His Black Rag Dolls Bring Joy, Hardship : Race relations: Herman Charlton says he has endured unfair treatment while selling dolls. But he also says his work helps give black children a positive image.
Toy maker Herman Charlton drew a parallel between the history of black people’s torment in the United States and what he has endured while selling black rag dolls out of a van in South Los Angeles.
“I had a set-up on Normandie and Manchester,” he said on a recent Saturday. “A detective came out one day and knifed open the baby dolls thinking I had dope hidden inside.”
There were no drugs.
“Can you imagine how dumb he must’ve felt, as he tore through the stuffing?” Charlton asked. “I’m still wondering what was going on in that man’s head when he didn’t find what he was looking for.”
The scenario was a familiar one, Charlton said: unfair treatment based on appearances. He views it as just another attack that he and his hand-made dolls have endured over the years.
While sorting through miniature dress patterns at his stand on the corner of Normandie Avenue and Imperial Highway, Charlton also commented on how strange it is that in 1989, three decades after the modern civil rights movement began, a nonwhite doll still stands out as an exception to the norm.
The lack of ethnic dolls is even more noticeable during the Christmas season, the biggest toy-buying period of the year.
Kip Power, regional general manager of the nation’s largest toy distributor, Toys R Us, said the chain stocks dozens of black dolls, adding: “All of the white dolls that are popular have a black counterpart.”
But despite Power’s statement, and similar comments from other toy industry officials, Charlton hears differently from his customers.
Robert Oppel, 29, a real estate agent from Santa Monica, told Charlton that he and his wife spent three weekends rummaging toy shelves at half a dozen department stores and one national toy store chain searching in vain for a black doll. The ones made by major manufacturing companies were either out of stock or out of their price range, he said.
Also, some people point out that simply taking a white doll and changing the skin color does not make it a black doll.
“You can go into stores now and find chocolate-colored dolls but not see anything that has (African American) features,” said John Outterbridge, a painter and sculptor who has done a series of artworks featuring ethnic dolls.
“The black dolls that are being sold today represent images that are mostly Eurocentric,” he said. “As far as features, there are very few dolls that have facial or hair features that are indigenous to black people.”
Charlton’s customers agree.
Said Rico Hudson, 40, of West Los Angeles, who recently visited Charlton’s stand: “I’ve never really seen black dolls, not like this. There should be a lot more.”
Charlton, 64, started turning out Raggedy Ann- and Raggedy Andy-style dolls in four sizes with his wife, Ernestine, in 1979. The business survived. The marriage didn’t.
Now he assembles the $10-to-$50 dolls with fiancee Diannia Turnage, 29, her two daughters and Charlton’s youngest son.
Profits from the business are meager, but during the Christmas season things pick up. Charlton said he sells about $500 worth of dolls a week over the holidays, almost 10 times his take during a slow summer week.
Charlton and his family have a makeshift factory at their home, a few blocks north on Normandie. During the day they work in a sewing-machine-equipped van while tending their rack of dolls.
“Back when we began, most people didn’t think a black Raggedy Ann-type doll ever existed,” Charlton said. “I didn’t either.”
Raggedy Ann is the trademark name of a white- or pink-faced doll with button eyes and orange hair. It was developed in 1918 by an author of children’s books.
But Charlton recalls that, when he started the business, an 80-year-old woman scolded him for not knowing that a black Raggedy Ann-like doll was around for more than a century before the white version appeared.
“The woman smacked me in the head, and said black people have had the dolls ever since slave times,” Charlton said.
The woman told him that in the 1700s, dolls were made almost exclusively of porcelain and silk, and were too expensive for black people to afford, he said.
Charlton’s modern version of the doll is made either from dark or light brown cotton cloth and stuffed with polyester fiber. He uses brightly colored, lace-lined material for the dresses. The hair is black rug yarn.
“As I was rubbing my head where she slapped me, the woman explained how her grandmother used to take old black socks, stuff them and paint faces on them,” he said. “Now doesn’t that sound simple enough?”
Charlton, a feisty former trucker and car mechanic, said doll-making was the last thing he imagined getting into. He admits that he had only one goal in mind when he agreed to help his wife in the business: “All I wanted was some money.”
“I was ashamed at first,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I was in the car hiding when my wife was on the street, shaking the dolls and yelling at people going by.
“Making dolls didn’t seem the kind of thing a man would do.”
But Charlton said it wasn’t long before customers began calling him Baby Doll Man.
And while earning the title, Charlton said, he’s seen a lot.
“You don’t know what I’ve gone through with these dolls,” he said.
Charlton said he has been arrested three times for illegal peddling. In each case, he said, a judge confirmed that he had a valid seller’s permit and dismissed the charge. Once, Charlton said, he was further vindicated when a judge scolded the arresting officers for ignoring the permit.
Charlton also talks of doll knifings, dollnapings, and doll scams by half a dozen fast talkers who, over the years, have taken large shipments of dolls on consignment, and never gotten back to Charlton with the merchandise or the money.
Most disturbing, Charlton said, has been the intolerance for something so natural as a black doll.
He said xenophobic comments frequently are aired by people in passing cars. They shout expletive-laced demands for Charlton to “get some white dolls out there,” he said.
So, at one point about eight years ago, he did just that.
“White ones didn’t sell,” he maintained.
For 10 years, it’s always been the black, black-Latino and black-Asian dolls that have caught peoples’ attention, he said.
“I can’t say what race buys more,” he said. “At least as many non-blacks buy them as black folks.”
Oppel, the Santa Monica real estate agent, was on his way to show a house in nearby Lennox when he stopped at Charlton’s display because his wife wanted to buy a black doll for a friend’s daughter.
The real estate agent, who is white, thought that the daughter, who was born to a mixed-race couple, might feel more comfortable playing with at least one doll that resembled her.
“None of the family’s white relatives would think about buying something like this for the girl,” Oppel said. “They would rather see her play with just white dolls. We wanted to give a black doll, specifically. The little girl already has a lot of white ones.”
Charlton nodded. He has heard similar comments before.
And over the years he has come to realize that the importance of the doll is not solely in the small measure of financial independence it has afforded him.
The dolls have given black children and adults a positive ethnic image to identify with, he said.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘If you don’t like these dolls, you don’t like yourself,’ ” Charlton said.
And, yet, after a decade of hard work and repeated praise from customers, Charlton, an unwitting architect of ethnic pride, said he is puzzled and somewhat bitter over still having to work out of the back of his van.
Charlton said he has tried over the years to market his dolls to a wider audience--both through the failed consignment attempts and by contacting large toy makers. For a variety of reasons, he said, the efforts have not worked.
Without dwelling on the disappointments, the toy-making family continues to work.
“We aren’t saying black children have to play with our dolls,” partner Turnage said. “We just want people to know that there are black dolls, and black-Asian dolls, and black-Latino dolls, just like there are children.”