Black Dolls Continue to Renew My Spirit

dbgGuest Blogger: Debbie Behan Garrett is a doll-collector, blogger and doll historian. She is also the author of ‘The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls,’ ‘A Comprehensive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls’ & ‘The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak, I Listen.’ You can learn more about Debbie at her Black Doll Collecting website.”

Sometime during the early 1990s, after reading a passage in a book or article by bell hooks on the aesthetics of blackness where she wrote: “black art renews the spirit,” I had an instant ‘aha’ moment. The ‘act of renewing my spirit,’ explains exactly what black dolls, at that time, had begun doing for me. They still do.

I had been collecting black dolls only a few years when bell’s words so profoundly touched me. In the same manner that black art reflects positive images of people of African descent with an ability to renew the spirit, I find these three-dimensional inanimate representations of black people rejuvenating to my whole being.

I have always been extremely connected to my culture, proud of my heritage, and have always delighted in surrounding myself and my offspring with positive reflections. As a child, living happily in a black world, I was unfortunately, unable to own black dolls as playthings. Very few were available in our area. Those that were offered were not aesthetically pleasing to my mother, who viewed them as negative representations of black people that she would never allow in our home.

While my childhood excluded black dolls, in my early adult years, I subconsciously delighted in them through doll purchases made for my daughter, whose doll family only included black dolls. It was my desire for her to develop a positive sense of self and culture and to ward off any innuendos, subtle or obvious, from sources that viewed anything black as negative. Seeing herself in her playthings, educational materials, and art ensured a healthy development of self-esteem and constant spiritual rejuvenation.

I began actively collecting black dolls as an adult to fill the void of not owning them as a child. Collecting and learning about dolls resulted in establishing and maintaining a doll reference library of books on antique to modern dolls. These books were useful, but the predominance of non-black dolls only served to fuel my belief that few black dolls were made during my childhood. It was not until I discovered my black-doll bible, written by Myla Perkins, Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991, that my world of black-doll collecting broadened considerably. Who knew, until reading Perkins’ book, that there were in fact as many positive black dolls made during my childhood? Thus, my early-1990s mission commenced to obtain as many of these lovely dolls as possible.

After the publication of Perkins’ first book and her followup title, Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide Book II, the lack of black doll information resumed. No one else took the initiative to write another reference book on black dolls. In 2003, eight years after Perkins’ second book was published, I wrote my first black-doll reference book, The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls. It is the first full-color black-doll reference book ever published. In 2008, A Comprehensive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls followed, and includes over 1000 color images, references, and doll values. My third book, published in 2010, The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak, I Listen, was written to further serve the doll-collecting community, particularly avid black-doll enthusiasts. In The Doll Blogs, dolls both old and new, blog their experiences over a two-year period as chosen dolls in my now extensive and quite eclectic black-doll collection.

The passion I hold for black dolls (owned or admired from afar) is ever present. Conducting research and the documentation of the same—with an objective to celebrate the dolls and the people who make and collect them—is also a constant. My writings are published two to three times a week on the Black-Doll Collecting blog.

Will my desire to own black dolls ever cease? As long as they continue to renew my spirit, the answer is an emphatic, “no.”

Guest post: Are simpler dolls better?

Phil on JTVGuest Blogger: Phil Wrzesinski is president and owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan, recently named “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. You can learn more about Phil at www.PhilsForum.com.”

I often talk to mother’s groups about Play Value. One of the big ideas I try to get across is the importance of Interaction in playing with a toy. Many toys today have little interaction other than hitting a button and getting out of the way. These aren’t really toys, they are novelties.

They take the kid out of the play. The less the kid does, the less interested the kid will be in the toy.

To get the point across I’ll often ask them, “What was your favorite doll as a kid?” Many will wax poetically about their favorite doll. They’ll tell me her name, describe her in detail and even talk about all the adventures they went on together.

Then I ask them, “What did the doll do?” Invariably, they say, “Nothing.”

The doll you loved the most was most often the doll that did the least. You loved that doll precisely because of how little it did. You loved it because everything that it was all came from you. The doll’s voice was the voice you gave it. The doll’s thoughts were the thoughts that came from you. The doll’s personality was the personality that sprung from your heart.

Everything about that doll was you.

There are dolls that walk and talk and eat and go potty. They are fun and they have their place in the toy box. But the more they do, the less your child does. The less your child does, the less interaction with the toy. The doll that will be most beloved, the doll that will take up the most space in the memory box, will be the doll that did the least and required the most from you. The moms in my talks get that immediately.

Guest Post: Two ways to look at Doll Play

Phil on JTVGuest Blogger: Phil Wrzesinski is president and owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan, recently named “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. You can learn more about Phil at www.PhilsForum.com.”

You can learn a lot about your child from how she plays with dolls. For instance, have you ever noticed that some kids love dolls but don’t play much with dollhouses while other kids prefer the dollhouses over baby dolls? There is a reason.

Kids tend to gravitate to one of two styles of play – Participant or Director.

Directorial play is for kids who love to be in charge. They set the rules. They decide the parameters. They control all the character’s motions, thoughts, and actions. They don’t take on the character role, but serve as an overseer of the action.

Doll houses are a big hit with children who prefer directorial play. So are toys where the child makes the rules and controls all the characters. Action figures, construction toys, and vehicles are their favorites. Open-ended crafts like Play Doh and blank pads of paper also intrigue and engage directorial play kids. They want to be their own boss. Don’t tell them which lines to stay inside.

Participatory play is for kids who don’t have to be in charge. They want to be one of the characters in the play. Baby Dolls allow them to take on roles such as the mom or the baby sitter. Baby dolls let them do that. Sure, they have to direct the other characters, but only so that their character can join in.

Kids who prefer participatory play don’t need to make the rules. But they do want everyone to follow the same rules. These kids tend to prefer sports, dress-up, and story-telling because they get to be a participant. They’re okay with coloring books, too. Just make sure you have plenty of crayons.

And now you understand the difference between the Barbie Doll (directorial) and the Baby Doll (participatory).

(Note: there is nothing “wrong” with either style of play and no child is exclusively one style versus the other, but by understanding their preferences, you are more likely to hit home runs with the toys you purchase for them down the road.)

Guest Post: Barbie: Evil or Not?

Phil on JTVGuest Blogger: Phil Wrzesinski is president and owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan, recently named “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. You can learn more about Phil at www.PhilsForum.com.”

I remember the story my grandparents told about how they were introduced to Barbie© at Toy Fair in New York. They were taken into separate rooms so that they would each give their own opinion without influence. My grandfather hemmed and hawed and wasn’t sure about it. My grandmother walked out and said to him, “You ordered a lot of them I hope?”

Ruth Handler Introduces Barbie

Ruth Handler Introduces Barbie 

While the critics of Barbie© have their points – her unattainable figure and her deep pockets (who can afford a Corvette working at McDonald’s©?) are definite cons, there are also some positives Barbie© has brought to young children everywhere. Two of the most powerful are Imagination and Aspiration.

Imagination: One thing Barbie© has done is ignite imagination. Barbie© didn’t come with scripts or stories or TV shows. Those all showed up later. Barbie© came with clothes and the kids who played with her had to create the stories behind the clothes. Barbie© wasn’t from the traditional mother/daughter world that these girls knew. They had to create the world in which their Barbie© lived. And in that imagination, these kids created worlds that had never existed.

Aspiration: Prior to Barbie©, most dolls were babies. Young girls played with them as caretakers and friends. Barbie© was the first doll that was older than the girls who played with her. Barbie was the doll they aspired to be. Besides being glamorous and fashionable, Barbie© took on the characteristics of the adult females in a young girl’s life. This changed the way young girls looked at the future. Suddenly they saw themselves being and becoming more than they ever thought possible before.

My grandmother saw all that in a private room in New York in 1959. Fortunately, she convinced my grandfather to buy a lot of them.