BOOKS | Review: Black Dolls

Cabinet Card, Photographer Unknown. Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1900–10; 3.75 x 2.375″.

Dolls are we, as we see ourselves. We give dolls to children, so that they can play in a way that is not available to adults in the world. We cannot make people do and say as we wish, unless we choose to play with dolls. These inanimate objects are here to absorb all our imagination holds, becoming heroes and monsters of our fantasies and nightmares. They are the actors in the theater of the conscious, the desires and the urges of a child’s mind, which make them, in some vague and abstracted way, a repository of soul, of emotions and impressions channeled and held.

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Black Dolls presents over 100 handcrafted African American dolls made between 1850 and 1940, as well as rare vintage photographs from the same time period, revealing that both black and white children played with these dolls. Each doll is catalogued, providing context into their unique history, and with each entry we feel the weight of the hand of creation, and the brilliance of this form in its ability to create individuals as singular as the people to whom the dolls would one day belong.

Untitled (Red Doll), Nellie Mae Rowe. Vinings, Georgia, circa 1970s; 19 x 9 x 5″.

Deborah Neff writes in the book’s introduction, “I didn’t set out to collect black dolls. My attraction to figures and textiles led me first to handmade dolls in general. I quickly developed a respect for the ingenuity and resourcefulness of ordinary people who could create expressive dolls out of materials readily available in their regular lives. Wood, animal fur, scrap metal, leftover fabric, and other domestic objects were all utilized.

“It wasn’t long before I began to notice that handmade black dolls of the 19 and early 20 century embodied the best of this tradition, regularly crossing the boundary from craft to art in accomplished portrayals of ordinary souls. I don’t mean the common black dolls that reflect the unabashed American racism of the time, rather the rare black dolls crafted but makers evidently bent on creating faithful images. That artistic expression in that historical context is along enough to awaken my emotional attention. Then there is the occasional doll that bears the effects of play, inept repair, and exposure to the elements. There is an added poignancy to such a doll precisely because it was held onto despite its ravaged condition.”

Woman with Pink Pocket,  Artist Unknown. United States, circa 1870–90; 18.25 x 12″.

And this reminds me of the dolls my mother had, the dolls she kept in a box at the top of her closet, the dolls she would not let us touch for fear that we would harm them, those Jamaican, Trini, Bajan dolls she was given as a child. Those dolls, which beckoned me with their imperfect proportions and their warm smiles, they were so much more human and evocative than the factory-farmed Barbie dolls I bought from the store. Black Dolls reminds me that the hand of the artist is an essential part of play, an essential part of imagination, and a bond between the generations.