Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:24 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
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. 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
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.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Monday, December 12, 2011 4:25 PM
Kids these days get all the cool toys. Whether it’s a talking strip of bacon, a T-Pain microphone with built-in auto-tune, a giant inflatable Titanic waterslide, an animatronic kitten, or sticky bath-time goo, it seems that every absurd flight of a child’s fancy can be met. “Sure, it may seem counterintuitive,” writes Travel + Leisure, “but as anyone who grew up playing with a Slinky, a Squirmle, or Silly Putty can attest, it’s often the strangest toys, the ones that freak us out or make us squeal, that become our childhood favorites.”
But if you ask me, parents and toymakers these days don’t give kids enough credit. Given an odd-shaped rock, an empty cardboard box, an old make-up compact, or really weird bug, kids will entertain themselves longer than with a plastic action figure with multiple outfits. There’s something to be said for the classics, the timeless toys that transform in a child’s hand: the piece of string that becomes a magic rope, the soup pot that becomes a knight’s helmet, the couch cushions that become a house.
In a flashy consumer culture that finds new ways to add laser sounds and glitter (for the little ones) and wholesome educational elements (for the nail-biting parents) to otherwise innocuous toys, it was nice to read Geek Dad’s roundup of “The Five Best Toys of All Time.” Writer Jonathan Liu, who often reviews gadgety toys for technophilic parents, takes a step back and considers the essential components of a good toy. “These are time-tested and kid-approved!” he claims, introducing a list that includes cardboard boxes, mailing tubes, and dirt. “And as a bonus, these five can be combined for extra-super-happy-fun-time.”
His tongue-in-cheek description is nostalgic and refreshing. Here’s his review of one of history’s most popular toys, commonly known as “Stick”:
This versatile toy is a real classic—chances are your great-great-grandparents played with one, and your kids have probably discovered it for themselves as well. It’s a required ingredient for Stickball, of course, but it’s so much more. Stick works really well as a poker, digger and reach-extender. It can also be combined with many other toys (both from this list and otherwise) to perform even more functions.
Stick comes in an almost bewildering variety of sizes and shapes, but you can amass a whole collection without too much of an investment. You may want to avoid the smallest sizes—I’ve found that they break easily and are impossible to repair. Talk about planned obsolescence. But at least the classic wooden version is biodegradable so you don’t have to feel so bad about pitching them into your yard waste or just using them for kindling. Larger, multi-tipped Sticks are particularly useful as snowman arms. (Note: requires Snow, which is not included and may not be available in Florida.)
Sources: Geek Dad, Travel + Leisure
, licensed under
Thursday, August 25, 2011 3:03 PM
Growing up, every boy had a set of green toy army men—their feet mired in a puddle of smooth plastic, their guns perpetually cocked. More sadistic boys might burn off the soldiers’ legs, arms, and faces with a powerful magnifying glass. Other soldiers would lose appendages to the family Labrador. The little green men molded by U.K.-based artist collective Dorothy, however, come prepackaged with their limbs blown off. One of them holds his rifle to his own throat.
Another subversive “toy” looks like a snow globe enclosing the four cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. Instead of enchanting white fluffs of snow floating through the globe when shaken, clumps of black ash rain down upon the industrial landscape. Ominously, Dorothy has dubbed these “No Globes.”
Last holiday season, Dorothy packaged up neat boxes of tree ornaments. But their glinting chrome bulbs weren’t smooth orbs of holiday joy—they were shaped like silver hand grenades. Merry Christmas, kids!
“When work like this incites controversy,” writes art magazine Hi-Fructose of Dorothy, “it’s usually for the way it compresses complex political or societal issues into overly cynical or simplistic satire. Dorothy clearly isn’t afraid to offend, but the group never loses its sense of mischievous wit either.”
“Dorothy wants to make us laugh,” Hi-Fructose concludes, “but when the message gets heavier, the group knows only too well that the joke won’t last.”
“Casualties of War”
Images courtesy of Dorothy Collective.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 8:57 AM
Is it strange for boys to play with dolls? Even for parents who generally shun gender stereotypes, the idea of a boy playing with his dolly seems slightly off. But why?
In a humorous essay for Mothering (subscription required), Joel Troxell struggles with his wife’s insistence on buying a doll for their one-year-old son Nathan. Though the doll is gender-neutral in shape and dress, Troxell feels the need to compensate for this “affront to his masculinity” by telling Nathan that the doll is actually an operative for the US military, and his neutral facial expression means he’s impervious to fear or pain.
Nathan quickly grows tired of the doll, much to his dad’s secret delight. A few months later, however, Nathan’s mom is back at it, looking for bigger and better dolls. Troxell’s “daydreams of Nathan going first round in the NFL draft [are] replaced by disturbing images of him walking across the stage at graduation, sucking his thumb and carrying his doll.”
The author finds that doll play is still associated with outdated gender roles in his mind. He thinks of playing with dolls as childcare practice for girls (a.k.a. future moms and wives), and toy weapons as encouraging boys to develop the hunting skills they’d need to provide for their families.
Eventually, Troxell learns the benefits of boys with dolls: They teach compassion, sensitivity, and responsibility, as well as a practical knowledge of things like holding and feeding a baby. So in reality, Troxell’s wife points out, giving a boy a doll is giving him practice as a good father and a good person who is ready to care for others.
To the kid, his dolly may later be a source of future embarrassment, much like those ubiquitous naked-in-the-tub pictures. But if the values imbued through playing with a “girl’s toy” hold up, he’ll likely have grown to be well-adjusted enough not to care.
Mothering’s archives include another great essay (free) on a mom’s quest for a doll for her son.
Image courtesy of Savannah Grandfather, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, August 04, 2008 9:04 AM
With the Senate’s passage last week of a ban on lead in children’s toys, it’s tempting to think that we’ve taken care of that nasty old lead problem. But we’ve taken care of just a small part of it. The fact remains that many children are still exposed to lead in the environment, even if they don’t regularly suck on toxic Thomas the Tank Engines.
Children are indeed at higher risk from lead exposure than adults, the Alliance for Healthy Homes reminds us, though the greatest source of exposure isn’t toys but the paint in old homes (PDF), specifically the dust created when paint is damaged during home renovations.
Unfortunately, cleaning up this source has less public oomph—and thus political power—behind it than the toy scare. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency, ordered by Congress in 1992 to address the danger of lead in home renovations, took until March this year to actually do something. And even then it was a baby step, requiring contractors who fix up older homes and other buildings occupied by children to take simple precautions against creating and spreading lead dust. The cleaning must then be verified—by the same workers who do the lead removal. The rule doesn’t take effect until 2010.
“In the 16 years since we’ve been waiting for this rule, at least 17 million children have been exposed to harmful levels of lead unnecessarily, permanently losing IQ points as a result,” the Alliance for Healthy Homes said in a statement (PDF). “The new regulation is an important first step toward preventing another generation from being poisoned by debris left behind after a remodeling job.”
The Alliance went on to criticize the lack of teeth in the new rule and encouraged the EPA to take additional steps, including banning “dry scraping,” which generates lots of hard-to-clean lead dust and increases exposure; requiring formal lead-safe training of all workers, not just their supervisors; and strengthening its enforcement. I suggest going even further and enhancing the educational effort aimed at do-it-yourself remodelers, who every weekend haul out their scrapers, sanders, and demolition bars and release tons of lead dust into the air, often unknowingly.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can retard children's mental and physical development, reduce attention span and delay fetal development, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Alarming new studies have even linked childhood lead exposure to adult crime and brain damage. Let’s use the awareness generated by the toy scare to tackle this lurking environmental threat.
Image by skidrd, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008 11:40 AM
Talking stuffed animals may be cute on the outside, but creepy robotic hearts often lurk beneath their fuzzy exteriors. Matt Kirkland dissected a number of stuffed toy robots and found out what they were made of. The results are quite revealing.
Images by Matt Kirkland
Friday, April 18, 2008 2:07 PM
With the current vinyl and plush toy phenomenon in full force, someone had to step up and be the movement’s official photographer. Enter Brian McCarty. His photos of toys breathe an incredible amount of life into seemingly inanimate objects, presenting them in an almost cinematic and usually hilarious manner. See his work here, or go behind the scenes and see his latest images here.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 5:11 PM
Forget hot wax and nipple clamps. The darkest and most twisted examples of sadomasochism are found under beds and in sock drawers the world over. Consider the phthalates-rich butt plug, whose toxins are slowly poisoning its user’s body via the holiest of holies. Or the discarded rubber dildo, buried in a landfill and contaminating the groundwater. These instruments of pleasure may in fact be causing environmental and biological pain, Molly Freedenberg writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. And while their actual impact may be overstated—especially in comparison to other harmful, more widely used items—its not difficult to play it safe and find these same items made from more eco-friendly (but no less user-friendly) materials, like the seaweed-based dildo created by Love Piece. Or get creative and make your own. Just don’t forget the sandpaper.
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