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Black paper dolls are more than playthings



    A toy is not necessarily just a toy. What we play with helps define who we are and how we see ourselves.

That's what Arabella Grayson has learned in the decade since she received her first black paper doll as a birthday gift from a friend.

In 1995, when Grayson was finishing her master's degree at Mills College, a friend from Trinidad gave her "Little Caribbean Girl," a booklet that included a paper doll named Nyla.

"I'd never seen a black paper doll," says Grayson. "I thought she was adorable. I wound up cutting her out and affixing magnets to her back and putting her on the refrigerator. I'd walk by and change her outfit."

Then Grayson learned that the first black paper doll in America was produced in 1863, the year Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

From antiques shops to eBay, she went on the hunt.

And so whimsical and charming Nyla marked the birth of a unique collection that has grown to more than 300 black paper dolls and has sparked the interest of scholarsand archivists.

The African-American images portrayed in Grayson's collection — from deeply offensive themes to a range of role models — reflect the changing of the times and the lifting of demeaning stereotypes.

Some 120 of Grayson's paper dolls are on display through April 29 in an exhibit called "Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson" at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.

Grayson, a writer and actress in her 40s who grew up in Oakland and lives in Elverta, sees the dolls as more than fanciful mementoes of their age.

"For me, the paper dolls chronicle the attitudes and values of not just the people creating them, but the times they lived in," she says. "They were created to be mass marketed. They have to appeal to the marketplace. So this is how the marketplace feels.

"I saw how stereotypes and caricatures are reinforced through popular culture. Toys as an artifact are reflective of the time in which they're created. And children are indoctrinated through play."

Consider Topsy, a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the earliest American black paper doll. As a way to promote the novel — the most widely read book of the 19th century, other than the Bible — the Topsy paper doll was manufactured in 1863 in a set that included three tatteredlooking outfits.

The Topsy character was, as Grayson puts it, the quintessential pickaninny, with haphazardly braided hair and shabby clothes.

Or, as University of California at Davis African-American studies professor Patricia Turner says: "Topsy is a wild child. She can't be tamed, and she can't be trusted.

"That image spread into the culture of black children in general, and you didn't have a contrary image.

"One of the problems in the world of stereotypes is that there weren't any legitimate images of African-Americans that found their way into popular culture until the mid-20th century."

For long decades, there was only Topsy, along with Mammy and Golliwog, belittling leftovers from the minstrel age: images that showed African-Americans as either servants or subhuman savages.

These were the images used to help keep an entire ethnic group in its place.

In 2000, Grayson moved to Maryland to work on a book. Alone in front of her computer day after day, she turned to online auctions for distraction.

And her collection black paper doll collection grew and grew. The most she's paid is $103 — for a Depression-era paper doll book called "Petunia and Patches." along the lines of what she calls "the tattered clothes and watermelon theme."But she hesitates to put a figure on her one-of-a-kind collection.

It's priceless as a reflection of history and a changing society.

"Arabella has done quite a bit of work putting her collection together," says Portia James, the Anacostia Museum's chief curator.

"She's trying to document an aspect of popular culture that not many people have put time into."

During Black History Month in 2004, 42 of Grayson's paper dolls were displayed at Mills College. Since that time, she's continued compiling her research, which she garners from a variety of sources, including old paper doll publications, other collectors and participants at paper doll conventions.

And she's continued collecting.

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