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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beautiful Black Dolls at the Shelburne Museum

My partner and I recently visited the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, which is a museum whose collections are distributed among 39 buildings on an estate near Lake Champlain. The core of the museum consists of the personal collections of heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb, an aficionado of folk art and US material culture. The museum maintains collections in circus figures and circus posters, clothing, decorative arts, folk art, impressionist paintings, quilts, tools... and dolls. More than 400 of them. There's a whole book just about the doll collection.

I saw hundreds of dolls at the Shelburne Museum, but the ones that really stay with me are these two:

These are very special, rare, beautiful dolls. To explain what makes them so interesting, I have to provide some background on dolls and race.

Dolls are political--not only in how they look, but also in how they feel, and how their materiality invites different kinds of play. In Racial Innocence, I wrote a lot about soft dolls that were designed to accommodate children's rough play. In the U.S. in the nineteenth century, a few small cottage industries began manufacturing such dolls. Small-scale makers of soft commercial dolls included Izannah Walker, Martha Jenks Chase, and Julia Jones Beecher, half-sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe. These white women all lived and worked in the postbellum North, but each manufactured at least one Plantation-style black doll. The Shelburne Museum owns, for example, this "mammy" doll manufactured by Martha Jenks Chase sometime between 1890 and 1900:

As I showed in my book, white nineteenth-century American children routinely subjected soft black dolls to enormous violence, and this violence was not only tolerated but encouraged by white adults who viewed such acts as racially innocent.

But there's another part of the story. Until the Civil Rights Movement, most commercial black dolls in the United States were caricatured and grotesque--but in Germany and France, a whole other vision of black people flourished. As Myla Perkins demonstrates in her two-volume masterpiece, Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide, nineteenth-century dollmakers in France and Germany produced black dolls with the same molds they used to produce white dolls. The resulting black dolls were beautiful and non-caricatured. Unfortunately, because they were expensive imports, few African American children had access to them. In the U.S., most owners of these dolls were wealthy white girls.

Which brings us back to the white, wealthy Electra Havemeyer Webb, who added these beautiful dolls to her museum collection in 1951. These dolls are made of papier-mâché, and the Shelburne Museum identifies them as German, most likely produced in the 1850s (they were about a century old, then, when the museum acquired them). Unlike other German dolls which were produced with molds that were also used for white dolls, these dolls' faces and hair seem designed to represent the features of people of African descent.

The woman wears fine clothes and a bonnet, with detailing in the trim and buttons. While it is possible that the doll was intended to represent a servant, she does not present only that image (unlike the Martha Jenks Chase "mammy" doll and so many others like it). Her face is finely-drawn, realistic, and lovely. There is no hint of mockery.

The man is more ambiguous. He could represent a gentleman, or he could represent a servant in livery. Despite this ambiguity, this doll projects dignity. His clothing is, like the female doll's, carefully detailed in rich cloth. And the face beautifully represents African-diasporic features. In both cases, the large eyes and full cheeks reflect the period's conventions in doll-faces more than those of racist caricature.

Papier-mâché is delicate. Unlike the soft cloth "mammy" doll, who was created to endure ritualistic abuse, these beautiful, dignified, realistic dolls scripted gentle, respectful play.

How did these fragile dolls survive a century in which the abuse of black dolls was the norm? Were they owned by black children? Did they survive because they were loved and treated tenderly? Did they survive because they were unloved and ignored? As with most dolls, it is difficult or even impossible to determine precisely what relationship they had with individual children and adults in the past. But we can imagine. And we can pause to look these dolls in the face and to remember: no matter how deeply the nineteenth century was steeped in racist imagery, counter-images existed. "Mammy" and other caricatures dominated black dolls prior to the Civil Rights Movement. And because they were so dominant, so denigrating, and so damaging, it is easy to forget that other kinds of dolls existed. But they did exist--and when we see them in places like the Shelburne Museum, we should pause, pay attention, and really take in the beauty before us.

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