Contemporary Approach to a Time-Honored Art. My Black Rag Dollmaking Heritage
For centuries, African mothers have crafted beautiful dolls and other playthings for their children. In the early 17th century, many African women became enslaved and brought to America were they continued to practice and refine this age-old art form.
Although, enslaved people were denied many of the simplest pleasures of life, enslaved mothers found creative ways to provide dolls for their daughters. They gathered bits of cloth, found objects from nature and recycables from the slaveholders refuse. Using whatever they could to create rag dolls for their daughters. Their daughters in turn learned to do the same for their children.
For the little Black girl growing up on plantation, her rag doll became a very precious possession; a keeper of secrets and a comforting snuggly friend. Furthermore, because enslaved children were not allowed to own much, a rag doll was a very practical toy. The child could always keep her rag doll near, by tying it to her back with a rope while in the fields. In addition, if the doll became worn, her precious little friend could be easily patched up and restored.
Fortunately, today there are a few antique Black rag dolls that survived slavery. It is speculated that many were rescued from “Underground Railroad” hideouts. Enslaved people took refuge in these hideouts on their way to escape north to freedom. Often, families had to move from one safe haven to another without much warning. The speculation is that in the rush to leave, a little girl may not have been allowed to carry much or may have dropped or misplaced her rag doll in the dark.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, enslaved and post slavery African American women became skilled seamstresses and highly sought-after dressmakers. As such, they were often allowed to keep leftover scraps. With these scraps and other resources, they were able to create even more beautiful and sophisticated rag dolls for their own and customer’s children. Over the years some of these women became incredible doll artists and thus legacy of black rag doll making continued to grow and expand.
Our dolls tell our story and the evolution of our American experience. Sadly, not much has been recorded on the history of black rag dollmaking, especially those made by enslaved doll makers. Today we are mostly left with oral histories, speculations and our imaginations. Brown Shugah Junction wants to make sure that the art of black rag cloth doll making is not lost and continues to evolve from generation to generation.
Here is a free online bedtime story to share with your children to introduce them to the love that can be found in black cloth dolls!!!!
Dollin Blessings, until next time….