The New-York Historical Society is organizing a landmark exhibition that explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and identity. Black Dolls will immerse visitors in the world of dolls, doll play, and dollmaking while examining the formation of racial identity and confronting the persistence of racism in America. The exhibition will present approximately 120 cloth dolls, made largely by African American women, with a focus on examples made between 1850 and 1940. Many of the dolls are from the private collection of Deborah Neff. The dolls will be displayed alongside dozens of historical photographs of children posed with their playthings. Many of the photos featuring white children and their black caregivers reveal powerful messages about childhood, labor, race, and black womanhood in America. Other photographs of Black children with white dolls explore powerful ideas around identity and representation, memorably explored in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Through deep investigation of these humble yet potent objects, Black Dolls will reveal difficult truths about American history and invite visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation around the legacy of slavery.
Aimed at a general audience, the exhibition will also include family-friendly elements, including a pathway of labels for younger visitors (ages 5–12). Venues may adapt New-York Historical’s family guide—which prompts close looking and provides activities—and use its free online curriculum guide for teachers.
Available for one 12-week venue only, beginning late summer or early fall 2022.
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Black Dolls is generously supported by the Coby Foundation and the Decorative Arts Trust. This project is also supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.