More Than Child's Play: North Carolina Professor Explores the History of Dolls and Their Sociological Impact

Article excerpt

For Dr. Sabrina Thomas, dolls are not just child's play. In fact, they are the subject of her research, which recently landed her a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thomas, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at North Carolina Central University, was awarded the grant to write a book on the history of Black dolls as a sociology of Black childhood.

Thomas, who graduated with a psychology degree from Tuskegee University delved into dolls for her master's thesis at the University of Rochester. Her focus was reexamining Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark's famous 1940s study which showed that most Black children preferred to play with White dolls rather than Black ones because they considered White dolls finer

"I was curious about those findings ant their interpretation that racism and segregation resulted in feelings of low self-esteem and inferiority," she said. The Clarks' findings were later mentioned by the U.S Supreme Court in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.

But Thomas, who loves methodology wondered about the assumption.

"In reading the original work I began to make replication studies," said Thomas, who teaches child development and family studies at NCCU. She received her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

"I'm not saying the Clarks' decision is not true but I don't think the interpretation of the imperative evidence is strong enough to come to that conclusion," she said. Her own research shows that the older a Black chile becomes, the more she or he prefers a Black doll or action figure.

Thomas' book, History of Black Dolls as a Sociology of Black Children, explores the history of dolls and their far-reaching sociological impact. It examines Black doll production, location and how the dolls were advertised. Thomas explains how dolls were used as racial uplift even though the first mass-produced Black dolls fall into the servant category and were meant for White children.

W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP were among the early catalysts for Black children having Black dolls, according to Thomas. The National Negro Doll Company produced these first dolls in the early 1900s and Dubois advertised them in The Crisis. The Berry and Ross Doll Company created the Sara Lee doll in the 1940s, and Eleanor Roosevelt publicized them.

Thomas believes issues of race, class and gender can be examined in toys and dolls created for children. She points to the Black Christie doll by Mattel that appeared in 1968 as Barbie's friend. By the 1970s every major toy company had a Black doll on the market. Cathy Chatty was a popular model. Some companies tried to differentiate Black physiology on the doll's facial features, while some Black dolls were just White dolls with tinted skin. …