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VOL 3. NO. 38 Monday, November 5 - Sunday, November 18, 2001
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All Grown-Up and Lovin' Dolls
By Wayne A. YOUNG

South Carolina dollmaker Ida Clowney with Mr. Rogers

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 continued.

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 Banks.

"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 Banks.

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 Santana.

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 granddaughter."

This article is also available in the latest issue of Port Of Harlem, your magazine about blacks at home and abroad. To comment on this or any other story email editor@metroconnection.info.

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