Found  /  Art History

What the Black Dolls Say

These rare survivors of early African-American art can illuminate much about our difficult history.

These dolls are the work of a people, not a race. They occupy the free zone of play. This may account for how unaccountable they are, how different one from another, how odd and unexpected, male and female, raffish and elegant, large and small, heavy and light, boys and girls, men and women. Many of them display extravagant skill in design and needlework, suggesting that not all of them were meant for children; some look as if they were modeled after specific individuals in affectionate tribute. Although they differ markedly one from another, even the humblest among them seems proud and poised, devoid of the sentimentality common to most dolls. As Neff has said, “You can think of their diversity, their plurality, as itself a powerful response to a stereotype.”

You can also think of them as art. Whenever asked, the seminal black painter Jacob Lawrence used to deny that anyone in his family was artistically inclined—until he realized that, in fact, he had been “surrounded by art” through his family’s deft use of colors, textures, and fabrics to brighten their lives. Many of these dolls clearly met a similar need.

Neff has carefully conserved her dolls, while also unearthing vintage photographs that give as much historical context as we have for them so far: white children with black dolls, black children with white dolls—but, interestingly, almost no photographs from the period of black children with homemade black dolls. “Who are you playing with when you play with, live with, a doll of another race?” Margo Jefferson asks. Good question, one of many.

The origin and meaning of the “topsy-turvy” dolls is another: The reversible, double-ended doll fuses two torsos—one black, one white—at the waist, typically with a long skirt. Turned one way, the doll is black; flipped over so the skirt obscures the black doll, and the doll is white. In her catalogue essay, Patricia Williams calls these mysterious creations, which may have originated in 19th-century plantations, “an expressive art form crafted by enslaved women…who birthed children who were the half-siblings of the children of the ‘owners’ who had raped them.” There are several other theories, though as Neff observes, Williams’s has the greatest suggestive power.

Neff dreams of an exhibition that will do more: prompt research into the lost provenance of African-American folk craft, uncover forgotten oral histories, spark conversations about the motifs that recur in many of the dolls, provide an art-historical perspective to link them to other 20th-century African-American works. “When I look at the paintings of Jacob Lawrence or the quilts of Gee’s Bend,” she says, “I see my dolls.”