Monday, August 29, 2011

Gambina Dolls Protest

Today is the sixth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf South.  My heart goes out to those who lost electrical power, property, or loved one's lives during Hurricane Irene this weekend because I am still displaced in the sense that I may never again have the job security that I had before the storm.  So today I thought I would post a journal entry about my impressions of New Orleans during my first visit.  Little did I know I would end up living there for nine years or that the intense racism I wrote about in my journal would turn the natural disaster into one of the most disgraceful man-made fiascos in the history of the United States.

Tuesday December 27, 1988

I thought of New Orleans as a place I could settle.  I couldn’t live here.  Not with all those pickaninnies grinning in my face every time I turn the corner.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the cards that come with the dolls didn’t romanticize the slave experience:

Nola:  Cotton Field Worker

“In the days of the old South, the women worked in the fields as well as the men.”  [Yes, even when heavily pregnant they were forced to work in the fields.

“The big cotton bag was attached to their waist or over their shoulder.”
 [Some of them slung their nursing infants on their backs or laid them down at the end of the row while they worked.

“As they passed along the rows of bushes they would hand-pick the cotton balls and put them in the bag.” 
[And at the end of the day the overseer would weigh each hand’s output.  If Nola had not met her quota, she would face a beating or worse punishment.

“The filled bags were then put on wagons and hauled to the barns.”
[After which the slaves used to chant:
‘Ought for ought,
figure for figure,
all for the white folks,
none for the n*****r’

“Even today, there are small farms in the South that still harvest cotton in this manner.” 
[Because after Emancipation the sharecropping system forced the majority of the freedmen into a perpetual debt peonage, which merely served to continue slavery in a more convenient form.]

Like Aunt Jemima, Leanna the street vendor, Cleo the market lady, Antoinette the seafood lady, and Odelia the praline lady were all described in terms that associate black women with good things to eat.  The history of their suffering was cheerfully erased – “she was respected by the other servants and loved by the family she served.”  But in the endearing brown face of “Ninkie circa 1700” I saw the stolen childhoods of generations of my ancestors: 

“In the old South, it was a familiar sight to see little black girls playing together, or doing chores with their hair plaited into many braids.”
[My grandma went to work in white folks’ kitchens when she was so young she had to stand on a box to cook their breakfast.  She never had the chance to attend school.]  

Meanwhile “Jody” the lone black male doll had no text.  Don’t black men have a story?

The story assigned to “Scarlett, Southern Belle” was a disgrace to Margaret Mitchell’s strong-minded heroine: 
“In the days of the old South, it was improper for a lady to show her ankles.  This is why she wore a long full skirt. 
[Patriarchal control of female sexuality enslaved white women right along with the population of chattels.

“Her wide brim hat and parasol was to protect her skin from the sun.  ‘Ladies’ were not allowed to have sun-tanned complexions”
[Under the racial caste system of the antebellum south, dark skin became a marker of enslavement.  Alabaster skin separated the well-to-do from the laboring classes who could not avoid field work]: 

“She often liked to collect flowers from her garden to adorn the house”
[as if the garden club is all that Southern ladies were good for.]

Creola, Southern mammy was the ultimate insult: 
“Her position in the household was that of surrogate mother and constant companion to the children of the family.  She saw to their needs and care.  Often one of her own children was personal companion and playmate.” 
[Often one of her own children was a half-brother or sister.  Often her own children were weaned from her breasts so that the white master’s child could suckle her milk.  Often her own children were sold away from her…]

When I got to Creola the clerk said “This gon’ have to be your last one.”
I said “Okay.”  It was the last one I saw anyway.  Then he came over to explain that he wouldn’t have said anything to me but his boss would give him hell for letting me copy down what was on those cards.  Then he asked if I was doing a school project.

I said no, I was going to write a letter to the company.  “This is disgusting.”
He tried to excuse it by telling me lots of black people bought those dolls.  I said they need to know that this is not a black-owned company and that Gambina Doll is romanticizing slavery.  He said go ahead but it probably wouldn’t do any good.  I said I knew that but it would make me feel better.  Stuff like this is ragweed and if I don’t kill it now, in a flash it will have proliferated so much that I won’t be able to breathe.

À Bientôt


  1. I own one of these dolls. I don't recall that Nankie came with her card.

    It is rather disgraceful that this line of dolls does, in fact, romanticize slavery.

    Nankie is stored in a trunk along with other similar manufactured and handmade dolls, many made in the likeness of pickininnies and mammies for the Caribbean tourist trade... stored because I never have actively collected these types of dolls. They do, however, serve as a reminder of enslavement of dark skinned peoples' bodies and mindsets, which continues on today.

    Thanks for always sharing your liberated thoughts.


  2. Wow, how enlightening! I am not familiar with this particular doll or company. I chose not to collect dolls that were associated wih slavery. As a matter of fact, I started making porcelain dolls because I got tired of seeing other artists depict us in such horrible light. Let them tell it, beautiful Black dolls did not exist. Thanks so much for continuing to educate us.

  3. Hi Vanessa and Debbie,

    Gambina Dolls also made a lot of Mardi Gras clowns which show up on eBay from time to time. I never did send a letter to the company because they were too cowardly to publish any address.

    When I moved to New Orleans, I asked residents about those awful dolls and they said that the pickaninnies appeared in the 1980s around the time of the Louisiana World Exposition (1984)or the Republican National Convention (1988). I thought that shops selling these things should have been picketed or had their windows smashed but I wasn't there at that time.

    Someone must have said something at some point, however, because store owners were very nervous that people like me might stir up some unfavorable press which is why they didn't want me to write down what was on those cards.

    The pickaninny doll is one that I made, not one from Gambina Dolls. I got so fed up that I had to reclaim a positive image of black children. As you point out in your books, Debbie, black people did used to make dolls like this for their children but they were made with love often using scraps of fabric that were familiar in the household as clothes or curtains. Black parents also didn't create nonsense back stories for such dolls like Gambina Doll did with the cards that purportedly explain each doll's "history."

  4. My granddaughter is biracial and was gifted a Nola doll, I did not realize that one day it would be a constant reminder of her heritage. the doll was purchased in new orleans approx 27 years ago why she chose to gift this particular doll to my granddaughter now makes me angry as she is the only biracial child in our family. one the hand I do want my granddaughter to understand that slavery was wrong but now i am unsure as to whether or not I will give this doll to her when she is older as she only 18 months old now. Thank you for opening my eyes as to the racism in my own family who claim to love this child. She is precious to me regardless of the color of her skin and I want her to be proud of who she is, now embarrassed.

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment. The person who gave your granddaughter the Nola doll may have been trying to give her a doll that represents her heritage without understanding the racist interpretation of history that the Gambina Doll company was selling with the dolls. Those dolls are very cute and without the cards, some of them would be less objectionable.

    Also the meaning that the owner assigns to a doll through her fantasy play is always more important than any negative meaning the doll manufacturer may have intended. For example critics have been arguing for years that Barbie dolls teach young girls an unrealistic body image, yet playing with Barbie dolls has also empowered many young girls to imagine themselves in all kinds of professions and roles (astronaut, President of the U.S., veterinarian, architect). You can help your granddaughter create a positive identity for the Nola doll by playing with her and featuring her as a heroine who exemplifies the kind of character and values you want your granddaughter to learn. If she grows up with dolls that represent many different ethnicities, then she will learn to accept other people and herself.

    You might want to check out this blog:

    It is by the mother of a bi-racial daughter and she has built a very diverse doll community for her daughter.