Playthings to history
story by michael prochaska photos by angelina bellebuono
African-American doll exhibit in Madison
Sometimes history comes wrapped up in cloth and granted a birth certificate.
And sometimes, the caretakers of these newly born blessings are but children themselves. From pine-straw to porcelain to modern plastics, dolls have comforted children for hundreds of years. They remain one of the few toys that adults still cherish and admire because of their role in history.
The Morgan County African American Museum will run a new exhibit from Sept. 17 through Nov. 8 that showcases 100 years of black dolls.
The items range from folk dolls made out of pecans, rags, gourds and wood to contemporary dolls such as Gerber Baby, Cabbage Patch and Barbie.
There are categories of dolls that reflect black history, said Katrina Breeding, a donator of some of the dolls.
Topsy Turvy dolls, for example, date back to the plantation era. These dolls were known for having biracial heads, one attached to the neck and one that was hidden beneath lengthy antebellum clothing. Since white children were not allowed to play with black dolls, they would show their parents the white version of a doll that had two ethnic identities.
Dolls of darker skin tones have existed for centuries, MCAAM Director Mamie Hilsman explained, but they just haven’t been accepted into the standard household until the past few decades. “When I grew up, there was only one doll, and she was white,” she said. “It was very rare that people from my age group had a black doll because they were not manufacturing black dolls.”
Now that ethnic dolls are more prevalent, Hilsman believes parents should consider the wide range of choices when picking out a doll for their children.
Doris Booker, a contributor to the doll collection, will have on display her prized Tansy, a Hawaiian doll that Booker’s daughter-in-law bought while on a Pacific cruise.
Many of the items in the collection were crafted out of stories both personal and sentimental. Leo Moss, an early 20th century Macon native, carved tears below the eyes of his dolls after his wife ran away with another man and took their youngest child.
Other dolls boast on being a “first in history.” For example, a reproduction of the first black doll made by Mattell will be on display, as well as the black dolls that broke stereotypes and liberated women.
Though most of the dolls were manufactured in the country, the ones made internationally offer a glimpse of African American roots.
For example, information on an African bisque porcelain doll reads “God gave me to be taken care of” in Yoruba. The statement is just one indication of many that dolls are more than just toys.
“‘How old is the human race?” Hilsman asked. “I think dolls are just that old. I think they have been around ever since mankind because there have been children.”
Hilsman’s favorite part of having a doll collection is sharing it with her grandchildren. “It’s a lot of fun explaining to them what that doll represents and where that doll originated from and who created that doll,” she said. “If you collect anything, you at least want to pass on the history of what you’re collecting.”
More on the dolls Books featuring four of the dolls will be read during story hour on September 24 and October 22 at 2 p.m.
Admission to the Morgan County African American Museum is a $5 donation, $3 for students.
The museum is open Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays noon to 4 p.m.
Printed in the September 8, 2011 edition