Ricco/Maresca Gallery
Jun 16, 2020 5:45PM

A visual testimony and chief historical document of the complex history of race relations in America, Black Dolls was published in conjunction with the eponymous traveling exhibition featuring the most important collection of unique handmade American black dolls ever assembled.

Black Dolls | Radius Books, 2015

Essays by Margo Jefferson, Faith Ringgold, and Lyle Rexer

Editor: Frank Maresca

PhotographED BY Ellen McDermott

From the Collection of Deborah Neff

Black Dolls comprises outstanding images from the most important collection of unique handmade American black dolls ever assembled—made throughout the crucial period between 1850 and 1930. The dolls presented in this book—which range from the stylized to the realistic, from the rudimentary to the meticulous—were primarily made by African American individuals for the children in their communities or under their care. The book also presents a key grouping of historic vernacular and studio photographs that provide great insight into the role of black dolls within the context in which they were made. In the upwardly mobile society of post-Civil War America, owning a manufactured white doll was a symbol of status, thus substantiating the overwhelming number of photos that survive featuring African American children with white dolls or Caucasian children with black dolls—rarely the other way around. The picture that emerges from the conjunction of the portraits of these dolls and the vintage photographic material is one where the doll plays a surrogate part--mimicing actual racial dynamics in this cultural setting.

Artist Unknown. Girl in Orange and Red Outfit. United States, ca. 1920-30. Mixed fabrics. 14.5" x 8.5" x 3".

Photographer Unknown. Gelatin silver print, ca. 1885-90. 7" x 5".

"It is not a coincidence that recurrent experiments involving African American children and dolls of different races have continued to reveal a preference among black children for dolls with white skin color ... Without an understanding of the devastating results of 250 years of slavery in America and the subsequent ramifications black people were subjected to, no child can comprehend why progress, possession, and superficial comforts manifested in the proverbial white doll and escaped the black one."

– Faith Ringgold

Leo Moss. Mabel Lincoln (Crying Baby). United Sta (Macon, Georgia), ca. 1922. Composition, cotton, manufactured body, manufactured eyes, blackening agent. 17.5" x 7" x 5".

Detail | "Mabel Lincoln 1922" is handwritten on a cloth label sewn onto this doll's torso. It is not known if this is the date the doll was made or the model's birthday.

"You, the child, are the creator of an ordered existence: a miniature kingdom that can imitate or disrupt the logic of your everyday life, the life conceived of and run by adults. They do what they want with you. You do what you want with the doll. You’re loving, you’re fickle; you’re imperious and stern. You coo and comfort the doll, you hurl it down and spank it ... How do these rituals play out when your doll is made in the image of another race? ... How do we, their descendants, place ourselves in the stories they suggest? ... I was their mistress. I enjoyed my white dolls, I enjoyed having what other little American girls had. Did I envy their impeccable Anglo Saxon looks? I did. But that was in the back of my mind. A brown doll would have pushed it to the front"

– Margo Jefferson

Artist Unknown. Woman with Mask, ca. 1880s - 1920s. Mixed fabrics, manufactured doll head, 17" x 7" x 5.5".

This powerful doll started life as a white doll and was later repurposed by partially covering the white head with black fabric and her European-style dress with bandanas.

Alex Harris. Nellie Mae Rowe, 1973.

"Touchingly, they show the physical toll of years, decades, centuries spent in trunks and cabinets, on dressers and bookcases, hauled from one craft fair to another. Wood and leather crack, fabric shreds and fades. Small holes and tears appear on limbs and faces. Some look like scars or calluses; some even look like vitiligo spots. But most look exactly what they are: visual testimony -- (the tobacco brown nose with a pale patch down the middle, the black face with white shadows) -- that race is a construction."

– Margo Jefferson

Artist Unknown. Early Gentleman. United States (Massachusetts), ca. 1960s. Mixed fabrics, leather, brass, glass. 16" x 7" x 2.5".

Detail | Said to have been made ca 1863-64 by an ancestor of the Badger family in Milton, MA, for sale to support the Union soldiers during the CivilW

Artist Unknown. Early Topsy-Turvy. United States, late 19th century. Mixed fabrics, leather. 12.5" x 9.5" x 4.5".

Artist Unknown. Woman in Red Boots. United States, late 19th century, Mixed fabrics, glass. 22" x 8" x 2.5".

An unusual blue-eyed black doll, with a nicely shaped body made from silk stockings.

"The remarkable photographs contained in this book are of two kinds: photos of dolls themselves, portraits if you will of inanimate objects, and historical photos, which depict the relationship between children (and sometimes adults) and their dolls, usually dolls that represent black figures. They remind us that the unconscious has a history and that it changes decisively with the advent of photography ... These photographs, most from the turn of the nineteenth century, entangle viewers in an unwritten record of the fantasy life of an America divided by race" – Lyle Rexer

Photographer Unknown. Cabinet Card. Burnham Studio, Norway (Maine), ca. 1870-85. 5.75" x 4".

Photographer Unknown. Cabinet Card. Carrington family album, Norwich (Connecticut) ca. 1910-20. 4.25" x 2.5".

"Perhaps the most powerful impression from the vernacular images is the valorization of nurturing. If one crucial function of the doll is to enable the child to try on roles recognized in adult life, then white girls with black dolls suggest the adoption or projection of a close relationship known first-hand, that of being cared for by a woman of another race. Is the doll, then, a way of modeling the responsibility if not love for another across a barrier of difference? ... How often was the border of race crossed in imagination, in dreams and in fact during these childhoods, and at what point was it closed for good?" – Lyle Rexer

Photographer Unknown. Cabinet Card. Burpee Studio, Beloit (Wisconsin), ca. 1880-90. 5.875" x 3.875".

Photographer Unknown. Cabinet Card. Pach Bros Studio, Cambridge (Massachusetts), ca. 1900-10. 3.75" x 2.375".

Exhibition Venues

MINGEi International MUSEUM: Feb 7 - Jul 5, 2015

Figge Art Museum: May 26 - AuG 26, 2017

La Maison Rouge: Feb 23 . May 20, 2018


Photographer Unknown. Cabinet Card, ca. 1900. 4.75" x 7".

Ricco/Maresca Gallery