Saturday, February 11, 2023

Seeing Is Believing

What kinds of things affect how we see ourselves? I am talking about more than a visual representation in a mirror or a photograph. We are shaped by our families and our communities, our friends and our schools. We are influenced by magazines, television, movies, social media. 

Do those experiences reaffirm how we feel about ourselves or do we come away feeling ignored or excluded?

Imagine going to stores that have no skin or hair care products for you. Libraries with no books about you. Movies with no people like you. 

What kind of impact would that have on how you saw yourself?

One of my favorite rooms in the Harriet Tubman School and Cultural Center was the library. All along the front bookshelves were dolls. Black dolls. More Black dolls than I had ever seen in my life in one place, probably ever.

That image has stayed with me, probably because I never saw even one black doll for most of my childhood. They weren’t in any stores where we shopped. I saw no ads for them on television. By the time that any Black dolls started appearing in toy catalogues I’m pretty sure I was past doll age. 

Their omission was not because there was no market for Black dolls. It was because that market was not considered to be important.

What a simple and affirming thing: to have a doll that looks like you.

The placement of these dolls in the library was particularly significant to me because of what I have learned about books being windows and mirrors.

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.

- - Rudine Sims Bishop

A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity.

- - Emily Styles

And dolls - - the companions of children from their earliest years - - can’t they also be powerful mirrors that both reflect and affirm? 

Today at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library there’s an all-day event about Black dolls.

Image from HCLS website 

In honor of Black History Month, the Charm City Dolling Club of Maryland celebrates its 25th anniversary with As We See Ourselves, an exhibit in appreciation of Black dolls. The exhibit, on display during February at Miller Branch, includes dolls made from a wide array of media such as wood, polymer clay, cloth, porcelain, vinyl, and gourds. Marty Bass from WJZ-TV talked to the club members about the exhibit.

The title of the exhibit is As We See Ourselves. 

Image from HCLS website


That’s it, right there. That’s the essence about what is important about these dolls and the exhibit. If handmade, they are mirrors of what is beautiful and valuable about their creators. If commercially made, they are included because they spoke to something significant and/or authentic to the owners who purchased them. 

We sometimes think of dolls as merely children’s playthings. But so much of the brain is developing during those early years. So much of our adult self-concept is shaped during those hours of family life and childhood play.  

Although registration for today’s event has already closed, the exhibit itself is ongoing until the end of February. Stop by the Miller Branch to take a look and to think about what this collection represents. For more on the significance of Black dolls, this article from the Smithsonian provides useful context and some great photos of historical dolls. 

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