by Aisha Phoenix

Ama Gueye, a former teacher and community activist, could be relaxing in her retirement. Instead she is using her savings to organise an annual black dolls exposition because she is so convinced that black dolls are imperative for the well-being of black children. Gueye felt retailers selling dolls were failing children of colour, so she founded Operation Sankofa, which will hold its fifth dolls exposition at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in London on Saturday. She said,

One of the things that really galvanised me was that I just got so fed up of seeing grown men carrying huge white dolls with blonde hair and blue eyes to Africa to give to their daughters…I was thinking can’t you find anything more suitable for your children? Obviously not, because they were just buying what was available.”

blackdollsexpoGueye perseveres so that future generations of black children take pride in their black dolls rather than preferring white dolls as they did in an unsettling documentary by the filmmaker Kiri Davis in 2005. Davis replicated the classic doll tests conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which found that black children associated black dolls with negative attributes and whites doll with positive ones. Gueye said that,

“from the global to the local my little bit is to help African children not pick up a doll and say “ooh, it’s ugly. It’s black and dolls aren’t supposed to be black”.’

For Gueye, it is hard to believe that Davis got similar results to the Clarks after the anti-racism and anti-sexism movements of the 1970s and 1980s and the efforts to achieve equality. She said,

She’s getting the same results. Now why is that?’

Frantz Fanon, the late psychiatrist and philosopher, argued that ‘in the collective unconscious, black = ugliness, sin, darkness, immorality’ (1986: 192). This, he argued, puts black people into a difficult position because as they begin to recognise that black is the symbol of sin, they catch themselves hating black people and then recognise that they themselves are black. Representations of blackness and normalised images of whiteness affect how black children see themselves and each other. Institutional racism, the ways in which institutional processes discriminate against and disadvantage people of colour wittingly or unwittingly, mean that black children are confronted by damaging and racist stereotypes presented as if they are normal in ways that make them hard to see or challenge. For example, last year my friend and I thought it would be fun to take our children to the Museum of Childhood. We hoped that they would be stimulated by the toys and dolls. However, our enjoyment of wandering around reminiscing about our childhood toys was curtailed by the golliwogs and racist black dolls.

The golliwog was created by Florence Kate Upton in 1895, she described her invented character as,

a horrid sight, the blackest gnome’.

The Museum of Childhood

They were not only offensive, but the museum’s labelling made no mention of their racist history. Jan Nederveen Pieterse argues that ‘the Golliwog was originally a toy, fashioned after the caricature of the “nigger minstrel”. A toy which, witness the dictionaries, carries a grotesque meaning,’ (1998: 158). Seeing the golliwogs took me back to the discomfort, hurt and anger. I felt like we were back in the 1980s and nineties when I would see golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, on Robertson’s jam jars, or in Hamleys and other toy shops. For me the golliwog underlined the fact that black people were considered inferior in Britain and fair game for racist ridicule. I would not have taken my eight-month-old daughter to the museum if I had realised they were there. In a museum one would expect to find representations of the uglier side of British history. However, with 21st-century sensibilities one would expect the labelling to at least situate the golliwog within its racist history. My friend and I both wrote to complain and the museum agreed to change the wording of their displays, but it should not have been our responsibility.

In contrast to this, Gueye has run workshops to raise awareness about the importance of black dolls in London, Dakar, Paris and Ghana. She said

We need to help ourselves and the generations that are coming to not have this inbuilt self-hatred. Look at … the skin bleaching, the hair straightening, the denial of being African. …The general consensus is almost like we’re at the bottom of the pile and that’s where we’re going to stay.”

Debbie Garrett, a black-doll enthusiast and author of The Doll Blogs: When Dolls Speak I Listen and other books and articles on black dolls, feels that positive representations of children of colour can help to boost self esteem

Playthings such as dolls, media, literature, art and other items that portray children of colour in a positive light help provide a healthy dose of self-love and self-esteem.  Therefore, dolls and other playthings that reflect a child’s image positively are extremely important for children of colour, particularly in societies where white skin and the accompanying facial characteristics are force-fed as the epitome of beauty.  Beauty comes in all colours and children of colour need to know this.”

Given the importance of black dolls, their absence or limited availability in mainstream shops is potentially damaging. It sends the message that black children are invisible, unimportant and devalued. I was in a well-known Oxford Street department store looking for black and Indian dolls for my daughter last year and found many white dolls, but not a single minority ethnic doll. I was told that the black dolls were out of stock and there was no mention of dolls of any other ethnicity. It was not good enough. As Jan Pieterse argues ‘the world which adults shape for children reflects the logic of the adults’ world,’ (1998: 167). Thus what does it say about the positioning of people of colour in our society? Garrett described the lack of black dolls in mainstream stores as problematic, arguing that it,

conveys a message to children of colour that the dolls are not needed, or even worse, that children of colour are not important enough to have dolls made in their likeness.  For decades, many doll manufacturers have placed little significance on black-doll production with several companies excluding black dolls from their lines entirely.  Without considering the ill effects the black doll’s absence has on the self-esteem of children of colour, doll makers with a mind-set of omission expect black parents to buy the white doll anyway.  Until their expectations are proven wrong, the trend to ignore the doll-play needs of children of colour will continue.

Parents need to make demands of mainstream retailers

Black and minority ethnic dolls should be routinely available in mainstream stores in London, a city with a population that is 40 percent black and minority ethnic, according to the 2011 census. Parents need to demand more, and I do not just mean parents of colour. Every child’s toy box should reflect the diversity of the world around them. In the meantime, the ‘5th Black Dolls Expo’ will take place on Saturday and a variety of dolls will be on sale. The theme of the exposition is ‘Celebrating our Sheroes’, recognising the contributions of inspirational women and girls. Historian Ama Biney will give a talk about important black women who are not often celebrated.

For Gueye, the annual black dolls exposition does not absolve the mainstream retailers from the responsibility to ensure that black dolls are available in their shops and she has been asking them why they do not stock more. It is also important that museums, the mainstream media and other institutions ensure that people of colour are routinely represented in constructive ways so that children of colour are not deprived of the implicit and taken-for-granted nurturing that white children get from seeing images of themselves.

The ‘5th Black Dolls Expo: “I Want One Just Like Me!”’ will take place on Saturday, October 26 from 1pm to 6pm at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Town Hall Approach Road, Tottenham Green, London, N15 4RX. For full details and tickets visit: Bernie Grant Centre

References:

Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin White Masks. London: Pluto.

Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. 1998. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. London: Yale University Press.

Aisha Phoenix writes about colourism, racism, gender, belonging, diversity, occupation and justice. She is completing a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London on Palestinian students negotiating life under occupation. She has worked as a media reporter at Bloomberg News and has written for Open Democracy, the Voice, The Royal Television Society’s Television Magazine and The British Council. She also writes for academic journals. She has a postgraduate diploma in Newspaper Journalism from City University, a BA in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies and Masters in Social Research and Social Anthropology of Development. Twitter: @firebirdN4

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3 thoughts on ““I Want One Just Like Me!” Black Dolls Expo

  1. Thank you Aisha for writing such a beautiful piece about my mother’s work. She is my Shero and has been since she gave me a Black doll, Black children’s books and a sense of Black/African pride from as early as I can remember. I hope that we all understand the importance of this work and champion it forward!

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  2. A
    AMA, I am so very proud of you first as a brother and secondly as an intellectual par excellence. What you are doing requires confidence, perseverance and above all, the visionary foresight to literally “sankofa”. It couldn’t have come from a better more resourced mother like you. You have done all Africans proud! It will take sometime for generations to appreciate what you have started, but like all visionaries you are way ahead of your time and those of us who appreciate what you are doing for people of color, I say “ayekoo”.

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  3. Thank you !!! As white single mum of 3 children ( there dad is from Ghana and has not lived with us for last 15/16 years) I totally and utterly agree. The world is very white, my daughter is 18 now, very racially aware and proud but a simple thing like a black doll would have helped empower her confidence better than Barbie. She was over overjoyed when Brandy was Cinderella !

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