Hate is designed, learned by a bombardment of images and actions to make others feel less than the oppressor. To understand the impact of institutionally designed discrimination and the impact on young minds, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “The Dolls Test” in the 1940s, to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.
Using four identical dolls, one being Black, and the other being white, the test’s goal was to gauge the children’s racial perceptions. The children were between the ages of three and seven and asked which color doll they preferred. Most of the children preferred the white doll assigning positive characteristics to it, and negative characteristics to the Black dolls. This is an issue of self-esteem which is a vital building block for the healthy development of all human beings.
In an interview on the PBS documentary that focused on the Civil Rights movement—“Eyes on the Prize”—Dr. Kenneth Clark recalled: “The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children. We worked with Negro children—I’ll call Black children—to see the extent to which their color, their sense of their own race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves, self-esteem. We’ve now—this research, by the way, was done long before we had any notion that the NAACP or that the public officials would be concerned with our results. In fact, we did the study 14 years before Brown and the lawyers of the NAACP learned about it and came and asked us if we thought it was relevant to what they were planning to do in terms of the Brown decision cases. And we told them it was up to them to make that decision and we did not do it for litigation. We did it to communicate to our colleagues in psychology the influence of race and color and status on the self esteem of children.”
Fast forward to 2022 and the issues swirling around self-esteem amongst people of color, especially those blessed with a darker hue, is examined through handmade Black dolls in a new exhibit attempting through the lens of gender, race, and history.
Currently on exhibit at the New York Historical Society through June 5, 2022, “Black Dolls,” curated by Margi Hofer (vice president and museum director), and Dominique Jean-Louis (associate curator for history exhibitions), immerses visitors in the world of dolls, doll play, and doll making while examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. The exhibition examines how these toys serve as expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance and pride, and love and longing. They provide a unique view of the history of race in America, revealing difficult truths and inviting visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism.
“Black Dolls” feature more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New York Historical and other collections. Period photographs from the Neff Collection provide important context. Starting with dolls that reflect the horrors of slavery, the exhibition moves through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Dolls with detailed finery, often made from ingeniously repurposed sewing basket scraps, push back against negative racial stereotypes, while photographs that show white children playing with Black dolls and Black children holding white dolls complicate the narrative. The exhibition also depicts the rise of factory-made dolls and the growing emphasis on positive representation they embodied, as the slogan of the National Negro Doll Company stated: “Negro Dolls for Negro Children.”
Objects from the Deborah Neff collection include seven topsy-turvy dolls, which consist of a Black and white doll conjoined at the waist; an elegant doll in mid-19th century dress featuring hair made from imitation fur; a schoolboy crafted from remnants of materials, such as a mattress cover; a doll made with high-quality materials that highlight the intricate fashion of the late 19th century; and a dapper and well-dressed man in a three-piece suit.
From a private collection are three dolls made by Harriet Jacobs, who escaped from slavery and physical violence. Jacobs made these dolls between 1850-1860 for the white children of the Willis family of New York, where she worked after her escape. In Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, published in 1861, she recounts her desperate flight from slavery and her years spent in hiding—where she used sewing to relieve her loneliness—until she could reunite with her children in the North. A copy of Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” is on view. And two of her books are available in the museums’ book store.
Three dolls from the 1930s on display were made by Leo Moss, a handyman in Macon, Georgia, who repurposed commercial dolls by remodeling their hair, features, and facial expressions and tinting their skin with boot dye until they resembled himself, family members, or neighbors.
Here is what Dominique Jean-Louis, the associate curator for history exhibitions had to share about why the exhibit “Black Dolls” is important.
AMSTERDAM NEWS: Who made the handmade Black dolls that are viewed through the lens of race, gender, and history?
DOMINIQUE JEAN-LOUIS: Most of the dollmakers are unknown, but there are some dolls whose maker we do know about, including Deborah J. Neff, a toy collector in suburban Connecticut, who escaped from slavery and physical violence in the 1800s. Another set of dolls was made by Leo Moss in the 1930s, who repurposed commercial dolls to resemble himself, family members, or neighbors.
AMN: How will the visitors of “Black Dolls” immerse themselves in the world of dolls, doll play, and doll making?
DJL: “Black Dolls” features more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New York Historical and other collections. Period photographs from the Neff Collection provide important context. Touch interactives and videos will demonstrate the intricate process and diverse materials that go into dollmaking. A slideshow of contemporary doll makers and collectors underscores the continued meaning people find in Black dolls today.
AMN: How is the examination of racial stereotypes presented using dolls as the leader in the larger conversation about the persistence of racism in American history then and now?
DJL: Starting with dolls that reflect the horrors of slavery, the exhibition will move through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The exhibition ends with a slideshow featuring photos of contemporary doll collectors, including one of artist Betye Saar with her collection. The exhibition also explores how Black women who worked in domestic service, many of whom made dolls like these, were subjected to racist stereotypes like the “Mammy.” A selection of toys and picture books provides a grounding in the racist depictions that were omnipresent in the child culture of the time, grounding visitors in how these dolls depart from such visuals.
AMN: It’s explained that the exhibition examines how these toys serve as expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance and pride, and love and longing. Shall I assume the dolls are created by people of color who experienced (and/or, are experiencing) trauma based on racism?
DJL: While many of the doll makers are unknown, the dollmakers we are aware of, whose stories are included in the exhibition, were/are people of color. These dolls were made in a tumultuous and painful time in America for Black people, and while these dolls don’t speak directly to that history, they are the creative expressions of the real people who lived through these difficult times, and it’s meaningful to view them through that lens.
AMN: How can dolls provide a “unique view of the history of race in America”? Not disagreeing —just very interested to know. I agree, just curious.
DJL: In the long and difficult history of race in the United States, it’s difficult to center Black women and their experiences—they were often denied the chance to learn to read and write, and much of their work took place in the home and doesn’t exist for us to study as much as we’d like to: the hairstyles that were never photographed, the meals they cooked, the gardens they tended, the clothes they made and maintained. By being thoughtful and informed about what DOES remain—for example, quilts, foodways, and recipes handed down through oral history, and yes, dolls—we honor their lives and humanity, and tell a fuller story about the realities of the period. If we only look at documents and photographs, think of all that we miss!
AMN: The exhibition features more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New York Historical and other collections. How is this different from the previous show in Paris?
DJL: This exhibition is distinct from past exhibitions of Neff’s collection in its emphasis on historical context. Also, the New York Historical exhibition will feature Neff’s collection alongside objects from New York Historical and loans from other collections. Additions include a trio of dolls made by Harriet Jacobs after she escapes from slavery and a selection of 20th-century commercial dolls including the first Black American Girl Doll Addy Walker.
To learn more, visit https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/black-dolls and to shop, visit https://bit.ly/3Mc0rUn.