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More Than Child’s Play

More Than Child’s Play

For Dr. Sabrina Thomas, dolls are not just child’s play. In fact, they are the subject of her research, which recently landed her a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thomas, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at North Carolina Central University, was awarded the grant to write a book on the history of Black dolls as a sociology of Black childhood.

Thomas, who graduated with a psychology degree from Tuskegee University, delved into dolls for her master’s thesis at the University of Rochester. Her focus was re-examining Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark’s famous 1940s study which showed that most Black children preferred to play with White dolls rather than Black ones because they considered White dolls finer.
“I was curious about those findings and their interpretation that racism and segregation resulted in feelings of low self-esteem and inferiority,” she said. The Clarks’ findings were later mentioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.
But Thomas, who loves methodology, wondered about the assumption.
“In reading the original work I began to make replication studies,” said Thomas, who teaches child development and family studies at NCCU. She received her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“I’m not saying the Clarks’ decision is not true but I don’t think the interpretation of the imperative evidence is strong enough to come to that conclusion,” she said. Her own research shows that the older a Black child becomes, the more she or he prefers a Black doll or action figure.
Thomas’ book, History of Black Dolls as a Sociology of Black Children, explores the history of dolls and their far-reaching sociological impact. It examines Black doll production, location and how the dolls were advertised. Thomas explains how dolls were used as racial uplift even though the first mass-produced Black dolls fall into the servant category and were meant for White children.
W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP were among the early catalysts for Black children having Black dolls, according to Thomas. The National Negro Doll Company produced these first dolls in the early 1900s and Dubois advertised them in The Crisis. The Berry and Ross Doll Company created the Sara Lee doll in the 1940s, and Eleanor Roosevelt publicized them.
Thomas believes issues of race, class and gender can be examined in toys and dolls created for children. She points to the Black Christie doll by Mattel that appeared in 1968 as Barbie’s friend. By the 1970s every major toy company had a Black doll on the market. Cathy Chatty was a popular model. Some companies tried to differentiate Black physiology on the doll’s facial features, while some Black dolls were just White dolls with tinted skin.
Thomas began her early research at the Margaret Woodbury Strong Doll Museum in Rochester, N.Y., listening to oral histories of White women who enjoyed playing with their dolls. Some women said their parents gave them Black dolls presumably in an attempt to broaden their racial views. Others never had a Black doll and some women presumed it was because “they didn’t want such ugly things.”
Thomas is now interviewing Black women about the dolls of their childhood.
“People say Black dolls didn’t exist back then but in fact accessibility was the issue,” she said. Companies and stores didn’t think there was a profitable market for Black dolls, she explains.
Though Black dolls in themselves are important, Thomas thinks her studies mirror our society’s attitudes.
“The way we represent diversity in the toy industry still reflects racial discourse,” she said. “We are not yet ready as a nation to openly discuss issues of race.” She says U.S. companies boast diversity by including one token minority in advertisements and on TV shows.
“I don’t think there is true diversity, when Black dolls are just dipped in different skin colors. The uniqueness of race isn’t even acknowledged,” she said. “Through our history we’ve used dolls to transport and mutilate racial sentiments. It’s been just one manifestation of race relations. If we can’t address it at this level there’s little hope at the adult level.”
Thomas also rests some blame on many Black parents who want Black dolls for their children but will settle for the more prevalent White dolls. They don’t want to insist that the sales assistant look in the back of the store or contact manufacturers.
“There should be more demand on retailers and manufacturers. And retailers should have greater sensitivity,” she said.
Dr. Elizabeth Chin, chairwoman of the anthropology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, applauds Thomas’ work.
“The dolls are not the problem. The dolls are the manifestation of problems in our society. It’s not about making prettier dolls. I hope people pay attention to what she has to say. If a White child lives in a segregated neighborhood does it matter that she plays with a Black doll? Kids are aware of difference between the real and the play world.”
Over the years, Thomas has amassed more than 300 Black dolls, including a rare 1915 composition baby doll she named Sara. Another favorite is her Topsy Turvy, with a Black maid’s face and attire on one side and a White girl in a frilly frock on the other.
“I think these dolls are beautiful examples of art,” she said. The dolls, after all, are just the messengers. 

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