By Annette Hinkle
For as long as there have been children, there have been dolls. From homemade varieties to figures that reflect current fads, what a child plays with says a lot — not only about children — but society as well.
This weekend the Eastville Community Historical Society opens an exhibit of vintage and commemorative black dolls and figures in honor of their 30th anniversary. The show features 120 dolls encompassing a wide range of African-American, Pan-American and Caribbean themes as well as African-American pop-culture figures like Dennis Rodman, Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson from his “Thriller” days. The exhibit is culled from the joint collection of Martin Butler and his brother Michael, who organized the show and explains how the whole thing started.
“I didn’t start out to be a collector of dolls per se,” explains Butler, a member of the historical society’s board of directors. “It grew out of collecting black memorabilia and black books when I was living in the city.”
“I would go to antique stores and buy salt and pepper shakers and some of the dish clothes with black images on them,” he said. “I began collecting dolls 20 years ago. Things they would call dolls in my research would be more utilitarian — a figure with a dinner bell in a serving outfit made of ceramic or bisque — more of display piece.”
“You go to a store and there’s this image sitting there, you don’t want to leave it behind,” says Butler who adds that black stereotypes are typical of pieces from the first part of the 20th century and are often of African natives or black servants.
“In the 1890s, Germany was big manufacturer of toys and dolls and it was a more generalized type of figure — usually the mammy types or the picaninny,” explains Butler. “None were really positive. You certainly never saw these things in my grandmother’s or my mother’s house.”
But in recent decades, black memorabilia has become wildly popular and Butler feels that the resentment earlier generations may have attached to such imagery is not shared by today’s collectors.
“I think the further one moves from stereotypes the more you can look at them and have a less personalized experience,” he says. “They become iconographic.”
The idea that the way in which dolls were used to portray black society could, in fact, affect the perception of black children came to light in the 1940s when psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used dolls to explore beliefs about race.
“Their study was not about dolls, but more about getting to the root of self imagery with black children,” says Butler. “They used dolls in the study to define characteristics. The white doll was seen as good and the black doll was bad. They realized they needed more positive images for black children, not just dolls, but other toys and games.”
The toy industry did, in fact, began to change as the mid-20th century approached. Recognizing the potential, more mass produced black dolls entered the mainstream market, though Butler notes these modern dolls had brown faces, but with Caucasian features.
It was really pop-culture and the advent of television that took the production of African-American dolls to the next level. The groundbreaking TV series Julia premiered in 1968 and starred Diahann Carroll as an African-American nurse raising her son as a single mother. It was the first show to feature a black character in a non-stereotypical role and it spun off a whole line of products, including lunch boxes and dolls.
“Images on TV brought a sea change in people’s thinking. That was a major push,” he says. “I remember being in elementary school when there were so few black images on TV, you’d call your friends and say, ‘Did you see Ella Fitzgerald on Ed Sullivan?”
Other shows followed through the 1970s and beyond, and with them came dolls — though they were more of the novelty variety than classic baby dolls. Among Butler’s dolls is a J.J. Evans figure inspired by the sitcom “Good Times.” Butler also has a doll from the Flip Wilson show, one of the first variety shows hosted by an African-American. The two sided doll is Flip on one side and Geraldine, his cross-dressing alter-ego, on the other.
But Martin’s favorite doll? A 1930s Effanbee marionette designed by the famous puppeteer Virginia Austin Curtis which he bought at a yard sale.
“I have the original doll with bare feet,” explains Butler. “The NAACP objected because they felt they portrayed a poor image so the later one had shoes. Mine also has the box. I also have poster and little tickets you would use for your own show.”
The Black Doll exhibit opens Sunday, July 3 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society, 139 Hampton Street, Sag Harbor and remains on view through mid-August.