Black and white

Havre de Grace High graduate reflects on growing up black in an era when her dolls were white

  • A collection of dolls owned by Mabel Hart reflects the limited range of skin tones available when Diedre Ware was a girl.
A collection of dolls owned by Mabel Hart reflects the limited… (Photo courtesy of Bobby…)
March 29, 2013|By Diedre A. Ware

Editor's note: Freelance writer Diedre A. Ware grew up in Havre de Grace and graduated from Havre de Grace High School. Her recollections of what it was like growing up black in an era when children's dolls were white was published recently in Dolls magazine based in Iola, Wis., It is republished here with permission, along with photographs that ran with the Dolls magazine version.

As a child, my dolls were by best friends. When I confided in them, I knew they would never tell. They were the ideal guests for tea parties and the perfect students to play school with. Well, not always perfect. I sometimes accused them - out loud - of not listening when I was going over a lesson plan, or reprimanded them for not sitting up straight. I scolded them, mimicking the phrases I heard often from my own teachers: "Could you please stop talking?"

My favorite doll, "Suzy Smart," cost $12.88 in the '60s, with an offer of a $1 lay-away plan. She was 25 inches tall, wore glasses, and came with her own desk, chalkboard, and eraser. Unfortunately, she came to a tragic end. While walking to a friend's house, I lost my balance near a stream, and Suzy fell into the water and started to float downstream. While a neighbor saved her, Suzy had been in the murky water too long - she was waterlogged. I tried drying her out, but the smell was unbearable. I had to face losing my best friend forever.

In the '60s, my dolls were an extension of who I was, and I loved them unconditionally, although none of them looked like me. I didn't share their blue eyes, blond hair, and keen features. I was brown-skinned and had a round face with bright brown eyes, a button nose, and full lips. My coarse black hair was corn rowed with rubber bands on the ends. But I cared for my dolls just as my mother did me. I washed their hair with Pearl shampoo, combed and plaited it into braids, greased their scalps with Dixie Peach hair grease, and scorched their hair using a hot straightening comb. During our tea parties, I treated them to cookies, grits, eggs, greens, and corn bread.

My first and only black doll had a hard vinyl head and rubber body. Her head had painted swirls to give an appearance of hair, along with exaggerated thick features and bright red lips. Looking back, she reminded me of the 1940s "Sara Lee" doll. I loved her, like all the other dolls I owned. But she frightened me at the same time because I identified with white dolls. It was puzzling - I would be fibbing if I said that I never thought of wanting to look like my "Suzy Smart" doll. I thought it was easy to play and befriend white girls my age because they looked like my dolls. A few were allowed to play with me; others were forbidden. I knew that they didn't have dolls that looked like me to love and cherish, because I only had one - and that one didn't look much like me.

Years later, I read about the doll test. Psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark had designed and administered a test using dolls to determine racial perceptions and preferences - the results of their research were cited in the Supreme Court's decision in the landmark 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education which ordered the desegregation of schools in America.

The Clarks used four plastic diaper-clad dolls, identical except for skin color. The dolls were shown to black children aged 3 through 7, who were then asked several questions. Many of the children identified the race of the dolls; however, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll, attributing positive characteristics to it. This test showed the damaging psychological effects of segregation on black children

Even years after desegregation, many of my friends and I would have responded the same way to the doll test. Some of us have swapped doll stories. One admitted to never having a doll because her mom couldn't find a black one in her small town - she purchased her first black doll as an adult. A white friend showed me a picture of her mom at age 5, back in 1949, holding her favorite doll, a black doll, which her mom said had disappeared - she suspected that someone took it away from her thinking that a white girl shouldn't have a black doll. I have an 89-year-old friend, affectionately called Mouse, whose face lights up when she talks about the love of her doll-playing years: "Who saw color when a doll was in need of a friend and a good home?"

One day, while holding one of my dolls tightly, I saw black and white civil-rights marchers on my TV set being viciously attacked by people who opposed any notion of equality between races. The next day, I remember dancing wildly and singing out loud to James Brown's "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" song, but questioning the little black girl looking back at me in the mirror, standing in front of all of my white dolls. I felt that doll manufacturers should start making dolls that looked like me.

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