My first baby doll was white.
She had curly blond hair, blue eyes, and a lacy, pastel dress. I can’t recall if the dress was pink, yellow, or blue, but I know she was white because I distinctly remember cooing into her pale face while feeding her from one of those liquid-disappearing Magic Milk bottles.
Given my mother’s tendency toward all things pro-black, I’m not sure how this happened. Perhaps the doll was a gift from one of her or my dad’s well-meaning white coworkers. Maybe the toy stores were out of black dolls.
All I know — and this pains me to write — is that even though I would eventually receive dozens of black dolls, including a black Raggedy Ann (and Andy), a black Baby Alive, and a black Cabbage Patch Kid, I remember loving that little white baby a bit more than my black ones.
And that makes me sad.
What if the race of the dolls didn’t matter?
What if children — and for all intents and purposes, adults too — were presented with nearly identical black and white dolls and all we did was take in the totality of their beauty? Sure, we would appreciate their differences, like molded hair vs. hair you can comb. But what if our minds weren’t trained to judge intelligence and inherent goodness at first glance? What if we could turn off our unconscious bias?
That message of possibility came through loud and clear at artist and doll collector Trenton Doyle Hancock and Philadelphia Doll Museum executive director Barbara Whiteman’s “Doll Wall” installation at Temple Contemporary, Tyler School of Art’s exhibition space. Adjacent to Hancock and sculptor Tim Rusterholtz’s Moundverse Infants exhibit, the Doll Wall installation is basically a 14-foot-high, 28-foot-wide wall split in two, with artfully placed dolls of color on the left and the white dolls on the right. That’s 144 dolls separated by the color of their plastic, porcelain, or rubber skin, making for quite a diverse sight — 392 square feet of floor-to-ceiling segregation.
“This was something I was interested in on a purely aesthetic level,” said Hancock, 44, who was inspired by mid-20th-century psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s Doll Tests that used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race in the 1940s, finding that black children favored white dolls signaling their not-so-deeply buried feelings of inferiority. The Clark’s work ultimately impacted the outcome of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled separate was not equal.
The exhibit room holding the wall of dolls is pink and pretty, popping with a 1970s technicolor feel. Some of the dolls are short. Others are tall. In some cases, the hair is matted. A handful of the dolls are naked, clearly the ones that were played with the most. And some are completely dressed head to toe in all the pieces they came with. There are lips that once held pacifiers and arms that are perpetually outstretched. Shoes are missing. Pocketbooks are open. And it’s probably safe to say that all of them, whether plucked from a thrift store or bequeathed as part of an estate, have at one point been loved.
The beauty of the exhibit is that once you eliminate race, the dolls are indeed the same. Fat. Skinny. Tall. Small. Sparkles or denim. This is an exhibit about race that, in the end but in the end made me feel that race didn’t matter.
The dolls down the center of the wall are matched doll for doll — black and white versions of the same doll were placed next to each other. The overalls-wearing Ice Cream Dolls at the very top are followed by chubby-faced Cabbage Patch Kids, Kid Sisters (part of the My Buddy franchise) Groovy Girls, and Baby Skates. The oldest dolls from Whiteman’s collection include those from the Shindana Doll Co., one of the first companies to make black dolls. And among the newest is Blanca, a Latina doll from Maison Battat Inc. to encourage girls to reach for the stars. Sprinkled in are plush 1970s Holly Hobbies, Mattel’s Love Notes , and the crawling Baby That Way.
What struck me the most is that in the case of the Doll Wall, the different races of each toy were stripped away when I saw their larger similarities. I was able to focus on the individual dolls, rather than the overarching characteristic of their faux skin color. I saw what they were wearing (or not), I saw how they were styled, I saw what decade they were from. But more important, I could focus on how much these dolls were loved, and that each had her own individual story.
I wish people could see others that way.
“I want people to see the differences in the dolls from a historical perspective,” Whiteman said. “Dolls bring up lots of memories. Some people remember not being able to find black dolls. Some people remember when their dolls were taken away. Dolls were children’s first reflection of themselves even when they didn’t see themselves in the dolls.”
Hancock, who lives in Houston, is a 2000 Tyler alum. He is known in the art world, the toy space, and in comic book circles for creating Moundverse, an alternative universe where creatures are locked in a classically biblical struggle of good versus evil. During a trip to the city two years ago, Hancock went to the Philadelphia Doll Museum, where he instantly fell in love with Whiteman’s collection
“I was blown away,” Hancock said of Whiteman’s collection of hundreds of historic black dolls. “I wanted to highlight both of our collections.”
It didn’t take long for Whiteman and Hancock to realize they collect for different reasons.
“My collection is about history,” said Whiteman, whose collection goes back as far as the mid-1800s, from which she provided nearly all of the black dolls in the exhibit. “My mission is to show the history of black people through dolls.”
Hancock trolls thrift stores on a mission to save dolls from the 1950s through the present day. The race of the doll doesn’t matter. Only the toy’s age. When he was a child growing up in Paris, Texas, his devout Christian parents burned his He-Man, Garbage Pail Kids, and Dungeons and Dragons characters because they believed they were possessed by the devil. To this day, he remembers the plume of black smoke from the burning plastic.
“I wanted to collect all the things I had as a child,” Hancock said. “I had to get these things back.”
Temple Contemporary is the exhibition space at Tyler School of the Art on Temple University's campus. The address is 2001 N. 13th Street 2001 N 13th St, 215-777-9090