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His Black Rag Dolls Bring Joy, Hardship : Race relations: Herman Charlton says he has endured unfair treatment while selling dolls. But he also says his work helps give black children a positive image.

December 23, 1989|JOHN H. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But Charlton said it wasn't long before customers began calling him Baby Doll Man.

And while earning the title, Charlton said, he's seen a lot.

"You don't know what I've gone through with these dolls," he said.

Charlton said he has been arrested three times for illegal peddling. In each case, he said, a judge confirmed that he had a valid seller's permit and dismissed the charge. Once, Charlton said, he was further vindicated when a judge scolded the arresting officers for ignoring the permit.

Charlton also talks of doll knifings, dollnapings, and doll scams by half a dozen fast talkers who, over the years, have taken large shipments of dolls on consignment, and never gotten back to Charlton with the merchandise or the money.

Most disturbing, Charlton said, has been the intolerance for something so natural as a black doll.

He said xenophobic comments frequently are aired by people in passing cars. They shout expletive-laced demands for Charlton to "get some white dolls out there," he said.

So, at one point about eight years ago, he did just that.

"White ones didn't sell," he maintained.

For 10 years, it's always been the black, black-Latino and black-Asian dolls that have caught peoples' attention, he said.

"I can't say what race buys more," he said. "At least as many non-blacks buy them as black folks."

Oppel, the Santa Monica real estate agent, was on his way to show a house in nearby Lennox when he stopped at Charlton's display because his wife wanted to buy a black doll for a friend's daughter.

The real estate agent, who is white, thought that the daughter, who was born to a mixed-race couple, might feel more comfortable playing with at least one doll that resembled her.

"None of the family's white relatives would think about buying something like this for the girl," Oppel said. "They would rather see her play with just white dolls. We wanted to give a black doll, specifically. The little girl already has a lot of white ones."

Charlton nodded. He has heard similar comments before.

And over the years he has come to realize that the importance of the doll is not solely in the small measure of financial independence it has afforded him.

The dolls have given black children and adults a positive ethnic image to identify with, he said.

"I've had people tell me, 'If you don't like these dolls, you don't like yourself,' " Charlton said.

And, yet, after a decade of hard work and repeated praise from customers, Charlton, an unwitting architect of ethnic pride, said he is puzzled and somewhat bitter over still having to work out of the back of his van.

Charlton said he has tried over the years to market his dolls to a wider audience--both through the failed consignment attempts and by contacting large toy makers. For a variety of reasons, he said, the efforts have not worked.

Without dwelling on the disappointments, the toy-making family continues to work.

"We aren't saying black children have to play with our dolls," partner Turnage said. "We just want people to know that there are black dolls, and black-Asian dolls, and black-Latino dolls, just like there are children."

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