Thursday, May 3, 2018

Christie@50 and the Power of Black Doll Love

By Riché Richardson

Views of my Superstar Christie and Golden Dream Christie fashion doll and styling head collection

The Superstar Christie series on display in my study at home

Superstar Christie on a book shelf

Superstar Christie Fashion Face

Supersize Christie, along with a wooden reproduction of one of my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson's photos

My study, whose "Wall of Frames" features various news articles related to members of my core family

Family photos of my grandparents and debutante news features of women in my core family

Superstar Christie Fashion Face

Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face

Dominique Jones, New York, New York, as a little girl with her Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face on her birthday

Screenshot of Ebay auction this year pricing Superstar Christie at nearly $900

My mother Joanne Richardson pictured with my Uncle Joseph and her doll on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1950s

My Aunt Pamela as a toddler on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Alabama with her doll in the early 1960s

“Your hair. It’s gorgeous.” “Reminds me of this Christie doll head I had when I was a little girl.” These were my words to another black woman sitting across from me at the drying station at the Le Nails nail salon in Ithaca, New York one Saturday a few years ago, as I noticed her healthy-looking, thick, full-bodied, barrel-curled dark brown hair, which was highlighted with patches of gold, though in her look and mannerisms, she had also reminded me a lot of one of my teachers. My description of my cousin Megan’s hair in the weeks before her debutante cotillion in 2006, when I told her that “You have that ‘Christie doll hair,’” had been similar.

She thanked me for the compliment and then said, decisively, “I had that doll, too.” She began to tell me a fascinating story about how determined she was to recreate its hair’s sunstreaked look. She described how long she had searched for just the right color. Her search for the perfect gold sounded like a veritable treasure hunt, which had, amazingly enough, even led her all the way to Germany, where she finally found the color that satisfied her at last. She then told me the name of it, though I knew even then as I admired her look that coloring my hair was not something that I’d likely try myself. It sounded as if it had to be in her own “Goldilocks Zone,” in the sense of being “not too light” and “not too dark,” to borrow the lingo linked to distant planets thought to be places that could sustain life someday because of their earth-like characteristics such as possibly having liquid water and not being too close or too far away from the sun in their solar system, but “juusst right.”

It amazed me that something as simple as our mutual memories of the same Christie doll head from our childhood had sparked such a rich dialogue and connection for us as black women in a public space where it would have been easy to remain silent strangers to each other as we sat facing each other for those few minutes. It’s also one of the moments in recent years that led me to reflect increasingly on Christie’s cultural impact, as well as her personal impact on me. More and more, I was inspired to reclaim her.

The truth is that like the two of us, there are lots of black women of our generation who were children during the late 1970s as Christie culminated her first decade and took on “superstar” dimensions in Mattel’s landmark series launched in 1977, which featured her with signature sunstreaked hair during that era. The glamorous Superstar Christie series, which made its debut alongside Superstar Barbie, is what most girls around my age best remember. And of course, there are those who were at the vanguard among the first wave of black girls who actually witnessed the introduction of Christie (O’Neil) as a friend of Barbie in 1968. This was a year marked by the tragic deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, when the Black Power movement was increasingly impacting the nation and slogans such as “Black is Beautiful” that reflected black pride were vocal. It is also noteworthy that Christie integrated the world of Barbie toward the end of the latter iconic doll’s first decade and during the same year that Diahann Carroll made her debut in Julia, the first television sitcom featuring a black woman.

M. G. Lord’s Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll quotes the journalist and doll collector Susan Howard as saying, “When you’re a kid who basically has no one to play with other than yourself and a few friends, this doll becomes your friend.” “You don’t know how much it meant to me that Barbie had a friend like Christie. Because that meant, well, Barbie likes black people. And it may sound silly, but it was important for me to know that Barbie liked someone like me.” That 2018 marks Christie’s 50th birthday is a monumental milestone. I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on what she means to me, along with others who truly understand how special she is, especially black women everywhere who love (and in some cases, still collect!) black dolls and who played with her as children.

I was introduced to Christie by receiving Superstar Christie Fashion Face, with her signature hard yellow plastic tray base and blue combing accessories, when I was seven on Christmas day in 1978. Among my toys, the dolls that I received were this one alongside four baby dolls, including Dancerella, Baby Come Back and Baby-That-Away. But this Christie styling head was my first fashion doll, which had accessories like makeup, sunglasses, barrettes and hair rollers. I had also received Fashion Plates, a drawing and design kit. She stayed in the box for the first couple of years because she was still a little over my head.

However, I find it intriguing that the year of her arrival in my life was really the earliest time that I began to think seriously about what I wanted to be when I grew up, who I wanted to marry and to picture what I might grow up to look like someday as a woman. The image of myself as a woman solidly crystallized in my mind at age seven, likely an amalgam of beauty posters and ads featuring black women that I’d seen in the beauty shop. It’s interesting that a sense of being “fierce” in a way that only the signature stare from Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty can capture, was a top quality, suggesting my goal to become a confident, no-nonsense woman someday. It was also the first year that I began to dream about what I wanted for my life and family (of origin and by marriage) in the future. Superstar Christie, like my later doll in the Golden Dream Christie series, lived in Malibu, California. I suppose, in some unconscious way, they helped pave the way to California for me, which is where I got my first teaching job as a university professor and lived for a decade, from ages 27-36.

As Erica Rand notes in Barbie’s Queer Accessories (1995), girls rarely play with Barbie in the way that Mattel models and prescribes. As a girl, I’d rename the sisters in my doll family-the Golds who were from Orlando, Florida- in every linguistic variation of Christie I could think of. Their names were “Christen”(Golden Dream Christie), “Christiane”(Peaches and Cream Barbie), “Crystal”(Crystal Barbie), and “Christine”(Day to Night Barbie) My main Barbie playmate approached her naming strategy similarly. One of hers was named “Christina”(Pink and Pretty Christie). Similarly, I renamed my first black Ken “Kent”(Sunsational Malibu Ken).

The doll experiments by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and his wife Dr. Mamie Clark famously impacted the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 illustrating the detrimental impact of segregated schools on black children who identified with and preferred white dolls and thought only they were pretty. Still, there have always been black girls who embraced, played with and loved black dolls. My mother Joanne Richardson bought mostly black dolls for me, just as my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson had for her and my aunt Pamela during the 1950s and ‘60s (pictured above). (The earliest Barbies I saw in life were Pam’s). Indeed, my grandmother's Aunt Vinnie had bought black dolls for her and her sister Janie Mae as gifts for Christmas during the 1920s. It is a testament to how valued Christie continues to be that she is now so coveted by collectors and so rare, especially the Superstar Christie series. For example, it is astonishing that the pricing for Superstar Christie was listed in some auctions in recent months at selling prices ranging from $449-$875.

My grandmother never allowed me to take any toys to school because “You go to school to learn, not to play.” Yet, as an adult, I have found that some toys in my office space connect me to my past in ways that inspire and nurture me. In my office on campus at Cornell, along with my international doll collection and story dolls such as Cassie, Amazing Grace and a black Raggedy Ann, I mainly display the dolls that thematically link to courses I’ve taught in recent times, such as the Hasbro (2001) and Mattel (2005) collections of Destiny’s Child dolls, which I researched for my Beyoncé Nation course, and Mattel’s tribute to Misty Copeland, whose autobiography my students and I read last fall in my course on Black Women’s Autobiography in the 21st Century, which was designated as the 2017 Rabinor Seminar in American Studies. However, my study at home, which includes another Cassie doll and a black Raggedy Ann and Andy, showcases the various dolls in my Superstar Christie collection from the late '70s. I spent last year rebuilding it by doing painstaking searches for mint versions of the main dolls from my childhood, which are incredibly rare now, and finding them was a great blessing. Similarly, I decorate my closet with my Golden Dream Christie doll series, along with one of my prized possessions that I have had since my first year of college, the poster of Iman, Beverly Johnson and Louise Vyent from Revlon’s Unforgettable campaign.

In my home space, my Christie dolls, and especially the tall Supersize Christie atop one of my art book shelves, have a sculptural quality that speaks profoundly to the artist in me, along with the woman as one who stands at 6’2” tall myself and who has so frequently been asked the “Are you a model?” and “Do you play basketball?” questions so familiar to many tall girls. While Superstar Christie Fashion Face, with her rooted eyelashes, seemed larger than life to me in childhood and looks much smaller through my adult eyes, she seems as mannequin-like as the elegant black wig mannequins at my beauty shop. The Superstar Christie dolls are another interesting thematic thread in my artist’s apartment and studio that I have cultivated over the years as a mixed-media appliqué quilt artist who also collects Southern folk art with an emphasis on Alabama. In building this theme, I have found my greatest inspiration in the Paris apartment designs of Claudia Strasser for supermodel Kirsty Hume in the Paris Apartment: Romantic Décor on a Flea Market Budget, which incorporate Barbie dolls, and in the apartment of Bjørn Amelan, the partner of famed black designer Patrick Kelly shown in Paris Interiors. Kelly, who was originally from Mississippi, and had highlighted and decorated their apartment with various vintage black dolls. My Superstar Christie Fashion Face fills my heart with memories of myself as a little girl at age seven under the Christmas tree in 1978 surrounded by my family, taking me back to that special time at home again that I will also always carry in my heart.

On her birthday this past January, Dominique Jones, Executive Director at The Boys and Girls Club in Harlem, posted a photo of herself as a little girl with her Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face on her Facebook page, which features her doll and her birthday cake (see above). One of her black women friends posted a picture in the comment box featuring herself as a little girl standing by her vintage Christie styling head. These adorable and sweet photos suggest what a cherished doll Christie was by some black girls, and how intricately she has been linked to some of their most special childhood memories and celebrations.

While Christie had been prominently featured as a companion doll to the new Barbie designs throughout the 1970s and into the early ‘80s, “Black Barbie” officially debuted in 1980. In 1984, Mattel launched its “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign, words that rang out as an empowerment anthem in commercials as the company introduced dolls depicting Barbie as a businesswoman and in various other careers. As important as this message was, in some ways, Christie also helped instill such lessons in many of us, and inspired us to reach within ourselves, to aim to become our best, and to tap our "superstar" within. Christie, not Barbie, was the toy with which I primarily identified and linked to messages of empowerment. In my life, my grandmother has played a central role in teaching me to be confident, to love myself and to always aim to achieve my greatest possibilities in life. She taught me not to worry myself over what other people think about me, and to always walk by faith and focus on my goals. When we talked every morning during my years in California, her daily sendoff for me, besides "I love you," was always, "Hold up your head and strut."

In spite of her impact, Christie still had some clear limitations. Though she was a groundbreaking creation and Christie had dark brown skin, her features were typically cast from the “Steffie mold” used to make Barbie and many of her friends, mirroring Eurocentric aesthetics. In Skin Trade (1996), Ann DuCille describes the raced and gendered essentialisms related to the body and facial features that efforts to create ethnic Barbies inevitably re inscribe. It would have been great if Mattel had re-released Superstar Christie alongside Superstar Barbie on Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009. Because Christie still matters to and inspires so many of us, and especially who were children during her superstar era, it would have been nice to see this series modernized for the millennium and introduced to new generations of girls, including black girls. In all of this, I also wonder why we still have not seen the logical outgrowth of this doll dynasty given her national and global impact: Superstar Beyoncé.

Through the years, Mattel has reinforced and expanded its messages of empowerment and in recent times, released dolls honoring a multiplicity of extraordinary women, including Gabby Douglas, Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, and Katherine Johnson, among others. Such efforts make an important contribution and help to make a difference. A half century later, it is clear that Christie’s groundbreaking legacy at Mattel helped pave the way toward a broader and increasingly more diverse and dynamic repertoire of black and other ethnic dolls.

For more dialogue on black dolls, see my post on this blog from November 7, 2016,"®Made in Montgomery: Growing Up with Dolls and Honoring the Craft Work of Mrs. Essie Thomas":

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Portraits Show Gallery (Compilation In Progress) by Riché Richardson

Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris: The Appliqué Art Quilts of
Riché Deianne Richardson (2015)

Exhibition Dedicated to Mr. Joe Richardson and Mrs. Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson

By Riché Richardson

Curator: Daniel Neil with Georgette Norman

Early Work: A Retrospective and Prelude to “Portraits”

Includes Delta Quilt Series, Daughters of Africa Series, Family Quilt, Autobiography Quilt, and Africa Quilt Series (10 works)

Soft-sculpture doll honoring purple uniform of Alabama Association of Federated Youth Clubs completed at age 16. Second place prize winner at annual state convention. Eyes painted on by Dorothy Thomas, a neighbor who made and sold soft-sculpture dolls (1987).

Soft-sculpture doll made at age 18 to decorate dormitory room in Packard Hall at Spelman College freshman year the summer before leaving for college(1989)

“Delta Love.” First art quilt produced in 1992 as a new member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., in Spelman College’s Eta Kappa Chapter; this organization also first exhibited Riché Richardson’s art when featuring this piece in an exhibition on Spelman’s campus in 1993. This Delta art quilt also includes two small replicas in the collections of the artist’s Delta “Speshes,” Soror Patsy K. Rucker Mccray and Soror Riché Daniel Barnes

“My Family Quilt”(1993)

“Destiny’s Child: Borrowed Robes: The Autobiography of Riché Richardson”(1994)

“Daughters of Africa.” From the Collection of Claire Milligan(1993). Large, multi-panel art quilt on which this series is based was completed in the summer of 1993.

“Daughters of Africa.” Appliqué work by Riché Richardson and quilting by Georgette Norman.
From the Collection of Georgette Norman (1993).

Africa Quilt (1995)

Africa Quilt (1995)

“JoAnn Richardson: School Days.” First painted art quilt that launched the “Portraits” art quilt project (1999)

*A quilted “Daughters of Africa” potholder and a Christmas stocking featuring a Christmas tree and snowman were also produced during the mid-1990s phase, though no art quilts were produced between 1996 and 1998

From Portraits II Family Series, Including Baby and Children, Education, Debutante and Self-Portrait Series, Including Various Installation-Style Works with Light and Sound Technology Components (29 Works)

“Debutante Daddy: Mr. Joe Richardson Presenting Daughter Pamela Richardson As a Debutante in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery, Alabama, April 10, 1976” (Joe Richardson, b. July 11, 1915 and Commemorating 100 Years in 2015) (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 1 of 3. Composition 2011-2014.

“Debutante Pamela Richardson Presented by Father, Mr. Joe Richardson, in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery, Alabama, April 10, 1976” (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 2 of 3. Composition 2011-2014.

“Debutante Mama: Mrs. Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, Mother of Pamela Richardson in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa Debutante Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery, Alabama, April 10, 1976” (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 3 of 3. Composition 2011-2014.

Top hat, white-tipped cane, white pedestal column and white floral bouquet positioned at left adjacent to panel 1. A segment from the original newspaper article related to the cotillion positioned right of panel 3. Special thanks to Pamela R. Garrett for developing the flower bouquet designs and to Kim Salter at Evening Out Formal Wear in Montgomery, Alabama for providing the cane featured in the installation.

The main song in the digital soundtrack component of this debutante quilt installation is Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were”(1976). Among other songs in rotation are Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” The Carpenters’ “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Fred Astaire’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” and The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman.” Installation also includes one-light spotlight beam technology shining on center panel. Special thanks to Daniel Neil for collaborating on sound and light technology features of this art quilt installation.

“Jo Ann and ‘Junior Man’ II, or, ‘Butler’ and ‘Jenny’: Cowboys at Christmas.” Installation-style quilt. Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for Screen Printing Background Photographs. Dedicated to Nancy Hodge Richardson, Murray Richardson, and Sarah and Clinton Carson. Special thanks to Joanne Richardson for preparing the fringe on the outfits in this art quilt installation. Composition 2009-2015.

“Pam as Booker T. Washington May Day Queen.” Original newspaper article related to the festivities is positioned on the wall. Composition 2009-2014.

“Riché Deianne Richardson as Jr. Gayfer Girl in 1983 at Age 11 and Dressed for the Group Photo, the First Event after Graduation from Poise-Charm Classes at Gayfers Department Store (formerly Montgomery Fair) in Montgomery Mall"(Family Series, Education Series, and Self-Portrait Series). Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for the T-Shirt Design and Production.
Composition 2012-13.

“’Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes!’: Keri Diamond Smith and Megan Chereé Smith, School Days at St. John-Resurrection"(Family Series, Education Series) Installation-style quilt. Also features sound of children’s song “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes.” Special thanks to Daniel Neil for collaborating on sound technology features of this art quilt installation. Composition 2005-12.

“Riché Deianne Richardson: Profile in the State of Alabama” (Self-Portrait). Composition 2011-2014.

Political Series

“Obama Time: Always (Congratulations, Mr. President!)” (Political Series). Composition 2008-09.

“The Magnificent Michelle Obama, Our First Lady: ‘Strength and Honor are Her Clothing’(Proverbs 31: 25)”(Political Series). Composition 2009.

“Mary McLeod Bethune: One of America’s Greatest Sweethearts and the World’s Best Leaders.” Composition 2012-2014.

"Clarence Thomas’s High Tech Lynching?: Inferior Court Justice to Be"(Political Series). Composition 2002-12.

"Condoleezza Rice: From Birmingham to the White House" (Alabama Women Series, Political Series). Composition 2011- 2012.

“The Journey of Condoleezza Rice.” Composition 2012.

“’W’: President George W. Bush, #43.” Composition 2013-14.

Civil Rights Movement: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Series

“Rosa Parks, Whose ‘No’ in 1955 Launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Was Heard Around the World”(Commemorating 100 Years, 1913-2013) (Civil Rights Movement Series, Black History Series, and Alabama Women Series). Dedicated to Georgette Norman. Composition 2006-12.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to a Dream for America” (Black History Series). Composition 2012-2014.

“E.D. Nixon: Father of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Civil Rights Movement” (Black History Series) In Memory of E.D. Nixon, Jr., a.k.a. “Nick LaTour.” Dedicated to Alma Burton Johnson. Composition 2012-13.

Paris Series

“James Baldwin: From Harlem to Paris” (African American Literature Series). Composition 2012-2014.

“’Richard Wright: From Mississippi to Paris” (African American Literature Series). Composition 2012-2014.

“Audrey Tautou as Amélie.” Composition 2011.

Hollywood Series

“Charleston's Finest: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler"(Gone with the Wind Series). Special thanks to Daniel Neil for collaborating on sound technology features of this art quilt installation. (Panel 3 of 3). Composition 2006-12.

“Dorothy Dandridge Playing Carmen Jones” Installation-style quilt. Special thanks to Daniel Neil for collaborating on sound technology features of this art quilt installation. Composition 2012-2014.

“I Wanted to Really Build Something: To Sidney Poitier with Love.” Composition 2012-2014.

“The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe.” Installation-style quilt. Special thanks to Daniel Neil for collaborating on sound technology features of this art quilt installation. Composition 2011 -2014.

Black History Series

“Daughter of Africa, Mother of African American Literature, Another American Revolution” (Black History Series, African American Literature Series, and New Daughters of Africa Series). Dedicated to Honorée Jeffers. Composition 2010-12.

“The Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: ‘I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday’; Birthday Unknown but Celebrated February 14” (Black History Series) Dedicated to Class of 2009, Suger High School, Saint-Denis in Paris, France. Installation-style quilt. Includes display of a broken cowhide whip. Composition 2010-11.

“Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison”(African American Literature Series). Composition 2010.

“The Vision of W.E.B. Du Bois.” Composition 2012-2014.

Portraits from Montgomery to Paris(2008) (19 Works)

From Family Series, Including Wedding, Graduation/Education, and Debutante Series, Three Installations, and Artist Self Portraits

"Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII: Emma Lou
Jenkins Richardson.” Composition 1999-00.

“Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII: Joe Richardson.” Composition 2000-01.

"JoAnn and 'Junior Man': Easter Sunday, Montgomery, Alabama, 1954"(Installation). Composition 2001-04.

"Pam's Graduation from Kindergarten at Mrs. Drake's"(Installation). Composition 2005-08.

"JoAnn Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School." Composition 2005-06.

"Joseph Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School.” Composition 2006-07

"Pamela Richardson: Graduation Picture at Jefferson Davis High School." Composition 2005-08.

"The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Emma Richardson." Composition 2005-06.

"The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Joe Richardson." Composition 2005-08.

“Riché Deianne Richardson: Graduation Picture at St. Jude Educational Institute of 'The City of St. Jude.”' (The Last Camping Place for Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers in 1965) (Self-Portrait). Special Thanks to Dr. Kelly Gianetti for Sterilized Orthodontic Appliances. Composition 2005-06.

“Riché Deianne Richardson, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 1989." (Self-Portrait). Composition 2006-08.

"Keri Diamond Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2004." Composition 2006-08.

"Megan Chereé Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2006." Composition 2006-08.

From Paris Series

"Playing Venus Hot to Trot?: Josephine Baker"(Commemorating 100 years, 1906-2006). Composition 2001-05.

"Remembering a Dutiful Daughter: Simone de Beauvoir" (Commemorating 100 years, 1908-2008). Composition 2004-07.

From Political Series

"The Ties that Bind: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy." Composition 2002-04.

"A Tie, Too?": Malcolm X." Composition 2002-04.

From Hollywood Series

"Playing 'Mammy': Not Hattie McDaniel!" Composition 2006-08.

"Sweet Scarlett?: Vivien Leigh Playing Southern Belle." Composition 2006-08.

Monday, November 7, 2016

®Made in Montgomery: Growing Up with Dolls and Honoring the Craft Work of Mrs. Essie Thomas

My grandmother's cousin's wife Pauline's porcelain doll collection in the late 1990s

Pauline, Megan and Me with Pauline's doll collection

Me with Pauline's porcelain doll collection

My cousin Megan with Pauline's porcelain doll collection. Some of the dolls were literally as tall as she was!

The soft-sculpture doll that I made at age 15 in 1987 for the Alabama Association of Federated Youth Clubs talent competition, that Mrs. Essie Thomas painted the facial features on

The soft sculpture dolls I made at ages 15 and 18, along with one of my first quilts in the Daughters of Africa Series.

Above, Images of My Soft-Sculpture "Adoption" Dolls Designed and Created by Our Neighbor Mrs. Essie Thomas, Made in 1986

I have loved dolls since my childhood. Though I have seen myself with dolls in pictures from my toddler and early childhood years, Baby Alive was the first doll that I remember playing with. However, my time with her was cut short when I naively fed her Play Doh once her packaged food supply ran out and her chewing mouth mechanism ceased to ever move or work again. My uncle and his wife bought black "life-size" walking dolls with blinking eyes and long floor-length dresses for my cousin and me the year when I was 6, my next major gift from them after the Sunshine Family Dollhouse the year before. The Bionic Woman was my other doll for Christmas that year, one I enjoyed for all of her accessories. I took her little red shoulder bag to school as a change purse one day, though not the doll itself. I was forbidden by my grandmother to take toys to school because "You go to school to learn, not to play."

Among all my toys and games, I received 4 baby dolls for Christmas in 1978 when I was 7 and in second grade. They included a black ballet dancing doll, Dancerella(see photo above), Baby-That –Away, who could crawl, and Baby Come Back(see photo above), who could walk, along with another one whose name and function I can’t recall. We got busy putting the batteries in all of them to see what they could do. We even got my aunt's walking doll that Uncle Richard and Aunt Mae had bought her as a child out of the closet, put batteries in her and put her down beside Baby Come Back for a little walking competition that the whole family watched and enjoyed for a few minutes, which was fun. I also liked the Fashion Plates and the Christie Fashion Face doll (pictured above), but did not open it or play with the latter for several years because it was still a bit over my head with all of the makeup and hairstyling accessories that came with it. In spite of the Play Doh debacle with Baby Alive, it was also great to have Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop among my other toys and games that year.

The next year, for Christmas when I was 8 and in third grade, I received several more dolls among my toys and games. I remember that Happy Baby was a big hit in my family and it was fun to demonstrate her laughter as she was bounced. There was also a doll with a stroller that was fun to play with by pulling a mechanism and seeing her zoom across the floor, and my family enjoyed watching her go, too. My Play Doh supply continued to go strong that year with Dr. Drill ‘N Fill. The baby doll collection continued to expand some as time went on, and eventually included another Baby Alive, who was black this second time around.

By the time I was 10, I became interested in Barbie dolls. I asked for 5 things for Christmas that year, 1981, including Golden Dream Christie, a basic doll trunk for her clothes, a Corvette car for her, a Quiz Whiz game, and a knitting machine. I received all of those things, plus lots of other toys and games, including a Quiz Whiz Challenger and various other electronic and board games. From that year on, I was mainly invested in dolls that expanded my Barbie doll family. I got the first black Sunsational Malibu Ken when he came out, which I learned about from my best friend with whom I mainly played with this collection, along with a Sunsational Malibu Christie, at age 11. It continued to go in new directions the next year.

Around this time, one of my aunt's friends established foundations for the small collection of dolls that I have from Africa and the Caribbean when she brought me 2 straw dolls from the Bahamas, with my name sewn on them in straw (including the accent mark!). It was interesting to learn of my family roots there years later, so those dolls turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one.

I won't ever forget the Barbie doll crisis I thought was building in the days leading up to Christmas of 1983 when I was 12, a period during which my aunt got married. In the midst of all of my family's final preparations for the Christmas-themed wedding, which from my end included my final fitting at Gayfers for my emerald green dress and matching tinted shoes that I was wearing to be a part of the wedding as a candle lighter, I took a look at the Christmas tree daily. My heart dropped day after day because I did not see a one box shaped like a Barbie doll box under it. I looked at the tree day by day in disbelief for not seeing one box that could remotely be a Barbie box. My cousin Lamar, who loved his collection of Hot Wheels cars, got a big kick out of my situation and had a ball laughing at me and teasing me about the looks of things, for it seemed clear that I was not receiving any Barbie dolls that year. But within days, I got to laugh at him, too, when he ended up in the same boat because my uncle and aunt threatened not to buy him this electronic race car he wanted. To cover our bases, we cut a deal so that he would suggest that they give me a Barbie doll for my gift, and I would suggest his race car to my mom. Finally, Christmas morning, I prepared myself to face the day without receiving one Barbie doll to add to my doll family. I was so surprised and happy to get several Barbie dolls as I opened my gifts; my mom had thrown me off by putting the smaller Barbie boxes inside larger shirt boxes!

Soon after that, like everyone, I became fascinated with Cabbage Patch Kids and was amazed to see news stories about parents clamoring for the precious boxes in stores. They were clearly a cultural obsession. The official Cabbage Patch Kid that my mom bought me at age 12 was a black one with 2 ponytails whose name was listed on the "Certificate of Authenticity" as Lilly Elizabet, as in a "bet" in a card game. So that wasn't a typo. Before I got mine, my other best friend had received a boy whose name was "Bertram," a name I had never heard before. I felt that I already knew something about their history and origin because my grandparents had bought me the book on Xavier Roberts's Little People Pals at Gayfers, which I read and treasured, including all of its beautiful pictures that helped to tell the amazing story of his soft sculpture dolls. I studied the pattern that the book included and longed to have one of my own.

My mother ran off the pattern and my grandmother bought beautiful brown fabric and the black yarn for the hair until we could find the right person to make them. Every now and then, I'd take the fabric and yarn out of the plastic bag in which we stored them, look at them and try to picture how the dolls would look. I'd then carefully put all of the materials back in the bag and put it away. I hoped that the yarn would be enough to cover both dolls' heads. I could not wait until the day that I finally had my own "adoption dolls." Meantime, because I knew the basic composition of the dolls from studying the pattern in the book so well, I pulled off a few miniature ones and filled my Barbie doll kingdom with several as decoration for the beds, replete with ribbons and rooted hair.

One day, we had a visitor who said she could sew and promised to make them, and I gave her the bag of materials. But I never saw it again and the dolls never materialized. This was so disappointing.

I had gotten over it by the time I was 14, and so was surprised when my grandmother, Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, mentioned that a neighbor down the street was making and selling the dolls for $60 and said that she intended to buy me one. I was a bit older by then but still very excited to finally have my doll. A few days later, my grandmother and I went down to Mrs. Essie Thomas's house to meet with her and put in our order. Mrs. Thomas showed us the fabric options that allowed her to make dolls in 3 shades, including white, light and brown skin shades. She dressed them in dresses and bloomers with matching shoes that she also made, thickly rooted their hair with yarn ponytails tied with ribbons, then painted on the eyes as features. Her workmanship was outstanding. I admired it and found it to be inspiring. Her dolls were absolutely beautiful. We decided to place an order for 2 that evening, a brown one and a light one with black yarn hair. Around that time, another neighbor and her sister ordered one with a white skin tone and brown hair for their daughter and niece, who was half my age. It was nice to know about and witness Mrs. Thomas's creative work as she filled several orders for girls on our street and to see the final results. The dolls were beautiful and I proudly displayed them on my bed at home, among stuffed animals. One was dressed in a red checkered dress and the other in pink polka dots. My mom suggested that I name them "Adrienne" and "Nanette," to echo the names of my great grandmothers, Ada Jenkins and Nancy Richardson.

In general, many women on our street made things or sold products to supplement their main income, so I also thought of Mrs. Thomas’s doll crafting in a continuum with those enterprises. For years, my grandmother had bought our Lucky Heart hair grease from Mrs. Thomas's next door neighbor, Mrs. Thompson, along with the tar-based hair shampoo that my grandfather liked. We regularly bought cakes and rolls from our cousin Eddie Mae, who lived in the house on the corner and who babysat me growing up, along with her mother, "Mama Berta," short for Lueberta. Miss Emma and her sister, Miss Sara, both sold Cokes, and had real refrigerators from the company in their homes where they mainly sold them to loyal teen customers, including my aunt and other teens, as they were growing up. Next door, Mrs. Mitchell, who was a hairdresser, was well known for making delicious rolls and regularly filled orders for them. Another neighbor sold Avon, and another Mary Kay. My own grandmother did private duty nursing and did not sell anything on her own time, but took up a collection annually on behalf of the March of Dimes on our street. She would usually also assume the responsibility for going around to take up a collection to give to any neighbor who had experienced a loss, on behalf of the neighborhood. I usually accompanied her. Annually, she also always took other neighborhood children and me Trick or Treating. Mrs. Thomas's dolls were yet another illustration of how entrepreneurial many of our women neighbors were.

When I was in tenth grade and at age 15, as a member of the Dora Beverly Federated Youth Club in Montgomery, I made a small soft sculpture doll and dressed her in a purple jumper and white blouse (pictured above), the organization's official colors, to enter her in the talent competition at the state convention. When I finished, I went and showed Mrs. Thomas my work. She painted on the eyes for me, then drew on a mouth. It was a great honor to have her add the finishing touches to my work. I was happy when it won a Second Place Prize in the competition at the convention.

It is astonishing that Mrs. Thomas did her extraordinary work to design and make soft-sculpture dolls on top of her full-time job; I usually saw her from a distance coming or going and wearing her white uniform. She and her husband had 2 sons, John R. Thomas, a dentist, and Ricky Thomas, a lawyer (he lived in Jacksonville and passed away in 2012), who continue her legacy through their beautiful families and all of her grandchildren. I wish her generations many blessings now and always. I am so thankful to have known her and for her impact on my life. I will always treasure the dolls that she made, including the ones for me, and the story of her outstanding and beautiful doll craftsmanship. I am sharing its impact on me because her work made a difference in my life and she provided an important artistic example when I was growing up. It is a story that the world needs to hear about, one to which I proudly bear witness. The 2 soft-sculpture dolls that she designed and made are also featured with the smaller ones I made myself in the 2008 short film about my art quilts, A Portrait of the Artist.

As I graduated from high school, I also became interested in building a porcelain doll collection and have a box of beautiful ones packed away, like my Barbie doll collection. But my porcelain doll collection does not hold a candle to the extensive collection from places like Home Shopping Network and QVC that literally filled the living room of my grandmother’s cousin’s wife Pauline, which she began in her senior years. My cousins and I enjoyed seeing her doll wonderland in the late 1990s, which my grandmother had described, and posing with them one night (see photos above). It was as extraordinary as my grandmother had described, and one really had to see it to believe it. All kinds of dolls were literally lining the walls in every room with the porcelain ones showcased up front, where the living room doubled as a gallery for their display. I was saddened to hear of Pauline's passing earlier this year and will never forget her extraordinary collection.

My favorite doll story from my grandmother herself is the one about her and her sister Janie Mae Reese, Aunt Mae, accidentally finding these black “bald-headed dolls” that their Aunt Vinnie had bought them for Christmas when they were children during the 1920s, taking them out of the trunk to play with them for a little while, and then putting them back. Aunt Vinnie also gave them China tea set pieces of her daughter Amanda, who was born during the 1800s and whom she had lost years before they were born. We still have and treasure the ones that she gave my grandmother. In my grandfather's family, I love hearing the stories about "Cousin Ludie," who went and participated in the March on Washington, and who had a very extensive and beautiful collection of antique porcelain dolls, which my mom loved seeing when she was growing up. I also love the photos of the beautiful black dolls that my grandmother, who long collected whatnots, bought my mother and aunt during the 1950s and ‘60s, which can be seen among our vintage family photos in other posts on this blog. I am from a family in which many other women have also loved dolls and related things.

I treasure all of the dolls that I have ever owned through the years and still have the vast majority of them, but the ones that our neighbor Mrs. Thomas made for me in Montgomery and so close to my home will always have a special place in my heart, along with her. Thank you, Mrs. Thomas, for making my dream of having those “adoption dolls” come true. Hugs and blessings to you eternally in heaven.