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Precious Playthings: An Illustrated History of Black Paper Dolls

The First Two Hundred Years



My mother graduated from a “colored” high school in Columbia, South Carolina two years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Familiar with the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll studies, she and my father actively sought ways to instill cultural pride and a healthy self-concept in their children. My mother, a stay-at-home mom and an active PTA member back then, and father, both understood the damaging affects of racism on children and the role toys can play in reinforcing stereotypes, particularly those assigned to people of African descent. So growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, my siblings and I primarily played with educational toys. My mother did a great job of choosing books with positive stories and if the people in the pictures were not black she would brown them in. As best she could, she chose images that were uplifting, ones that more accurately reflected our history in Africa and the Americas.

More than a decade ago, when I began collecting black paper dolls, I remembered my parents’ early history lessons and was forced to ask myself, what is the role of toys in shaping a child’s identity and beliefs. Many of the early paper dolls in my collection, those depicting people of African descent, were crudely drawn and, quite frankly, offensive. A toy. A plaything. Something created to amuse. Amuse whom? And for what purpose? Long before a child speaks, she sees. She looks. She observes. She comes to understand the world, first through images: images defined by her caretakers and reinforced through popular culture – toys, cartoons, television, commercials, films, books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, fashion. Images the media creates, defines, reinforces, and shapes. Images that tell us who we are and what we are and who they are and what they are. Images that we don’t create and all too often do not even question, but images that we allow to shape our worldview. It’s true, An image is worth a thousand words. And in the 200-years since Black paper dolls have been printed, it’s a very revealing and oft time disturbing word.

© 2009 Arabella Grayson. All rights reserved.

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