Brooklyn Filmmaker Studies the Role of Black Dolls

I am always amazed at the information I find when preparing for my posts.  I am so proud of these remarkable Brooklyn Legends.  I cheer them on every chance I get.
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On February 6, 2013, New York Daily News reporter Jacob Osterhout published an article about Samantha Knowles, a beautiful young woman who recently received her graduate degree from Dartmouth College.  For her honors thesis, she produced a 25 minute documentary “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?”  This film was accepted at five festivals and, it was also featured at the Ingersoll Community Center in Brooklyn.

When asked why this subject was so important to her, Ms. Knowles recounts an experience she had as a child in Warwick, NY.  She was 8 years old when a white friend innocently asked her “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?”  Clearly at the time she didn’t have an answer.  However, if you ask her that question today, her response is clear.

“These black dolls provide a positive representation of black women and men to the children that play with them.  In these dolls, children see a reminder of their own beauty.”

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During the research phase for her documentary, Ms. Knowles interviewed more than 20 doll makers and historians, based primarily in New York and Philadelphia.  This past Saturday, I was in a beautiful home in New Jersey for my monthly Go On Girl! Book Club meeting.  Our hostess, who is an avid doll collector, has the most comprehensive collections I have ever seen.  It feels like close to 1,000, but there could be more!  These dolls are not just child’s play; they represent her travels throughout the world.

Thanks to Ms. Knowles, I recently discovered several women in Brooklyn who make African-American dolls.  There is one doll maker that I plan to visit within the coming weeks.  Her name is Cozbi Cabrera and she has a wonderful boutique in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn.  Here are a few photos of Ms. Cabrera working on her beautiful munecas – which is Spanish for doll.

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As a child I was surrounded by Black dolls and I loved them.  As Ms. Knowles mentioned in her interview, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with white dolls, but it was good to have dolls that I could relate to.  Some of my friends did not have this experience.  However for me, when I read this article, I was transported back to my childhood.  I realize just how fortunate I was.  In my opinion every little girl should be surrounded by positive images of herself.

I was nurtured by women who remember the Clark Doll Experiment, conducted by the African-American, husband and wife psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark.  The Clarks used this experiment to study children’s attitudes about race.  African-American children were given White and Black dolls.  They were subsequently asked to select which dolls were “good,” “bad,” “nice,” and “mean.”  At the end of the study it was noted the majority of the children associated positive qualities with the White dolls and negative qualities with the Black dolls.  The research was further used to quantify the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.  Additional information about The Clark Doll Study can be found here.

It is important to note these results were met with criticism by other psychologists who viewed believed the study was scientifically flawed.  On December 1, 2011 The Harvard Crimson, published an article in which Dr. Robin Bernstein, a Professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard, attributes the children’s choices (in The Clark Study) to the negative portrayal of Black dolls in American theater and media dating back to the Civil War era.  Additional information about Professor Bernstein’s research can be found here.

I must confess that I find each study to be painful.

Turning our attention back to Ms. Knowles, when asked how she addressed the criticism she received for promoting reverse racism, her response was eloquent and concise, “I’m not critiquing white dolls, just exploring the role of black dolls.  They are a reminder of our beauty that was not always available.”

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Brooklyn Legends is proud to salute Samantha Knowles for her remarkable achievements.  We thought you might enjoy viewing the trailer for her documentary.  Also, we love hearing from you.  Please let us know what you think.

Have a great week.

New York Daily News
Samantha Knowles – Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Cozbi Cabrera and Country Living Magazine – The Clark Study – Professor Robin Bernstein, Harvard University

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