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‘Black Dolls’ on view at New York Historical Society thru June 5

Hate is designed, learned by a bombardment of images and actions to make others feel less than the oppressor. To understand the impact of institutionally designed discrimination and the impact on young minds, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “The Dolls Test” in the 1940s, to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.

Using four identical dolls, one being Black, and the other being white, the test’s goal was to gauge the children’s racial perceptions. The children were between the ages of three and seven and asked which color doll they preferred. Most of the children preferred the white doll assigning positive characteristics to it, and negative characteristics to the Black dolls. This is an issue of self-esteem which is a vital building block for the healthy development of all human beings.

In an interview on the PBS documentary that focused on the Civil Rights movement—“Eyes on the Prize”—Dr. Kenneth Clark recalled: “The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children. We worked with Negro children—I’ll call Black children—to see the extent to which their color, their sense of their own race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves, self-esteem. We’ve now—this research, by the way, was done long before we had any notion that the NAACP or that the public officials would be concerned with our results. In fact, we did the study 14 years before Brown and the lawyers of the NAACP learned about it and came and asked us if we thought it was relevant to what they were planning to do in terms of the Brown decision cases. And we told them it was up to them to make that decision and we did not do it for litigation. We did it to communicate to our colleagues in psychology the influence of race and color and status on the self-esteem of children.”

Fast forward to 2022 and the issues swirling around self-esteem amongst people of color, especially those blessed with a darker hue, is examined through handmade Black dolls in a new exhibit attempting through the lens of gender, race, and history.

Currently on exhibit at the New York Historical Society through June 5, 2022, “Black Dolls,” curated by Margi Hofer (vice president and museum director), and Dominique Jean-Louis (associate curator for history exhibitions), immerses visitors in the world of dolls, doll play, and doll making while examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. The exhibition examines how these toys serve as expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance and pride, and love and longing. They provide a unique view of the history of race in America, revealing difficult truths and inviting visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism.

“Black Dolls” feature more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New York Historical and other collections. Period photographs from the Neff Collection provide important context. Starting with dolls that reflect the horrors of slavery, the exhibition moves through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Dolls with detailed finery, often made from ingeniously repurposed sewing basket scraps, push back against negative racial stereotypes, while photographs that show white children playing with Black dolls and Black children holding white dolls complicate the narrative. The exhibition also depicts the rise of factory-made dolls and the growing emphasis on positive representation they embodied, as the slogan of the National Negro Doll Company stated: “Negro Dolls for Negro Children.”

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