Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rasta Ann and Andy

Despite my initial negative impression of the Crescent City (see Gambina Dolls Protest), I enjoyed living in New Orleans from 1996-2005.  Still, for most of that time I avoided the French Quarter because I couldn’t stand the pickaninny dolls, mammies, and watermelon-eating coons grinning at me from every other shop window.  More than once I got thrown out of shops for voicing my objections to the sale of those dolls.  Finally, in January of 2004 I made a series of Raggedy Ann and Andy characters so that at least within my own home I could counter the negative images of African Americans projected by all the “pickaninny” dolls for sale in New Orleans’ French Quarter. 

I had always believed that Raggedy Ann dolls were a product of American folk culture, but a few years ago I learned that the Raggedy Ann character was created by cartoonist and illustrator, Johnny Gruelle.  Gruelle patented his design for the original doll in 1915.  He followed up with Raggedy Andy in 1920. 

I used a licensed pattern to make my “Rasta Ann and Andy” dolls and their clothes but added my own interpretation to their faces and hair.


Like family, these smiling faces greet me first thing when I wake up in the morning and comfort me before I turn over to go to sleep at night.

À Bientôt

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Butter and Eggs

“Can’t see why she can’t just take a dip in the creek like we always do,” fumed Janice. 

“Janice!  Quit dawdling,” called Jane from the kitchen door.  “I need at least three more buckets of water and you still have all your other chores to do.”

“Coming,” said Janice “How come she all of a sudden takes a notion to wash her hair and take a hot bath before we go to town?” she muttered to Shep.

As soon as Janice poured the last bucket of water into the big wash kettle, Jane sent her back out to slop the hogs.  Last year a shoat she raised from a bottle had won first prize at the 4H club fair.  Miss Lillian had grown into a fine sow and now her first litter looked they might garner at least one more blue ribbon.

“Janice!  Have you let the sheep out to pasture yet?”  Jane hollered from the kitchen.

“I’m getting to it.”  Said Janice, crossing the barnyard to open the sheep pen.


Shep helped heard the ewes and lambs in the direction of the pasture,


but Janice diverted one of the lambs for a cuddle.  She loved most kinds of critters but the lambs were her favorites next to horses.

“Come on, Janice, I can't wait all day on those eggs."  

Janice trotted back to the kitchen to pick up the egg basket.  “I promised Mrs. Winters I would bring her two dozen to hatch this afternoon so I’m gon’ have to test ‘em all with a candle to see if they're quick,” continued Jane, shooing her sister back out the door.

“She sure is testy this morning,” thought Janice as she mounted the ladder to the hayloft where the hens liked to hide their eggs.  Of course most women seemed to get testy or weepy at least once a month, but it seemed like Jane’s time had only been a week ago.  Besides, it was bad luck to wash your hair during your “time.”  Janice wasn’t sure what “your time” entailed but there had to be something else bothering Jane, she thought as she discovered another egg tucked away in the straw and carefully transferred to the basket.  

Just then Jenny, the barnyard cat slunk in dragging a dead rat.  She deposited the rodent at Janice’s feet and perched on top of it expectantly.  

Janice set down the basket of eggs and knelt down to scratch Jenny behind her ears.  “Great day in the morning!  That varmint is almost as big as you are!” she exclaimed, praising Jenny’s prowess as a rat-catcher.  

“How long does it take to gather a few dozen eggs?”  called Jane.

“I’m on the way down,” replied Janice.  

But as she started back towards the kitchen, Mr. and Mrs. Doodlecock decided to take their family for a morning constitutional.  

Shep gave a low growl.  He and Mr. Doodlecock were not the best of friends.  Mrs. Doodlecock, however, was the best setting hen on the ranch.  She had recently hatched a fine brood of chicks 

and Janice couldn’t resist picking up one of the little yellow fluff balls.

Instantly the senior Doodlecocks turned to protect their offspring and started pecking Janice on the leg. 

The junior Doodlecocks began cheeping in distress and Shep barked menacingly at Mr. Doodlecock who was kicking at Janice’s boots with his spurs.  Janice was forced to relinquish the chick.  

Then Jane stepped out into the barnyard asking “What is all that commotion?  Hand me those eggs before they get broken and get on with the milking.  I’ve got three customers looking for butter this afternoon so we’ve got some churning to do if we’re going to make the picture show.”

“Oh yeah, the picture show.  Maybe that’s why she’s so impatient” thought Janice as she opened the gate and greeted Dilcey, the cow.  

“Maybe there’s a new Mary Pickford."  They had been to see “Tess of the Storm Country” about six times. 


But as she sat squirting Dilcey’s frothy milk into the pail, something else occurred to her.  Dilcey had a calf back in the spring but Pa had sold it. 

Pigs had shoats, sheep had lambs, hens laid eggs that hatched into chicks… Janice couldn’t get anyone to tell her where human babies come from but she had watched Jenny give birth to her last litter and imagined the process must go something like that.  Come to think of it, Jane was acting as skittish as Jenny had when she was “in heat,” whatever that meant. 

Maybe Jane was fixing to have a baby.  Only Janice had the idea that having a husband had something to do with where babies come from and Jane didn’t even have a beau.  But she had danced three times with that stranger at the barn dance last month.  Maybe Jane was looking for a beau, Janice decided.  She raised the pail of milk and balanced it on her head like the bare-breasted women she had seen in the National Geographic Magazine

Pa had caught her looking at it and had confiscated it even though it belonged to Sue Jean Larson, her best friend at school.  He had said such trash was only fit for the fire, but Janice found it later when she was dusting his bedroom.  Janice didn’t have any bosoms yet but she knew that human babies suckled like calves so maybe pictures of half-naked ladies had something to do with where babies come from.

“Janice West!” cried Jane.  “What do you think you’re doing?  If you spill airy drop of that milk I’ll warm your britches so good you won’t be able to sit down for a week!”

À Bientôt

Monday, August 22, 2011

I Like 'Em Big and Stupid

Miss Janine Mason's 7th grade class, Barbiton Junior High School circa 1974.
Left to right back row:  Big Jim, Janice and Jaime West, Big Josh, Miss Janine (twist and turn Barbie)
Left to right front row:  Fluff, Tiff, Skipper, Quick Curl Skipper

Up until the 1950s, heavy muscles were associated with working class men who did hard physical labor for a living.  While weightlifting made its debut as an Olympic sport in the 1896 summer games in Athens, and professional strong men like the Great Sandow began attracting audiences on the vaudeville circuit in the early 20th century, for most middle and upper class Americans, the ideal male physique was lean and defined but not bulked up.  By 1951 body builder Jack Lalanne was preaching about the benefits of nutrition and exercise on national television and in 1956 after American youth were rated as less fit than their peers in Europe, President Eisenhower established The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.  Through the 1960s, however, body building bore a stigmatized association with gay men.  The practice of using anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass added to the unsavory reputation of body building.  Thus, while the original GI Joe had a more robust physique than Ken, he was still a lightweight compared to Big Jim, despite his superior height.

Mattel first released their muscle man in Europe in 1972 as Mark Strong. Then they brought him to the U.S. market as Big Jim.  Big Jim came stripped to the waist wearing only a pair of orange track shorts.  Instead of guns, his accessories included barbells, a muscle band that his biceps would burst when you bent his arm, and a karate board that he could chop in two when you pressed a button in his back.


While Big Jim and his friends were only 10” tall (ours were enrolled in junior high school), his physique was a significant departure from Ken’s slim and elegant Ivy League look.  He had a thick neck, rippling biceps, and bulging chest muscles. His broad shoulders tapered to a wasp waist, but his sturdy calves and thunder thighs were corded with muscles and his abs were ripped like a washboard.

Big Jim was in production from 1972-1986, a period that saw great changes in how society defined gender roles and masculinity.  In this era Arnold Schwarzenegger won six consecutive Mr. Olympia titles (1970-1975) and made a successful transition to the silver screen, attracting wide popular notice in the 1977 documdrama, Pumping Iron and then landing his breakthrough role as Conan the Barbarian in 1982.  By the end of the Big Jim’s production run, Schwarzenegger had appeared in his signature cyborg role in James Cameron’s apocalyptic 1984 science fiction film, The Terminator.

While play sets for the Big Jim and GI Joe action figures of the 1970s featured sports and scientific exploration themes, the Terminator films offered viewers an almost pornographic spectacle of violence, much of it directed against women since the cyborg’s original mission was to “terminate” Sarah Conner before she could give birth to the messianic human rebel leader, John.

As The Terminator was gaining cult status on video cassette, Hasbro bought the distribution rights to cyborg toy molds created by the Japanese company, Takara, and began marketing them in the U.S. as Transformers.  These figures had even more exaggerated, muscle bound physiques than Lou Ferrigno in the role of the comic book character, the Incredible Hulk.  Hasbro had phased out the 1:6 scale version of their flagship figure, GI Joe in 1976, but between 1982 and 1994, Hasbro produced over 500 different 3 ¾” GI Joe figures and 250 vehicles and play sets.  Thus, in the Reagan-Bush years action figures got beefier but significantly smaller and they shared none of Big Jim’s exhibitionism since their clothes and/ or body armor were usually molded on.

In her 1987 valley girl parody Julie Brown asserted “I like ‘em big and stupid.” Which play scale figure best represents your ideal male physique?

À Bientôt

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Action Figure Pyromania

Recently a friend sent me a link to this Beastie Boys’ “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” video that features a cast of action figures (mostly Power Team with a cameo from the G.I. Joe Adventure Team commander).  I was not able to watch the whole thing because one of the action figures gets immolated, but it reminded me that the play scale adventures of my childhood were not always sedate tea parties.
Every summer as Independence Day approached, we would enjoy a season of action figure pyromania.  In addition to Nehi sodas, potato chips, and bubble gum, the general store closest to my grandparents’ house sold sparklers, smoke bombs, and best of all, bottle rockets.  My grandparents’ farm was in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the nearest neighbors were on the next ridge so we didn’t have to worry about setting anyone’s roof on fire and no-one seemed overly concerned that we might injure ourselves.

My brother, who was two years younger, and my uncle, who was two years older than I was, would act out all kinds of exciting adventures with their Big Jim, Johnny West, and GI Joe action figures.  Sparklers were dandy torches for nighttime reconnaissance missions.  Or the villains would try to smoke the good guys out of their headquarters with cherry bombs.  The bottle rockets were supposed to ignite, shoot upward, and then go bang!  Instead we would peel them off the stick and use them as TNT charges.  Big Jim and his crew stepped on a lot of land mines and got buried under a lot of dynamite induced avalanches until the sad day when the manufacturer eliminated the second charge.  

This was also the era when the disposable Bic lighter made its debut.  Since my grandmother was a chain smoker, it was never hard to snag one to conduct more incendiary experiments.  I believe that this is how my brother’s Action Jackson met his end.  

The original Action Jackson commercials used puppetry and animation techniques to show the character in a variety of thrilling adventures.  Unfortunately these commercials violated rules prohibiting toy manufacturers from suggesting a toy could do something that it couldn’t do independently and sales of Action Jackson plummeted when Mego was forced to pull the misleading spots from the air.  Still, for those of us interested in making videos with play scale figures, vintage action figure commercials like this early Action Jackson ad are useful examples of how to use puppetry and outdoor settings in a convincing way.  

À Bientôt