The Unkindest Cut: A History of Black Paper Dolls
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
A slip of the scissors and off comes a foot.
A nick and there goes a finger.
A wrong snip and a tab that would have held up her dress disappears.
Paper dolls, fragile though they were, they enticed us.
Thin, frail, delicate, temporary with permanent effects.
But you sat for hours, cutting out the dolls, following the dotted lines along long legs, thin waists, chiseled chins, around heads with the bluest eyes that Toni Morrison's Pecola prayed for.
"See, don't she look pretty," you would say to your sister. Happy for the paper dolls, never noticing until later that all the dolls you took care to cut out, bring to life and dress, never looked like you.
Never realizing all the time that you were cutting, you were defining how you saw yourself, taking in the images of what the mass producers of toys told you was the standard of beauty.
Arabella Grayson knows what it was like for children to take in those images. And it is what led her to begin collecting paper dolls, black ones, and trying to understand their place in history. Her efforts are on display at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum in "Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson."
The show, on view through April, traces the emergence of the paper dolls.
There are dolls that date to the 1800s and others of current well-known faces.
The dolls produced from the 1800s to the 1960s show black people in subservient roles. The mammies, the butlers, the pickaninnies in torn clothing, grinning with their paper doll smiles. There is Topsey, based on the stereotypical character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And Aunt Jemima, and Little Black Sambo.