Before leaving for Senegal in September 2013, fellow doll enthusiast and educator, Paulette Richards, wrote a glowing and most impressive review of my three books written on the subject of collecting black dolls. Richards' review, which compares my doll research to the research of two historians of African American history, was too lengthy to post on Amazon.com; therefore, she sent it directly to me. I posted the review in its entirety on my Facebook Page: Debbie Behan Garrett, Black Doll Enthusiast a few weeks ago. Paulette will be a guest blogger later this week. I thought this would be an opportune time to post the review here. Thank you again, Paulette, I remain grateful and forever honored.
The Doll Griot
By Paulette Richards
Debbie Behan Garrett grew up during the era of the Civil Rights movement when African Americans vehemently rejected the stereotypical images of blacks that had long pervaded American mass media. Rather than purchase dolls that perpetuated negative stereotypes of blacks, Garrett’s mother provided only white dolls for her children. Yet young Debbie keenly felt the lack of “dolls that look like me.” In the early 1990s after her own daughter had “outgrown” dolls, Garrett was consumed with a passion for collecting and documenting black dolls. This passion launched her on a trajectory similar to two African American historians of the early twentieth century – Arturo Schomburg, and J.A. Rogers.
“Blacks have no history. There are no black heroes. Black people have accomplished nothing, have contributed nothing to the advancement of human civilization…” Like many students subjected to the routine “miseducation of the Negro,” Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938) heard myths like these when he was a schoolboy in Puerto Rico. Schomburg, however, vowed to prove his teachers wrong. Although he did not follow a traditional academic career like W.E. B. DuBois, he dedicated his life to the study of Afro-Latin and African American history. In 1911 he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research. By this time, however, Schomburg had already amassed a large collection of books and artifacts documenting African diasporan culture and history.
Schomburg united scholars from Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. in the study of African diasporan culture and history. Meanwhile, his collections continued to grow. Although he worked in modestly paid clerical jobs and had five sons to support, the New York Public Library paid $10,000 for his collection of books and materials in 1926. The collection was initially housed in the 135th Street (Harlem) branch of the library and Schomburg was appointed curator of “the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art.”
Schomburg’s obsessive pursuit of books by and about people of African descent may have seemed crazy to some, but his collection formed the basis of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Similarly, while Garrett’s obsessive acquisition of black dolls may seem irrational to non-doll lovers, her dedication to celebrating the beauty of black dolls echoes Schomburg and Rogers’ determination to destroy myths of racial inferiority.
Garrett published her first book, The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls with Hobby House Press in 2003. This 176 page soft cover volume catalogues each doll with information on the artist and/ or manufacturer, the material, height, identifying marks, descriptions of the hair/eyes/ mouth, clothing and an estimated value. Then, following in the footsteps of J.A. Rogers, Garrett self-published her second book in 2008.
Joel August Rogers was born in Jamaica in 1880. Although they could not afford to provide much education for their eleven children, Rogers internalized the strong value his parents placed on learning and devoted his life to researching and disseminating as much information as he could about the history of black people. By 1906 he was living in Harlem. Later he took a job as a Pullman porter, which allowed him to comb libraries all over the country. Over the course of his life he also traveled extensively overseas, sifting “the bran of history” as he called it for nuggets of information about the historical experience of black people. Although Rogers was self-educated, self-financed, and self-published, his books eventually earned respect from academic historians. For example W.E.B. Dubois observed that "No man living has revealed so many important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers." Similarly, Garrett’s years of dedicated research and publication have earned her recognition in The New York Times and other prestigious publications as an authority on black dolls. (“The Dolls I Never Had as a Child”)
Like most of Rogers’ works, Garret’s 450 page volume on Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion is lavishly illustrated. Full color photographs carefully document each doll. Garrett’s collection runs the gamut of materials (bisque, celluloid, composition, rubber, hard plastic, and cloth), aesthetics (artist dolls, craft dolls, manufactured play dolls), and genres such as fashion dolls, paper dolls, and celebrity portrait dolls. Since dolls are usually viewed only as toys for little girls, the “bran” that Garrett sifts might seem even more marginal than the records Schomburg and Rogers searched for evidence about black experience. Further, the bulk of Garrett’s collection consists of manufactured dolls rather than one of a kind dolls and includes play line dolls as well as artist dolls produced in limited editions. Yet, as a record of how the larger society has viewed and represented people of color, her eclectic collection probably has more value than it would if she focused only on art dolls created by black artists as more authentic self-representations.
In traditional West African societies, griots were oral historians who preserved the lineage and noble deeds of their communities. As latter day griots in a time when much of the academic establishment still subscribed to Hegel’s idea that “Africa has no history,” Schomburg and Rogers documented “who we are and where we come from.” Although women rarely served as griots in traditional African societies, in her third book, The Doll Blogs Garrett answers the fundamental questions griots are most concerned with – “Who are your people and where do you come from?” Through her meticulous research into the provenance of each doll she provides information about the artists who sculpted the dolls, the manufacturers who produced them, the retailers that sold them, and sometimes even includes tidbits about previous owners. Anyone who has done genealogical research would be overjoyed to uncover such detailed information about the African American branches of their family tree for even when there is an oral tradition and/ or paper trail that enables us to trace our ancestors back to the time of slavery, the trail usually goes stone cold on the shores of the Atlantic.
The barracoons that dotted the west coast of Africa from the 16th – 19th centuries transformed human beings into commodities and erased their personal histories. While DNA typing can now take us further into the interior of the Mother Continent and indicate regions where our enslaved ancestors might have come from, it can’t recover the stories of how various individuals met and combined those strands of DNA. The ritual acquisition of black dolls that plays out on every page of The Doll Blogs often occurs through auctions, a scene that is fraught with the painful legacy of slavery and the forced separation of families on the block. Yet Garrett’s purchases are a redemption that gives every black body a voice and a history. Her doll room then functions as a kind of anti-barracoon where lost souls recover their identities and re-unite with family and friends.
Paulette Richards has been writing about “the serious business of doll play” on her blog, Limbé Dolls, since April 2011. Formerly the Associate Director of the Nommo Literary Society/ Neo Griot Krewe writing workshop in New Orleans, she holds a Ph.D. in French Civilization from the University of Virginia. During the 2013-2014 academic year, Richards will further explore the griot tradition as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Saint Louis, Senegal.
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