann if your a girl, etc.) for each of her grandchildren. When my cousin of mixed race was born, my grandmother made the Raggedy Ann match her skin and hair color. I thought it was so beautiful that she got a unique doll as beautiful and unique as she is.
  18. brian robinson Says:need this for future reference
  19. MNP Says:I’m a hispanic male who grew up in a lilly white small city in the upper midwest. As a child, my mother would go through and color some kids hair in my books black for this very reason. It was important to not be surrounded only by white faces. She did get hispanic dolls for my sister who is over a decade younger (as I wasn’t into dolls except as action figures or as things to practice kungfu on!). I know it’s not the same in terms of self-esteem issues because I’m male. There are pressures on women of color that a man of color is lucky enough to avoid. Even today she still sometimes does it for the occasional Christmas ornament

    But as a child I was INFURIATED that she did so. Sometimes I would hide books so she wouldn’t do that. That wasn’t what the author intended. It made me very angry that she could alter someone’s work like that, and I felt like I was getting cheated. As a kid, I wanted the book as the author intended, not altered. Interestingly I like to write now, so perhaps that’s one reason.

    Interesting article none the less.

  20. Mary Haley Says:I am a white woman who grew up in a small rural town in Ohio where no black people lived at the time. It was really important to my mother to raise her children to have no prejudice, and she bought a black GI Joe doll for my little brother. One day my aunt was visiting us, and as she watched him play with the doll, she said, “What a great tan your GI Joe has!” My younger brother said, “”No, it’s not a tan – he’s black.” My Aunt kept insisting that GI Joe just had a really good tan. And she got an earful from my Mom, who overheard her conversation with my little brother.

    Thanks for this insightful and moving article.

  21. Reta Winebarger Says:When my daughter was about three, we went to a yard sale and she was told by the lady who had the yard sale to pick out any toy she wanted for free. Well, my daughter picked out the only black doll in the bunch and probably it was the first one she had ever seen. We are white and live in an almost totally white town. She loved that doll better than any she had and took it with her everywhere. My daughter is twenty three now and still has that doll. Children don’t have prejudice, it is taught.
  22. Diedre A. Ware Says:What an award winning article by Lisa Hix. Kudos to Collector’s Weekly for publishing such an extraordinary article!

    In the African-American community when something is “ sooo good”, whether it be food or something you have read, the saying goes, “You put your foot into this!”

    There is no doubt this was a labor of love, a writer’s dream. It is all in the meticulous details, research, interviews, and amazing picture –simply a work of art to highlight Ms. Knowles story and documentary, “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?”

    Today, and even years from now, anyone researching black dolls, (particular name (s) of dolls, pictures, black doll museums), one will find this article just as relevant as the day it was published.

    This article is a great reference for novice black doll collectors as well as folk who have been collecting for years—hats off to all contributors to your article, especially the pictures of dolls from Ms. Garrett’s collection.

    Ms. Hix and Ms. Knowles, please continue “to do what you do!” I look forward to seeing the film.

    Diedre A. Ware, Huffington Post Blogger,

  23. susan Says:I remember my very first doll was a black doll – my mom is chinese, and she bought this doll from the Blue Chip Stamp store in 1965. It had black pigtails and a blue and white checkered dress.

    My mom said it was the prettiest doll because of the long black pigtails, and I was happy to have my own doll, and not a hand-me-down from my sister.

    Great article.

  24. Jonathan Perry Says:As a white journalist and reporter who spent many years covering the lives of a predominantly African-American and Latino urban population, and now, as the white parent of a daughter from Ethiopia, I know (but have always known, or at least understood on a core, instinctual level) that it is critical to see one’s identity reflected back and mirrored as a norm, as something to be celebrated and honored and represented just like everyone else. As white, we too often take our “normal” “non color” for granted, because most of us have had the luxury of never having to think about it or contemplate what it feels like to be a minority or outsider. Thanks for this deeply researched, thoughtfully written, and very moving and necessary article. And I also am grateful and heartened to read the many comments of those who shared their perspective here.
  25. Chantale Reve Says:As a young Black girl living in, at the time, a predominantly wBlack and I’m Proud,” only when my relatives were over for parties, barbecues and the like. I thought of myself as a huma being, not as a little Black girl trying to act white. But one day, athe youngest of two daughters of a white family whose yard bordered with ours didn’t fancy my verbal invitation to a tea party. She could see I had the tiny table set, with miniature dishes and elegant teapot just like my maternal Grandma’s. But instead of joining me or politely declining (I was a “Grandma’s baby” you see), my neighbor lifted one of the property-dividing bricks and hurled it at me while yelling “Nigger!” I bawled, abandoning my teatime for one. My father, born and raised in the Deep South during Jim Crow laws, was ready to fight the girl’s father, and he had some nasty racial epithets of his own. On the other hand, my urban-sophisticated mother scolded me for crying, telling me I had to be tough and that I should never let anyone make me feel inferior. My parents’ divided reactions puzzled me, though I better understood my dad’s anger. Of course, I didn’t like the “cussin’” he was spewing because the words sounded scary. That day I became Black with an awareness that none of my nearly exclusively Black dolls could explain. I became Black and politicized. I was four. Four. At the time, the “white flight phenomenon” was happening in my town — even the family GP and dentist moved away. It took another ten years for the German bakery and Dutch shoemaker to flee town. And by that time I understood why my close friend, Rosemary, wouldn’t bite into an apple that I had shared with our mutual schoolmates at the lunch table. Mandatory viewing of “Roots” whipped home the point that my parents previously couldn’t convey: When I’m out in the world, people will see my color, my brown skin, before they connect with my humanity. That year’s Christmas list was topped by a Black Barbie — specifically, Malibu Christie. Today, when I scan the faces and costumed bodies of dolls in my modest collection, the vintage Malibu Christie that I acquired from a woman in Sweden (who had acquired it from a woman in America) brings tears to my eyes. One shelf above, a mohair-pigtailed, antique brown-bisque French doll, gussied up in her age-appropriate lilac organza dress — makes me tear up for a different reason: She’s my favorite doll because she symbolizes that little, innocent girl I once was, donning my Sunday best for high tea. All of this to say, some young girls are forced to love this doll or that one, and when color plays a role, the intended message doesn’t always get communicated. Life is what taught me what racial (and other kinds of) prejudice was, but I learned to love myself through my parents’ love for me. Sometimes young Black girls just want to be girls. They don’t want to have to work so hard to be what their parent, guardian, etc., wants them to be. I recall thinking, in my tweens: Do white and Latina and Indian and Chinese girls have it so hard, or do their parents and guardians just allow them to be? Perhaps that’s why, the year after I was gifted with Malibu Christie, I bought Malibu Barbie (the first doll that I purchased with funds from a new babysitting job). I knew instinctively that Malibu Barbie was the authentic version of the Black doll I had. But just because I thought that way didn’t mean I didn’t think of *myself* as authentic. In fact, I expressed my authenticity, as a human being first and foremost, through writing. That I am a writer now, expressing critical truths through fiction, and triumphing over my personal liberation despite American society’s overt and covert racism — because I always remind myself that “race” is a social construct — I owe only to myself. No matter what double intent my mother had in showering me with Black dolls (encouraging nurturing behavior first, teaching positive self-esteem second), she never approved of, and thus did not support my dream of becoming a poet-writer. She wanted be to be a “Julia.” Just for mom, I added a few vintage Julia Barbies to my doll collection, where they will remain, stuck in their ’60s poses. However, as a writer, I remain poised for success as a liberated woman in my present and future.
  26. leslie frey jacokes Says:When I was born back in the 50′s I was the only child out of five in my family with brown eyes. My mom wanted me to have a brown eyed doll but back then most white dolls had blue eyes. So she bought me a black baby doll named Venus. I was probably three but can still remember her. To this day I love and collect black dolls thanks to my dear Venus(and mother of course!!)
  27. lydia-jane failing Says:I have recently moved to Mexico, and am engaged in learning about the local culture. When the Spanish conquisitores conquered MX back in the 1500′s the Catholic priests soon followed. As they always did, they combined the Catholic traditions with the local “pagan” ones in order to “convert” the indigenous people to the Church.

    As a result, the Virgin Mary was converted to the Virgin of the Guadalupe – a mythical mother/saint – native to Mexico. She is portrayed with very dark skin coloring. Definitely not a white woman. Her image can be found all over Mexico, hopefully giving the indigenous girls a sense that the color of their skin is OK. Possibly, even, desirable.

  28. Lisa Says:Very informative. It’s so important for young African/ African-American girls to know who they are and love who they are.
  29. Ferris Says:I found a black doll that has a small record player in it’s back but it does not work. The doll has a T.T Made in China mark on the back of it’s neck and no other identifying marks. It is a baby doll with a pacifier in her mouth and her eyes open and close (sleepy eyes). Does anyone know more about this doll? Can you get more records for it? It does require 1 AA battery in the little box in it’s back for the player.
  30. DeBorah maryam naasiyaa carter Says:Hi. my name is DeBorah, and i am in a wheelchair, im 53years young, i all ways love dolls, still do, i have been pressured to give it up, they say its to imature,i have given away 84 good dolls, but i do have two from the past, one from 1960-67( CHRISSEYW/ HAIR THAT GROWS, OPEN& CLOSE EYES, & SHES BLACK HAD HER SO LONG HER HIP IS CRACKED , MY FAM SAYS THROW IT AWAY ITS NO GOOD, BUT I DID NOT, I LOVE LOVE DOLLS.
  31. Lauren Ferguson Says:As a redhead I resent the comment that Midge was Barbie’s less glamorous friend! She helped me feel okay being a ginger!
    Other than that I love the story, and would watch the documentary.
  32. Gail Storm Nelson Says:Grace and Peace, As I read the responses from all the women it shows that we still have in us that little girl that sill need the reassurance that we are beautiful and if the answer lies in our childhood toy ask yourself dose life imitates art or dose art imitates life. In the art world the big question is “DOSE ART IMITATES LIFE OR DOSE LIFE IMIATES ART? ” Dolls are a work of art, so in an error and time black dolls would have been made in an image that the maker chooses to see you. This image would have been a depiction of your very existences. Thus, the perception of a mammy/Aunt Jemima image became the fabric of a child’s toy. No matter how light or dark skin, long, short, nappy or straight hair, fat or skinny, keen or broad your nose and lips, your doll image was made to look subservient , down trotten and just plane ugly. Like the images given to the many beautiful black women who played the roll of an AUNT JEMIMA. This image has been permeated around the world via food product (aunt Jemima pancake mix) and into the hands of children as a mock toy. I am the maker and creator of a collection of dolls I call ANCIENT MIMA’S and JEMIMA ‘S DAUGHTERS. THE Collection is made in rear form. It’s premise is to change the mindset of Black women about being called a Jemima. When you know the truth about who you truly are than the question dose life imitates art or dose art imitates life is easy to answer . By the way the name Jemima means Dove, gentle and pretty as the Day
  33. Gail Storm Nelson Says:*Does* Please Excuse my typing error
  34. Jerrie King Says:I am a 71 year old black woman and today I just bought another black doll. I remember when my daughter was young I looked very hard for black dolls for her because I wanted her to play with dolls like her. It was a job to find dolls that looked like black girls during the late 50′s 60′s and then I was reading a magazine and there was Danielle The very first black porcelain doll I had ever seen. I ordered her and a few months later David and I was hooked.. I have a small collection over 150 dolls and starting in 2000 I started buying the black Holiday Barbie dolls. They are so pretty and yet even in this day and age are hard to find. Most stories order more of the white dolls, I have gone to more stories during the Holidays than I care too and I refuse to buy a white doll. These dolls are for my collection and later to be given to my Granddaughter and my Great Granddaughter. I think my favorite are the 3 dolls commissioned Duke Ellington.
  35. Fara Says:To the person who was concerned about giving a black girl a white doll, why not just give a black doll regardless? I had two black dolls when I was a girl and I loved them to bits as they were unique. I’m white 🙂 But I liked that my dolls were different than me and that made them a little more special than the row of identical barbies I had. I had one black barbie, she had a cute little afro, and one larger doll that had lots of nice clothes to dress her up with. I think I still have them somewhere… I must say personality wise when playing with them, the black barbie had a lot more spunk than the blondes.. hehe.
  36. Alice Says:Lovely Article!!!
  37. elizabeth Says:as a multiracial woman mixed with african american, american indian ,and white and being raised by a white women she really didnt like black people i was never allowed to have a black barbie doll when i was a kid it was always blonde white barbie dolls we were only allowed to have and just white barbies with different hair color but mostly blonde white barbies at the time i didnt like black barbie dolls i thought they were ugly in which she was teaching us that black people were ugly and evil but one year she bought me a black barbie doll for my birthday and i instantly fell head over heels in love with the doll since then i loved and appreciated black dolls and learn to love my african american heritage as much as my white heritage and native american indian heritage!
  38. Gail Storm Nelson Says:Grace and Peace ,I am very impress with you . I would like to show you my doll collection, and if you are during another film about black dolls perhaps my collection could be apart of it.
  39. Suzette Says:Is the big and beautiful doll still on the market? Were they ever on the market? I am part 3 generations of black doll collectors. I consider myself an expert. I don’t know how the Big and Beautiful dolls got by me.
  40. Mary Markey Says:Your comments about the Patti-Jo doll “telegraphing prejudice” and her eyebrows looking “sinister” are inaccurate. Patti-Jo was a collaboration between the Terri-Lee company and Jackie Ormes. Jackie Ormes was an African-American cartoonist who based Patti-Jo on a charcter in her comic strip “Patti-Jo and Ginger”. Patti-Jo was a sarcstic little girl who had a lot to say about prejudice and Civil Rights. Jackie Ormes painted the dolls herself– eyebrows & all! You can read more about her at:

  41. Christine Harrison Says:What a wonderful site you have! I have been collecting and restoring antique dolls (late 1800s) including African-American-European dolls of color for many years. I am white and have continued to spent a lot of time researching and locating dolls of color that depict your beauty and culture, because it has always concerned me that proper respect and representation of the culture and rich history had not occurred. Perhaps there might be an opportunity to post or forward images of these lovely dolls so others could see mostly late 1800s and one or two from around 1910, from dollhouse size up to approximately 14 inches. I am currently restoring 4 black dolls, one a dollhouse doll (just 5 inches tall) that came dressed in a GORGEOUS ballgown, from around 1880. Germany and France did seem to truly appreciate the remarkable beauty and majesty. Thank you again for your wonderful work and for sharing such important information. Christy Harrison
  42. Sharon Clark-Watson Says:I am white, but was raise to love every person. We lived near and had many black friends. My most joyous memory as a child is sitting with a group of black children around the feet of an elderly black couple as they told these children stories of slave times and teaching the children the songs slaves sang as they worked in the fields. The elderly lady gave me two black dolls. One a girl doll she had made for her girls, the other a very old boy doll that her mom had made when she was young. I have cherished them. After I married and had 3 children, we decided to adopt a child. Jesse was 2 yrs old and black. I wanted a picture for his room of a black child. I could not find one. The next year, I came across a man that painted on Velvet. He had one painting of a naked black child fixing to sit on a pot. I asked him if he had anything else. I said, “Something with clothes on.” He told me if I would come back the next day, he would hace one for me. He had two paintings. One of a boy with a bat. The other was the pitcher getting ready to throw the ball. That started my collecting. I now have over 2000 pieces in my collection. Not just dolls, but books, sports and other things. Three years after we adopted Jess, we were able to get his brother, who was 7. Then we adopted 2 babies. One white, one black. I mad a college that reads,”When God looks down from Heaven, HE looks at the color of our hearts, not the color of our skin. What color are you?”
  43. karen fulk Says:I came to this webpage because I noticed, in the monthly newsletter we get from the ministry that has several orphanages in Haiti, that again they gave the little girls white baby dolls! I think it’s ridiculous! Last year I made our twins a “portrait doll” for each of them with their names embroidered on them. I bought several outfits so they could play with them and change their clothes, etc, hoping someone would get the message. Apparently not. I’m really glad to read and see all the confirmation here about letting little girls have dolls the same color they are.
  44. eileen stevens Says:I am an American born older woman of Irish & Italian descent. I have a black daughter and a daughter who has a Chinese father (she married a black man & they have a son.) Both my daughters had dolls of all races although in the 70s when my first daughter was young, it was difficult to find black dolls. I now collect all sorts of dolls, but I especially like the black & Asian dolls (surprise.) Some of them I have found in thrift shops which is always nice, but some are more expensive as well. I also have a son & when he was a little boy I bought him a boy doll from Spain. This doll is anatomically correct so he looks like a real boy. And his penis is intact (not cut) just like my son. I thought he should have a doll (many boys love dolls) & I thought it should look like a real boy, like him. I was lucky to find it in a toy shop where they specialized in dolls from Europe. My daughter bought her son a doll because he wanted one. I was surprised she let him take it out in public & did not care what anyone thought. He got tired of it after awhile & it was given to another child. I still have the doll my son had. I made clothes for him because he came with nothing or just a diaper (I forgot) He sits in a cabinet with other dolls, some of which belonged to my daughters.
  45. eileen stevens Says:I just want to ad to my comment above that, like the Knowles family featured at the top of this page, I was born & raised in upstate New York, the far North-West part of the state in the farmlands. I came to live in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1968 when I was a teenager & I still live here, as do my children & grand child. This is where I found all the dolls in my collection.

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