Black Dolls: Unique African American Dolls, 1850–1930 From the Collection of Deborah Neff

Margo Jefferson, Faith Ringgold, Lyle Rexer, 2015
Publisher: Radius Books/Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA.

Dimensions: 12 x 9.75

Pages: 232

This book presents over 100 unique handcrafted African American dolls, made between 1850 and 1940, from the collection of Deborah Neff. It is believed that African Americans created these dolls for the children in their lives, including members of their own families and respective communities as well as white children in their charge. Acquired over many years, this collection is one of the finest of its kind ever assembled.

The dolls portray faithful yet stylized representations of young and old African Americans—playful boys and girls, elegant young ladies, and distinguished older men and women. Ingeniously created with scraps of cloth, ribbon and lace, or old socks, these dolls range from primitive to sophisticated, from minimal to elaborate. Together they tell a fascinating story of culture and identity in American history.

The book also features rare vintage photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, showing both black and white children holding, posing, or playing with their dolls. This complex combination of text and imagery helps transform this book into a commentary about social mobility and racial identity conveyed through the untold story of these dolls.

The dolls are on public display for the first time at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, CA through July 5.

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