Black doll drama still dogs African-Americans

OPINION - Putting a black doll on the market, from the mainstream point of view, is risky...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The historic Brown v. Board decision proved that dolls do matter. The research of the husband-and-wife psychologist team, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, known as “the doll test” presented in Briggs v. Elliott, one of the five critical cases that built the Brown v. Board, contributed greatly to the landmark Supreme Court decision that put school desegregation in motion.

Questioning young black kids about their preference between a black and a white doll, the Clarks found that 67 percent of the black children tested preferred a white doll over a black one, with 59 percent also identifying the white doll as the nice one.

Those results were a critical indication of positive and negative self-identity. It’s this correlation between dolls and self-identity that continue to make dolls important. So, it should come as little surprise that American Girl’s introduction of their second black doll would be headline-worthy.

Cècile Rey, a free African-American living in 1853 New Orleans, was recently introduced along with her friend Marie-Grace Gardner. Because the previous African-American doll, Addy, was a former slave, some like TMJ4 weekend news co-anchor Shelley Walcott in Milwaukee have welcomed the new addition.

“As a parent, I find Cecile’s story a lot more appropriate for play time than plantation scenes and a bullwhip-cracking slave master,” wrote Walcott in her blog.

But black dolls from contemporary lines can’t catch a break either. When Mattel, which also owns American Girl, introduced its S.I.S. (So In Style) Barbie line, created by Stacey McBride Irby, who is African-American, in 2009, Racialicious ran a guest contributor post, “Mattel Falls Short with S.I.S. (So In Style) Line Black Barbies” from Seattle Slim blasting it.

Natural hair was a primary issue. “What was wrong with creating a Barbie with short, as close to natural hair as possible?” wrote the guest contributor, who objected to the dolls’ weaved looks.

“These dolls are just one more tool in the indoctrination process that prizes and rewards self-hatred over knowledge of self, and love for self, in the black community,” she also asserted.

Others criticized the dolls for being too hip-hop influenced. “Not all black people like hip hop,” then 15-year-old Barbara Mootoo from Manhattan told The New York Daily News. In addition, Mootoo objected to the chain Kara, one of the three dolls in the series, wore, noting that “They gave her a chain like a 50 Cent video.” Even in 2011, African-American dolls are still rare, making black doll collectors a small but passionate group. E-commerce sites like attest to this. The Black Doll Affair, which does contain many collectors in its group, considers itself “a social movement to remind black girls and women of their b’huety” and, as a result, gives away black dolls in impoverished neighborhoods during the holidays and works with teen girls on self-esteem issues. There is even the Philadelphia Doll Museum, the only known free-standing museum solely dedicated to African American dolls and their history.

According to the Philadelphia Doll Museum, “dolls have been found throughout the world from the sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt, to the Catacombs in Rome to Native American graves of North America.” Even during enslavement, African Americans had dolls.

Mainstream doll manufacturers in Germany and France from 1880 to 1930, considered the “Golden Age of Doll Manufacturing” didn’t leave African Americans out. The French made more black dolls than the Germans and are credited for using realistic shade tones.

But it’s the Golliwogg or golliwog, as it is more popularly written, that is the most polarizing for many. Introduced in 1895 as a black character in Florence Upton’s best-selling children’s book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls , renamed The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg in its second printing, the golliwog, a rag doll with dark black skin, wide eyes, a big smile and a mop of hair, became all the rage and is credited in the rise of racist iconography in subsequent decades.

During the Jim Crow era, there were a handful of African-American dolls, including Patty Jo, a character from a comic strip by Zelda “Jackie” Ormes, the first nationally syndicated female African-American cartoonist. But still it was the iconic Barbie that made the biggest splash. Although “black” Barbies became more common in the 1980s, the first known black Barbie, Colored Francie, appeared in 1967. Christie, which appeared the following year, is, however, considered the first official African-American Barbie.

With then teenager Kiri Davis’s re-creation of the doll test for her 2005 documentary A Girl Like Me, it became clear that, despite the many positive gains in our society since enslavement and Jim Crow, children still have negative associations when it comes to playing with black dolls over white dolls. So, the debate surrounding the introduction of Cècile Rey and her fellow American Girl Addy is larger than portraying a free black child and a once-enslaved black child. Given that American Girl characters are accompanied by books, the stories of these young ladies can serve as important ones for developing young girls of all races.

As reported by The Atlanta Post earlier this year in their story, “Beyond Barbie: Designer Brings Black Dolls to Market,” there are still tremendous financial barriers for independent doll makers. Even the creator of the popular Bratz dolls, which made a serious dent in the market, had once worked for industry giant Mattel, which, by the way, sued for copyright infringement.

Niccole Graves, who created Trinity Designs which specializes in African-American sorority dolls, told The Atlanta Post, that “one of the biggest costs has been patents and trademarks. And the original sculpt was $5,000.”

Putting a black doll on the market, from the mainstream point of view, is risky. There have been stories about black Barbies selling for less than white Barbies as well as black Barbies that are presented as more “slutty” than white Barbies. It’s been a hard-row to tow. In the end, the stakes are extremely high. When it comes to cultivating a little girl’s self-esteem, one thing is clear: dolls aren’t nothing to play with.