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Cutting across black history

A Smithsonian exhibit of paper dolls tracks the changing roles of African Americans though 200 years of a one-dimensional craft.

December 25, 2006|DeNeen L. Brown | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A slip of the scissors and off comes a foot.

A nick and there goes a finger.

A wrong snip and a tab that would have held up her dress disappears.

Paper dolls, fragile though they were, they enticed us.

Thin, frail, delicate, temporary with permanent effects.

But you sat for hours, cutting out the dolls, following the dotted lines along long legs, thin waists, chiseled chins, around heads with the bluest eyes that Toni Morrison's Pecola prayed for.

"See, don't she look pretty," you would say to your sister. Happy for the paper dolls, never noticing until later that all the dolls you took care to cut out, bring to life and dress, never looked like you.

Never realizing all the time that you were cutting, you were defining how you saw yourself, taking in the images of what the mass producers of toys told you was the standard of beauty.

Arabella Grayson knows what it was like for children to take in those images. And it is what led her to begin collecting paper dolls, black ones, and trying to understand their place in history. Her efforts are on display at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum in "Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson."

The show, on view through April, traces the emergence of the paper dolls. There are dolls that date to the 1800s and others of current well-known faces.

The dolls produced from the 1800s to the 1960s show black people in subservient roles. The mammies, the butlers, the pickaninnies in torn clothing, grinning with their paper doll smiles. There is Topsey, based on the stereotypical character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo.

In all, there are 110 paper dolls on display at the museum, all from Grayson, an author and collector, who set out to find all the rare black paper dolls she could in U.S. history.

Paper dolls are serious playthings. And a bit strange, because they are flat little people, imitating life from one dimension.

Grayson began her collection about 10 years ago after a friend gave her a birthday card. Within the card was a little Caribbean girl paper doll. "I thought she was adorable," Grayson said. "But I could not recall seeing another black paper doll."

Grayson went to a bookstore to see what she could find. It was 1994. What she found was Addy, a slave girl from the American Girl historical series. "I thought, 'If I had a small child, would I buy this paper doll for her to play with?' " Grayson said.

She wondered why the only black paper doll she could find had to be a slave.

The question prompted her research. She looked through picture books and literature. And read that the first black paper doll was created in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. That led her to wonder who that paper doll was. "As I hunted for that paper doll," she said, "I came across other black paper dolls." Many were caricatures.

"I wondered who was playing with these dolls," Grayson said. "These dolls obviously were mass produced for a particular market. It didn't appear to me that they were for black children."

She came to understand that "toys are the way children are taught values and beliefs. And they were being marketed for mass appeal.... Images that children see, that permeate mass culture, have an effect on them. They embrace them or reject them, but they are always responding to them."

Grayson researched the doll study that played a significant role in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, showing black children were adversely affected by negative images in popular culture.

Grayson, now in her 40s, says she remembers playing with paper dolls.

"I was 11 or 12, clearly still in elementary school," she says. "I remember sitting on the floor, trying to make sure I cut on the line, but not over the line so when I affixed the clothes, they would fit. I remember trying to get it right, like coloring, staying in the line." But back then she never knew black paper dolls existed.

In her research, she found that the first commercially produced black paper doll was Topsey, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's character, who was described as "odd and goblin-like" and having "wooly hair braided in sundry tails sticking out in all directions." The doll was produced in 1863 by McLoughlin Bros. of New York. (The company added the letter "e" to her name.) Topsey was introduced along with the novel's character Little Eva, the master's white daughter.

"The dramatic contrast in race and class were made clear in the toys," Grayson said. "They were more than mere playthings. Paper dolls like these have chronicled, for nearly 200 years, the changing images, stereotypes and roles of people of African descent."

Then she found the Aunt Jemima paper doll, produced by R.T. Davis Mill Co., thought to be the first company to use a paper doll in advertising. "In 1893, the company hired former slave Nancy Green to play Aunt Jemima at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago," the exhibit says.

Museum historian Gail Lowe moves through the exhibit, pointing out characters like Sambo, then jumping ahead to more modern faces. "Here, we have the other extreme," Lowe says, pointing to more modern dolls. "They are all beautiful in a classic European way. You see there has been a 'correction.' "

Beginning in the 1960s and '70s, paper dolls became more integrated, and companies began producing more "black pride" paper dolls.

There is Julia from the television series that ran from 1968 to 1971, and Tiger Woods, and Beyonce Knowles. There is a black Miss America. Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt, Celia Cruz, Sade. And Star Jones, who on paper is still voluptuous in a black slip waiting to be dressed.

And you think of your long-ago self, and wonder if there are still little brown girls and boys somewhere carefully clipping close to the lines.

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