By Carmen Shardae Jobson
The presence of a doll is almost intrinsic to the coming of age of virtually every woman, and possibly more profoundly so for women of color. Even before we first gazed at glossy fashion mags, whether ELLE or Essence, and preceding the Black Power Movement of the 1970s and an R&B music revival in the ’90s, the black doll was our first encounter with the idea and ideals of beauty in our community.
Dolls, in general, are emblems of glamour and imagination. But when we were little girls, dolls were also incredibly representative of strength, culture, and promise, as even today it’s inspiring how a doll can be whatever the child wants her to be. Besides our mothers, who else held so many roles at once — an astronaut, a teacher, a doctor — proving that “girl power” really is tangible and universal? Most black women, who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, can remember their first dolls. Mattel’s Christie and Theresa, black fashion dolls the company refused to call “Barbie,” were must-haves, and the American Girl Company’s Addy has remained a classic from the toy chest to this day.
Yet occasionally, our effervescent homegirls have gotten a bad rap in the media, and not every black child has been fortunate enough to experience the sheer joy of owning a black doll. In some households, it’s an unfortunate discovery to find not one in sight, while in others, black dolls were bought out of hostility towards white privilege. A black doll, say, purchased around the time of publication of The Bluest Eye in 1970 and when “Moesha” aired in the ’90s are entirely different experiences. Fast forward to 2012, and there is a generational connection of Generation Y women and children of the Keke Palmer-fueled “True Jackson VP” age, who cherish their black dolls and the memories of hours of play, and that’s where Samantha Knowles‘ new documentary Why Do You Have Black Dolls? commences.
The film, dedicated to a Caucasian childhood friend who innocently and absurdly enough asked a younger Knowles why she owned black dolls, was based upon that inquiry, which had a returning impact on Knowles during her years at Dartmouth College. The then-undergraduate film major recalled the stunningly poignant moment and it sparked her exploration. As a member of a generation in which playing with black dolls was a given, childhood memories and an intriguing thesis project met in kismet for Knowles. She ventured to chronicle the black doll not as a victim of societal perception or deception, but as tribute to them as the ultimate childhood inspiration.
“I don’t necessarily think the film will solve all the problems in the black community; I’m not trying to make that statement, but I want people to see the importance of dolls. It seems trivial because they are playthings but after seeing the film, what people have told me is they felt so good and how proud they felt to be black, and that’s something that black dolls can do and especially if you introduce that to [children] at a young age; it feels natural. All dolls are beautiful.”
Rather than compiling a montage of vintage pop culture clips, Knowles punctuates her adventurous study of black dolls with tales from everyday women, including her own sister Jillian (encircled by her collection of Yesteryear Dolls), and an adorable bunch of black children. She took her project to Philadelphia and Harlem, NY and discovered a whole subculture of appreciation. She visited the humble Philadelphia Doll Museum, which showcases black dolls from around the world, and The Black Doll & Gift Show in New York City, a convention where collectors and artists jubilantly congregate to sell, trade, and discuss their unique works of art.