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Black Doll Collectors Find History, Fun at Annual Show

Shantella Y. Sherman | 10/14/2009, 8:29 p.m.

Hundreds of Black doll collectors converged on The Mall at Prince George€s Fri., Oct. 9 and Sat., Oct. 10 for the annual Black Doll Show & Sale that featured African American doll makers, a host of vendors and ardent collectors of doll accessories and furnishings from around the country.

Doll collecting among African Americans has historically included elements of history and genealogy, with childhood dollys being passed from mother to daughter for generations. The dolls also provide a continuing link to the past €" their simplicity, uniqueness and age that mark the gradual progression of African Americans socially.

Historian Zora Jimenez, who attended the Black Doll Show, said that the earliest African American dolls were made of cornhusks, bones, croaker sacks and whatever items were available to enslaved people. The care that went into making them created their present value.
Cyne Gallerie of Upper Marlboro, Md. display their popular "Doll of Change" that features a doll mirrored after President Barack Obama with his own blanket and plastic bag holder. Photo by Maurice G. Fitzgerald
€The dolls were made with love by family members and resembled the people who made them. As Blacks moved from slavery and the country moved into an age of modernity, mass-produced Black dolls reinforced negative stereotypes White America had of Blacks. As a result, those dolls were a source of pain, embarrassment and degradation,€ Jimenez, 47, said.

Jimenez said that as a result of their negative aspects, many Black families continued to make their own dolls. Not until the late 1970s did mainstream doll manufacturers, including Mattel, begin to produce more representative products.

Among collectors, what was once an intimate familial exchange has become big business for many. African American dolls can range from $40 to $10,000. Those who attended this year€s Black Doll show found the average price to be about $200.

Maxine Currie, of West Hyattsville, Md., said that she attended the Black Doll Show to find a vendor who specialized in handmade Caribbean dolls.

€As some women get older, we begin to remember the simple things we had as children. We begin to cherish the little sock dolly that an uncle or mother gave us. The store-bought dolly won€t do€ we want a part of our past,€ Currie said.

Currie, 54, a native Trinidadian, said that her first dolly was made from an old weather sock that belonged to her father. She named the doll Genevieve. Although, she lost track of Genevieve after numerous moves, she later named her oldest daughter after the doll. Now, the grandmother of an eight-month-old granddaughter, Currie said she intends to continue the sock dolly tradition.

€Genevieve-dolly was my security blanket as a child and I want my granddaughter to grow up with one just like the one I had. It is part of our history so it is important to expose her to it,€ Currie said.
Mildred Chiles of Richmond, Va. poses with her rare Aborigine dolls and two rare rag dolls from America€s slave-era. Photo by Maurice G. Fitzgerald
Denise Edwards Simpson of Southwest has been collecting dolls for nearly 30 years. Simpson said that she previously purchased several pieces from doll shows, but she also goes to a doll manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa. Like most girls, she played with dolls as a small child, but continues to enjoy them in her later years. She said that she collects Barbie€s and Cabbage Patch Kids

The doll enthusiast said that she has recently completed a successful round of chemotherapy for a cancer that had gone undetected for years. The side effects of the treatment left her physically drained and she refused to take her last round of chemo.

€I decided that I just couldn€t take it anymore. My fianc came to me and said, €Baby, if you go back for the last chemo treatment, I promise I will buy you a new doll.€ It€s funny, but that was all it took. I cried for a while, but went back, and he was so happy that he bought me two dolls instead of one,€ Simpson said.