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The Black Dolls
The Black Dolls | © La Maison Rouge, Paris / Marc Domage
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A Black Dolls Exhibition in Paris Offers an Unrivalled Glimpse into Women and Slavery

Picture of Alex Ledsom
Updated: 6 April 2018
A new exhibition in Paris called Black Dolls offers a rare glimpse into a small part of American childhood as seen through the eyes of American slaves, mostly women.

American slaves used to make dolls out of household objects

American slaves weren’t allowed to pursue many hobbies but they were allowed to make dolls, sewn and dressed in many styles. Some were made from simple socks with stitching for eyes; others were more elaborate using wood or leather. They were destined for either their own children or the children they looked after.

The Black Dolls | © La Maison Rouge, Paris/Marc Domage
The Black Dolls | © La Maison Rouge, Paris / Marc Domage

The collection belongs to an American lawyer

American lawyer, Deborah Neff never intentionally set out to collect these dolls but she now has over 200 in her collection and this is the first time, outside of the United States, that this collection of dolls has been seen. Made by African American women between 1840 and 1940, they offer a fascinating insight into the time and the lives of these women. As she says, these artefacts are not just beautiful in their own right but they are also original and have a strong artistic value.

A couple in Sunday clothes made in the US circa 1890-1910 | © La Maison Rouge, Paris / Ellen McDermott, New York City

These dolls provide a view of American childhood and race relations that we normally do not see

In the US and Europe, old black dolls are nowadays primarily considered racist artefacts, but this exhibition shows that these dolls portray a different side of childhood that might not be as well known. At a time when dolls were made in the image of white children, it would have been psychologically invaluable for non-white children to have beautiful dolls made in their image. From 1910 onwards, North American manufacturers began producing dolls in different colours in response to this need. What’s more, their production would have involved the transfer of skills from generation to generation – skills which you still find in the US. As the exhibition points out, these dolls became a form of resistance to slavery, segregation and racism in general.

The Black Dolls | © La Maison Rouge, Paris/Marc Domage
The Black Dolls | © La Maison Rouge, Paris / Marc Domage

There is hope that the exhibition will set a new worldview

It’s easy to think that these dolls only serve a well-worn racist model. However, there is hope that by looking at the texts and documents that accompany the dolls, people will begin to see a rich alternative to the traditional view – that these unique dolls will set a new paradigm and that ‘black dolls’ won’t be seen in the same light again.

Doll with red boots, made in the US, from the 19th century | © La Maison Rouge, Paris / Ellen McDermott, New York City

The exhibition is in Paris at La Maison Rouge

The exhibition was first displayed in San Diego in 2015 and it is now at La Maison Rouge in Paris until May 2018. As well as the 200 dolls on display, there are also 80 photos of children photographed with their dolls over a period spanning before the American Civil War (1861-65) to the middle of the 20th century.