|When a coworker gave then 35-year-old Joanna Banks of Capital Heights,
Maryland an anatomically correct black male doll in 1978, it fulfilled two of
her dreams. "Well, the dream goes back to my childhood," she recalls.
Banks was around four when the Louisville, Kentucky native asked her mother,
Mary Banks, if she could have twin dolls, a boy and girl. So, for Christmas,
Mrs. Banks got little Joanna two White dolls, Ronnie and Connie. "I thought
Ronnie would be made like my brother," chuckled Banks. "I took Ronnie's
pants off and I was very disappointed that he looked like my girl dolls," she
Banks soon asked her mother for her first "colored" doll. When they arrived
at a nearby shop to get one, they met disappointment together. "The merchant
presented us a round, dark, grinning Aunt Jemima doll wearing a bandanna
around her head. The doll came with a buggy with a White baby in it," says
"My mother then wrapped her robe of righteous indignation around her and told
the merchant that she would not buy that doll for her little girl. And I
never asked for a colored doll again!" asserted Banks.
The coworker's gift fulfilled Bank's childhood wishes: one, for an
anatomically correct boy doll and two, a Black doll that mirror the African
Americans she sees around her. "It also propelled me to become a serious
doll collector," says the Smithsonian Institute Anacostia Museum educator.
The now 58-year-old collector has about 200 dolls in her collection. Her
medley of dolls mainly consists of soft sculptured Black doll babies.
However, she recently began attending doll making workshops and creating soft
sculptured anatomically correct adult female dolls.
While Banks' 85-year-old mother hasn't become a doll collector, she remembers
her little girl's dream. Between Christmas 1979 and until recently, when she
became physically unable, "my mother has bought me a Black doll and it
reminds me that she always tried to give me every thing that I want," says
Dolls also play an important role in the warm relationship between
68-year-old Frankie Lyles and her 46-year-old daughter Lynn Reid. Along with
Reid's husband, Gerald, they jointly own Angie's Doll Boutique in historic
Olde Towne Alexandria, Virginia. "We complement each other, Lynn likes
making dolls and I like collecting them," laughed Lyles.
Lyles, whose mother was a domestic, often brought her daughter White dolls
that her employer's daughter no longer wanted. "The color of the doll didn't
make me any difference," says Reid, "partially, because I had no idea that a
doll could be Black." Lyles love of collecting dolls carried over into her
later years where she began making little Black cloth dolls, but doll
collecting barely interested her only child, Reid. "I prefer making dolls,"
says Reid, "because I find it relaxing and I enjoy the challenge of making a
perfect doll that others will find appealing."
Originally, their small bustling shop was a thrift store. However, around
1976, they began to notice that many of their customers would ask for dolls,
but wouldn't identify themselves as collectors. "We were a thrift store for
about a year before we assumed our new identity, but our change also helped
many collectors come out of the closet," joked Lyles.
Maria Romona Santana, a 69-year-old dollmaker in the Dominican Republic also
prefers making dolls to collecting them. Like most young women in the
Spanish-speaking Caribbean country, Santana learned from her mother how to
make her own toys when she was young. "Growing up in the Dominican Republic
is not like growing up in the U.S., poor people have to use their imagination
and make their own," she said through her interpreter, her son Ricardo
A former tailor, Santana began making dolls to support herself and two sons
as mass-produced clothes lowered the demand for tailored-made items. She
makes them from rags and calls them Chana, after a Black servant in a popular
Venezuelan, South America soap opera.
In the capital city, Santa Domingo, she makes only jet Black dolls, but when
in the United States visiting her son, she makes dolls of various shades
including White ones. "Believe it or not, the people who ask for
light-skinned dolls are African Americans," she says.
Spartanburg, South Carolina dollmaker Ida Clowney has had a similar
experience. "At first I made jet Black dolls, but I figured that if I
started making them of all colors - my sales would go up," she says. Her
sales did go up and her designs even got the attention of Mr. Rogers of PBS'
"Mr. Rogers Neighborhood."
In 1997, she got a call from him. "He saw my work in a Pittsburgh shop and
called me to ask if I would be his neighbor," she recalls. Though she was
already satisfied with her career choice, she says that her brief stint on
national television was "good for my self-esteem and pockets."
While many doll collectors and makers gained their first exposure to dolls
from females, Pamela Wade of Waldorf, Maryland developed her passion for
collecting dolls from her fiancee, nearly eight years ago. "He is a collector
of basketball cards and antique furniture and I always had an interest in
collecting, but never found anything that touched my heart," she says.
However, Wade found her passion for collecting when he bought her Katy from
the Daddy Long Legs Collection for her 31st birthday. "Now I have over 20
special friends that only come out at Christmas," she continued, "I display
them in my living room because that's where my other family and friends
gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus."
Former Washington Black Doll Show promoter Malinda Saunders also traces her
passion to her youth. She says, "I began collecting dolls because I didn't
have that many when I was a little girl." However, Saunders, who recently
retired from Federal service, has not retired her love for dolls. "I still
love dolls, like to collect them and plan to pass them on to my
This article is also available in the latest issue of Port Of Harlem, your
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