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Identity through dolls 

You are what you play with, collector says.

click to enlarge PLAYING WITH HER DOLL: Swift, as a little girl.
  • PLAYING WITH HER DOLL: Swift, as a little girl.

Mary Swift had two baby dolls when she was a little girl. They looked like Mary, because they were black. Swift's grandmother, who gave her the dolls, let her play with them only at Christmas. The rest of the year, Swift played with her less special dolls — her white dolls.

Swift still has her black baby dolls, and nearly a thousand others. She started collecting when her husband, Joshua, gave her a small black Mammy doll in New Orleans in 1976.

Now, Swift's Little Rock home is packed with dolls — her living room and dining room have been entirely turned over to the collection, and they can be found in every other room as well. The oldest dates to the 19th century, a papier-mache doll made, she believes, by a slave. Among her newest are collectible Barbies designed by Byron Lars. She has German dolls, island dolls, cloth dolls, black kewpie dolls, dolls that look like real African Americans and dolls that don't look like anything human. They reflect the politics of their makers and evoke a range of feelings, from awe to red-faced embarrassment.

All say something significant about black culture and position in society, a subject Swift will take up when she speaks next Wednesday, Feb. 1, at the Darragh Center of the Main Library, in its Legacies and Lunch series. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is co-sponsor of the talk.

Swift, a retired teacher who is proud to be a fifth-generation Arkansan (though her own childhood and young adult years were spent in the Northeast), believes dolls help a child forge an identity, and that a poor lesson is learned when black girls are given white dolls to play with — that white is pretty, black is not. She noted Kenneth Clark's famous study that showed most black girls preferred white dolls over black ones, a test used to argue for integration in the Brown decision. That was 1954; but in 2005, a similar experiment in New York got the same results.

One of Swift's dolls — a doll that dates to the early 20th century — has a hideous face that racists of the time apparently found comic. Her English golliwogs — black cloth dolls with huge white eyes and big red mouths that were once wildly popular with white children — are disturbing. On the other hand, antique black dolls made by German and French dollmakers are quite beautiful.

Such dolls weren't marketed to blacks, of course. Few dolls were until the 1950s, Swift said, when cheap composition dolls began to appear in chain dime stores. More than half the dolls Swift buys come from white women; she is the only black collector at the annual kewpie doll convention she goes to.

Swift does not collect derogatory figurines “eating watermelon” and such. “Someone else can collect those,” she said.

Two dolls that will accompany Swift to her talk are Polly and Pete, dolls designed in the 1950s with true black features by Sara Lee Creech and Sheila Burlingame. Creech, whose earlier black Sara Lee baby doll was endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was a white social worker who saw that black children needed black dolls; Burlingame did the actual sculpting of the faces based on photos taken by Creech. An article in Life Magazine in the 1950s about Polly and Pete included the photographs. “There's never been a doll they could call their own,” the article said.

The furniture and floor of Swift's home is taken up by dolls; her walls are covered with her collection of photos of black families from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The photographs also illustrate the cultural disconnect between blacks as portrayed by whites in popular imagery — films, advertising, postcards, books — and reality. One photograph — not historic — is of Swift as a girl, with one of her baby dolls and her dog, Black Girl. She is lifting a finger, “teaching,” Swift said. She continues to do so today.

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