WERE SHE INCLINED TO SPEAK, the doll would be capable of narrating all of history. In the second half of the twentieth century, Barbie Millicent Roberts soared to become the beau ideal of midcentury femininity and commercialism, her proportions nonviable and mass-produced. Raggedy Anns and Andys, peddled alongside accompanying picture books, demonstrated early the profitability of pairing literature with merchandising. The Cabbage Patch children, with their interchangeable moon faces, incited riots in 1983, inaugurating the American grotesquerie that would become annual Black Friday sales. Revealing much about culture and commodity, femininity and nation, each dolly is also a singular beloved, cosseted and embraced, throttled and eventually forsaken.
Inviting representational play, the doll is also freighted with the signifiers of race and skin color. This object is “not-I” but is a human likeness, muddling and redrawing distinctions between person and thing. Suturing these threads, an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society tracks the circulation of black dolls through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exploring their history as playthings, folk art, and political instruments.
“Black Dolls,” curated by Margaret K. Hofer and Dominique Jean-Louis, features more than a hundred handmade figurines, most of which have been culled from the private collection of Deborah Neff, who procured them over several decades. The show focuses on the period between 1850 and 1940, from the early Victorian era and its costly porcelain creations to the advent of commercial dollmaking. (Barbie would arrive in 1959; Addy Walker, American Girl’s first black doll, in 1993.) The dolls are enthralling, evoking an infinite array of forms, stylings, and dispositions. Outfitted in lively printed shifts with matching turbans and bonnets, and sporting the era’s mutton sleeves, ribbons, and high collars, they invite—almost demand—narrativization. Underneath her skirt, one wears a proper petticoat and slip—a lady! Another has eyes made of thread in an eerie, slitted shape that reads as reptilian. Another, clad in a dotted dress that may have once been white, has rueful, downcast eyes, her sorrows both evident and unknowable.
Revealing much about culture and commodity, femininity and nation, each dolly is also a singular beloved, cosseted and embraced, throttled and eventually forsaken.
Their makers are largely obscure. Fashioned from metal and all manner of repurposed fiber—bits of cotton and burlap, fur and skin, yarn, coconut-coir hair—many of the dolls exhibited were hand-sewn by enslaved black women, intended for both the white children entrusted to their care and these women’s slave children. How that phrase—slave children—rankles. The juvenile enslaved existed as human capital and, enjoying no legal protections, were denied the delights of preadult life. And yet, via the cunning of black mothers—secreting scraps, pilfering time—there was play amid the drudgery.
Seizing on the toys’ potency and charm, white women abolitionists put them to work as political implements, crafting dolls and other textiles to raise funds and promote public sympathy for the antislavery movement. Providing meeting spaces, campaigning, and embroidering propaganda, sewing circles were fonts of radical organizing, exemplifying the soft power of so-called women’s work. Countering the traditional masculinist concept of the public square, they positioned the domestic space as an overtly political arena, illustrated in their slogan “May the points of our needles prick the slaveholder’s conscience.”
One doll, credited to the Rhode Island abolitionist Cynthia Walker Hill, wears striped trousers and an overcoat, his gentlemanly dress ill-suited to the pronged slave collar around his neck. His body is queerly crooked, the wrong angles testifying to the twisted logic undergirding the “peculiar” institution. Another, sold to benefit the Union Army, is a man of brass and leather. His yarn-y hair is meticulously parted; his face bears an expression of righteous affrontement, highlighting the Gordian dynamics at play: Facsimiles of black people were sold to protest the selling of black people.
Accompanying the show are myriad striking photographs of children clutching their dolls. Youngsters black and white were most frequently snapped with dolls of the opposite race; historical images of black children with black dolls, we learn, are relatively uncommon. A little black girl, in good boots and with curled hair, stares into the still, white visage of her dolly. Her own face is a blur of movement, as if, remembering the creature in her lap, she has only just turned toward it. The young “Carrington daughter,” facing the camera dead-on, seems to hold her white doll with a stronger hand. One white nursling holds a black doll seemingly made of cloth. The doll recalls the boy’s minder, photographed at his side, a woman subjected to his whims and storms, over whom he held as much dominion as he did the doll in his hand.
Dolls have always troubled notions of personhood and autonomy. In this way, they are analogous both to children (disempowered, diminutive) and to slaves (purchased, traded, maltreated). The antebellum era brims with tales of sentient dolls, evincing a fear of commodities coming to life, what theorist Bill Brown has termed the “American uncanny.” In Julia Charlotte Maitland’s The Doll and Her Friends, or Memoirs of the Lady Seraphina (published in 1852, the same year as Uncle Tom’s Cabin), the toys feel themselves to be a “race of mere dependents; some might even call us slaves.” Reversing the metaphor, Topsy, the enslaved child of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is described as a “sooty gnome,” her glassy, dollish eyes reflecting no interiority.
For all their verisimilitude, their chaste prettiness, the dashing singularity of each creation, these figures conjure their barely repressed bad objects—the racial caricatures depicted and circulated as memorabilia. Darkies, coons, Toms, pickaninnies, minstrels, and poor, poor Mammy all spring free of the racial imaginary, grinning from trinkets piled on a small table in the exhibition. They lure and repel museumgoers in turn. Encountering the scarlet mouths and bug eyes decorating board games, figurines, and bric-a-brac, visitors crouch, titter, and hurry away. Others linger, entranced or stupefied by an encounter with old Jim Crow, pinned under glass but no less puissant. The black museum guard seems to have situated herself as far as possible from this table, further granting it an air of something odorous or catching. It is, to this writer, a necessary disruption of the fantasies woven by the lovelier dolls, a blast of cold water to nullify their seductions. Whatever their occasional pleasures, the lives of the enslaved were brutal and unfathomable. Tempting as it is to dwell on their leisure, the minor reliefs from the unbearable threaten to obscure the terror.
“Black Dolls” is on view at the New York Historical Society through June 5.
Jasmine Sanders is a writer based in New York.