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.
“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, havedolls 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.
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.”