When we think of black dolls, one of two images comes to mind. Some may recall Black Barbie, launched in 1980, or even black Cabbage Patch Kids from a few years later. Others, of course, will call to mind the dehumanizing “Golliwogs” – cartoonish and exaggerated dolls from the early 1900s. But the history of black dolls is much more interesting (and much less depressing) than this.
Last week, in my post on the word Racist, I briefly referenced a 1927 article about black dolls – child toys depicting black children. These dolls were marketed to the black community as a way to foster race consciousness in both black and white children.
The short article indicated that black dolls were a relatively new idea. However, a piece that ran in the abolitionist paper The Liberator in 1831 calls this notion into question. Though hailing from the south of England rather than The South, and though likely apocryphal, the meaning and importance of black dolls were the same as in the 1920s – and the same as now.
Below is that article in its entirety:
The Two Dolls
The following amusing story is selected from Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery, by Mary Russell Mitford. We hope our juvenile readers will learn, like little Fanny, to discard their prejudices against colored children. 1If you’d like to read the entire memoir, you can do so here.
Fanny Elvington was a nice little girl, who had a great many good qualities, and, like other little girls, a few faults; which had grown up like weeds under the neglect and mismanagement of the people at the Park, and threatened to require both time and pains to eradicate.
For instance, she had a great many foolish antipathies and troublesome fears, some caught from the affection of the housekeeper, some from the ignorance of the nurse: she shrieked at the sight of a mouse, squalled at a frog, was well nigh ready to faint at an earwig, and quite as much afraid of a spider as if she had been a fly; she ran away from a quiet ox, as if he had been a mad bull, and had such a horror of chimney-sweepers that she shrank her head under the bedclothes whenever she heard the deep cry of ‘sweep! sweep!’ forerunning the old clothesman and the milkman on a frosty morning, and could hardly be persuaded to look at them, poor creatures, dressed in their tawdry tinsel and dancing round Jack of the Green on May-Day.
But her favorite fear, her pet aversion, was a negro; especially a little black footboy who lived next door, and whom she never saw without shrinking, shuddering, and turning pale.
It was a most unlucky aversion for Fanny, and gave her and her aunt more trouble than all her other mislikings put together, inasmuch as Pompey came oftener in view than mouse or frog, spider or earwig, ox or chimney-sweep.
How it happened nobody could tell, but Pompey was always in Fanny Elvington’s way. She saw him twice as often as any one else in the house. If she went to the window, he was sure to be standing on the steps; if she walked in the Square garden, she met him crossing the pavement; she could not water her geraniums in the little court behind the house, but she heard his merry voice singing in broken English as he cleaned the knives and shoes on the other side of the wall; nay, she could not even hang out her Canary bird’s cage at the back door, but he was sure to be feeding his parrot at theirs.
Go where she would, Pompey’s shining black face and broad white teeth followed her; her haunted her very dreams; and the oftener she saw him, whether sleeping or waking, the more her unreasonable antipathy grew upon her. Her cousins laughed at her without effect, and her aunt’s serious remonstrances were equally useless.
The person who, next to Fanny herself, suffered the most from this foolish and wicked prejudice, was poor Pompey, whose intelligence, activity, and good humor, had made him a constant favorite in his master’s house, and who had sufficient sensibility to feel deeply the horror and disgust which he had inspired in his young neighbor.
At first he tried to propitiate her by bringing groundsel and chickweek for her Canary bird, running to meet her with an umbrella when she happened to be caught in the rain, and other small attentions, which were repelled with absolute loathing.
‘Me same flesh and blood with you, missy, though skin be black,’ cried poor Pompey one day when pushed to the extremity by Fanny’s disdain, ‘same flesh and blood, missy!’ a fact which the young lady denied with more than usual indignation; she looked at her own white skin, and she thought of his black one; and all the reason of her aunt failed to convince her, that where the outside was so very different, the inside could by possibility be alike.
At last Mrs. Delmont was fain to leave the matter to the great curer of all prejudices, called Time, who in this case seemed even slower in his operations than usual.
In the meanwhile, Fanny’s birthday approached, and as it was within a few days of that of her cousin, Emma Delmont, it was agreed to celebrate the two festivals together. Double feasting! double holiday! double presents! never was a gayer anniversary. Mrs. Delmont’s own gives had been reserved to the conclusion of the jollity, and after the fruit was put on the table, two huge dolls, almost as big as real babies, were introduced to the little company.
They excited and deserved universal admiration. The first was a young lady of the most delicate construction and the most elaborate ornament; a doll of the highest fashion, with sleeves like a bishop, a waist like a wasp, a magnificent bustle, and petticoats so full and so puffed out round the bottom, that the question of hoop or no hoop was stoutly debated between two of the elder girls. Her cheeks were very red and her neck very white, and her ringlets in the newest possible taste. In short, she was so completely a la mode that a Parisian milliner might have sent her as a pattern to her follow tradeswoman in London, or the London Milliner might have returned the compliment to her sister artist over the water.
Her glories, however, were fated to be eclipsed. The moment that the second doll made its appearance, the lady of fashion was looked at no longer.
The second doll was a young gentleman, habited in the striped and braided costume which is the ordinary transition dress of boys between leaving off petticoats and assuming the doublet and hose. It was so exactly like Willy Delmont’s own attire, that the astonished boy looked at himself to be sure that the doll had not stolen the clothes off his back.
The apparel, however, was not the charm that fixed the attention of the young people; the attraction was the complexion, which was of as deep and shining a black, as perfect an imitation of a negro, in tint and feature, as female ingenuity could accomplish.
The face, neck, arms, and legs were all covered with black silk. Perhaps the novelty (for none of the party had seen a black doll before) might increase the effect, but they all declared that they had never seen so accurate an imitation, so perfect an illusion.
Even Fanny, who at first sight had almost taken the doll for her old enemy Pompey in little, and had shrunk back accordingly, began at last to catch some of the curiosity (for curiosity is a catching passion) that characterized her companions. She drew near – she gazed – at last she even touched the doll, and listened with some interest to Mrs. Delmont’s detail of the trouble she found in constructing the young lady and gentleman.
‘What are they made of, aunt?’
‘Rags, my dear!’ was the reply: ‘nothing but rags,’ continued Mrs. Delmont, unripping a little of the black gentleman’s foot and the white lady’s arm, and showing the linen of which they were composed; – ‘both alike, Fanny,’ pursed her good aunt, ‘both the same color underneath the skin, and both the work of the same hand – like Pompey and you,’ added she more solemnly; ‘and now choose which doll you will.’
And Fanny, blushing and hesitating, chose the black one; and the next day her aunt had the pleasure to see her show it to Pompey over the wall, to his infinite delight; and, in a very few days, Mrs. Delmont had the still greatest pleasure to find that Fanny Elvington had not only overcome and acknowledged her prejudice, but had given Pompey a new half-crown, and had accepted groundsel for her Canary bird from the poor negro boy. 2The Liberator; Boston, Massachusetts; Sat, Apr 9, 1831 – Page 2. Here and here.
The history of black dolls is long and winding. Of course, there have been black dolls in Africa for as long as there have been children. But in the west, our perception and understanding of their importance probably needs a refresher.
That is far beyond my powers, I fear. Perhaps Black Dolls by Margo Jefferson would be a fine place to start.
Perhaps the earliest mass-produced black doll was developed and made by the National Negro Doll company out of Nashville, Tennessee. This was the brainchild of Richard Henry Boyd. Born as enslaved boy called Dick Gray in 1843, he changed his name to Boyd following the Civil War and emancipation. Following the war (during which he served as a slave), he became a cowboy in Texas, worked in a saw mill, became a Baptist minister, and later attended university.
According to his obituary, “Dr. Boyd believed that the Negro of the South should cultivate the friendship and work in cooperation with the white man of the South.” To that end, he penned a slew of books, traveled throughout the United States and England. He founded the Nashville Globe Publishing Company, a black newspaper, and was even a member of the Odd Fellows. 3The Tennessean; Nashville, Tennessee; Fri, Mar 23, 1928 – Page 7. Here.
The National Negro Doll Company, Dr. Boyd’s brainchild, was founded in 1911 in response to the racist depictions of black children that had then begun to saturate the market. “These dolls,” said Boyd of his product, “are not made of that disgraceful and humiliating type that we have grown accustomed to seeing Negro dolls made of. They represent the intelligent and refined Negro of the day, rather than the type of toy that is usually given to children and, as a rule, used as a scarecrow.”
With the coming of World War I, the company could not stay afloat. It shuttered its door in 1915. Dr. Boyd passed away in 1928.
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