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New Strong Museum exhibit explores Black dolls through the historical lens of race and gender

The Black Dolls exhibit — which opened at The Strong Museum of Play on Saturday — explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history.
Jasmin Singer
/
WXXI News
The Black Dolls exhibit — which opened at The Strong Museum of Play on Saturday — explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history.

A new display at Rochester's Strong Museum of Play explores the historical realm of dolls and confronts the persistent issue of racism in America.

For Dominque Jean-Louis, the chief historian of the Center for Brooklyn History, bringing the exhibit “Black Dolls” to the Strong was particularly poignant.

Dominique Jean-Louis is the co-curator of the Strong's new exhibit, "Black Dolls."
Jasmin Singer
/
WXXI News
Dominique Jean-Louis is the co-curator of the Strong's new exhibit, "Black Dolls."

“We want this show to come across people's register, even though it deals with more difficult history — like the Jim Crow era, and like the painful history of domestic service for African American communities,” she said. “What better way to introduce and to think through those topics than with your family?”

The exhibit — which opened at the Strong on Saturday — explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history. It showcases over 200 items, highlighting 110 handmade dolls from the personal gatherings of Connecticut-based collector Deborah Neff.

The exhibit—which opened at the Strong on Saturday—showcases over 200 items, highlighting 110 handmade dolls from the personal gatherings of Connecticut-based collector Deborah Neff.
Jasmin Singer
/
WXXI News
The exhibit — which opened at The Strong on Saturday — showcases over 200 items, highlighting 110 handmade dolls from the personal gatherings of Connecticut-based collector Deborah Neff.

Sandy Todd attended the opening with her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter.

“She was looking at all the dolls, and she loved that there were baby dolls,” Todd said. “And it's also obviously important for her to see all different races and cultures and everything. It's a beautiful exhibit.”

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Jean-Louis, who co-curated the exhibit, said it is a clear display of creative ability under very limited circumstances. Women were not looked at as artistic geniuses, she said; they were looked at as the carers of children and the makers of household objects.

“And so, you put those things together, you get these black dolls,” Jean-Louis said. “But these women are incredibly talented and working with incredible ingenuity.”

"Black Dolls" invites visitors of all ages to scrutinize racial stereotypes and discuss America's deeply entrenched racial issues.
Jasmin Singer
/
WXXI News
"Black Dolls" invites visitors of all ages to scrutinize racial stereotypes and discuss America's deeply entrenched racial issues.

The Strong is presenting the exhibit paired with "Black Doll Designers,” a complementary display focusing on Black designers and modern Black dolls.

Both exhibitions invite visitors of all ages to scrutinize racial stereotypes and discuss America's deeply entrenched racial issues.

“Most of these dolls are from the late 19th century, early 20th century — basically the years following the Civil War — as African Americans gained citizenship,” Jean-Louis said. “But as they were also withstanding a backlash to African American rights in this country that lasted basically until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”

The historian, who led a discussion about race and Black dolls on Saturday morning at the museum, pointed out that doll-making has historically been a significantly more intricate process requiring top-notch creativity.

“This isn't going to Joanne Fabrics and picking out whatever fabric you want for your doll,” Jean-Louis said. “This is working with remnants of old curtains or tablecloths or grown-out clothes, and using what you have to make more.”

The historical impact of that tells the story of Blackness in this country, she said, but more specifically, of Black womanhood.

Jasmin Singer is the host of WXXI’s Weekend Edition and Environmental Connections, as well as a guest host for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Connections.