Black dolls teach a diversity lesson

For Debbie Britt, the executive director of the National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture, every month is Black History Month.

The museum, now in its fifth year, is located in downtown Mansfield, about 25 miles southwest of Boston. It occupies a large storefront space that used to be a tanning salon – an interesting twist on the black doll theme. When I dropped in there recently, I found Debbie sweeping the floor because, along with her other duties, she is also the janitor. Maintaining a 5,000-square-foot dollhouse is not child’s play. Still, it’s easier than it used to be.

Before the museum opened, Debbie spent about a dozen years presenting doll shows at public venues, including schools and libraries, lugging heavy cases full of dolls to arrange displays in Uphams Corner, Fields Corner, Lower Mills, Grove Hall, and Codman Square. Throughout this period, she conducted doll-making workshops, a practice that she continues doing. Her mission, she says, is to nurture self-esteem and to promote cultural diversity. “I do it to get the word out to the kids; I want them to know.”

Debbie’s affection for dolls began at a young age, when she discovered two small dolls tucked behind a panel of the linen closet in her family’s home on Harlem Street near Franklin Field. She has been collecting them ever since, and today her collection stands at 6,279 dolls. Her doll mania is infectious; one of her sisters, Felicia, collects Native American dolls, another, Kareema, specializes in the Barbie doll. Debbie uses her dolls to teach people about black history. “Every doll tells a story,” she says. Dolls are known to evoke powerful urges connected to the human condition. Most often, they inspire joy, and Debbie can tell you a story firsthand that shows how this is true.

Her sister, Kareema who suffered a stroke at a young age, was in a debilitated condition when Debbie wheeled her into a toy store and told her, “Whichever doll that you can knock off a shelf, you can keep.” The desire to reach out and possess was so great that Kareema’s stricken limbs were willed into action. In time, as Kareema regained her strength, the sisters returned to the toy store and Debbie said, “Whichever doll that you can stand up and walk to is yours.” The prize was always Barbie.

That experience was the genesis of Kareema’s Barbie collection, which, while no rival to Debbie’s, is still significant at 800 Barbies. Kareema now serves on the Consumer Advisory Panel for the Mattel Toy Company, collaborating on the design of the product, i.e., how the Barbie doll changes the way it looks, and why.

The black Barbie wasn’t introduced until 1979. Debbie has about 200 of them; no Ken dolls, though; “because Ken never changes,” she said.

There was a time when black dolls were essentially non-existent, and there was very little consideration given to providing appropriate toys for children of color. Now there is a clearer understanding of the psychological damage that can be done if children are made to feel insignificant in their formative years. Debbie told me how some 65 years ago Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of self-pride, worked with Sarah Lee Creech to create a prototype for a black doll that received endorsements from several prominent African Americans. Ideal Toy Company manufactured the doll and Saralee, as the doll was named, appeared in Sears Roebuck stores in October 1951 (one Saralee doll with original dress is on display at the museum).

To stroll through the museum is like unpacking a trunk full of very old things, many of them faded and threadbare yet still retaining a certain quality. The dolls have been made from just about anything, with faces embroidered into sumptuous fabrics, and painted onto pecans, walnuts, or a dried apple shaped like a tiny head. There are on display crude, rudimentary ragdolls made for slave children and elaborate artful china dolls made for the high-end commercial market.

“Black dolls are rare, and we couldn’t always find what we wanted, or it was too expensive,” Debbie explained. “So my sister and I started making them ourselves, African dolls first.”

In one gallery, called “Middle Passage,” they stitched together 720 dolls to fill a tiny darkened enclosure meant to represent the hold of a Portuguese slave ship that routinely carried that many captives – or more – as it plied the route of the Atlantic triangular slave trade.

People believe in Debbie’s mission and donate dolls to the museum, and doll artists contact her to ask her opinion on a latest creation. She travels across the country to attend doll conventions and to speak about the history of black dolls at seminars and business conferences.

On one of those trips, the famous doll maker Jack Johnson presented Debbie with his original Bob Marley doll, which is about 18 inches tall, bearing a broad smile topped by a braided wig made from hair that was cut from Marley ‘s head and saved by his mother. The outfit was made from scraps of clothing that were part of Marley’s wardrobe.

The Marley doll is the only item that is hands-off at the museum; it sits perched on a tiny stool and sealed inside a tall, octagon-shape glass case that is actually an upside-down fish tank. Nearby is a tabletop stage featuring the Supremes in sequined dresses, fabulous hairdos, and painted faces by Darris Walker, the doll artist who sparked this electrifying fashion statement on what originally was a set of blank dolls made by Annie Lee.

Dolls inspire nostalgia. There are turn-of-thecentury Aunt Jemima pancake box cutouts and a paper doll of Stymie from the Little Rascals. There are Gollywogs, cornhusk dolls, voodoo dolls, action figures, and bobbleheads. There are dolls for Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama. There are dolls for television celebrities, movie stars, sports stars, and astronauts. And there is a fashion section with Michelle Obama at the center of a constellation of glamorous figures arranged behind a plush velvet rope.

When Debbie can’t get the real thing, she designs a wall poster to tell the doll’s story. That’s how I learned about the black folk artist Leo Moss, an itinerant handyman from Georgia (circa the 1920s) who used leftover scraps of wallpaper to mix the pulp for his doll-making. He could sculpt the head of a black child whose exquisite expression was made infinitely more poignant by the addition of a tear or two. “One of the greats,” says Debbie. Sadly, very few of the Moss dolls survive.

I spent about two hours touring the collection and chatting with Debbie and her husband Joe, a retired Boston police officer. On the way out, I stopped at the doors to the restrooms and used the one on the right; it was marked “Colored Only.”

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The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture is open Thursday through Monday noon to 5 p.m. (or by appointment). Visit NBDMHC.org. Coming to the museum this spring: A bronze bust of President Obama and his grandmother - part of a traveling exhibition for the Grandmother Love Project organized by the Peace Abbey Foundation.