Ain't No White Dolls
They stared at the white woman with their marble, sewn, and painted eyes. She’d never seen anything like them and never so many at once. Black dolls lined the overcrowded shelved walls from beginning to end and top to bottom. Black dolls circled, stood, and sat together creating great towers in the center of tables. Black dolls stretched both legs and arms on the floor, crowding the walking aisles. Black miniature dolls and their accessories found spaces inside dust-ridden handmade dollhouses. Black dolls sat, stood, and lay on brown, white and yellow bookcases. Black dolls watched, laughed, cried and offered somber looks toward the white woman, their potential new owner. Light-skinned, dark-skinned, brown-skinned, but never white-skinned; they all posed and waited for her to ease toward one of them.
Cleo Van Horne didn’t notice anything unusual or unique about any of the dolls. She couldn’t distinguish one from the other and didn’t believe she had the time to bother.
“Reba.” Tookie Lou, the doll storeowner, tugged down on her nappy wig and snatched away the one doll Cleo had built up the courage to touch. With a single hand gesture, Tookie Lou referred her to the Please Don’t Touch. Ask for Assistance sign.
“Oh, no! Reba ain’t my name.” Tookie Lou laughed, certain of the woman’s confusion. “I’m Tookie—Tookie Lou is better, but I answer to both so I guess it don’t matter much.” She considered extending her ashy hand for a handshake, but decided against it. “You say your car broke down, huh?” she asked, suddenly reminded of the conversation they’d had when Cleo stood outside her door just moments ago.
“Oh my, yes. Can you imagine such a thing? Brand new car.…” Cleo’s voice trailed off as she turned to meet the eyes of the dolls seated behind her. As much as she wanted to feel comfortable in this place, she just couldn’t stand all those black faces staring at her, behind her back, from the floor below, and directly in front of her.
“You wanna use the phone?” Tookie Lou touched her arm as Cleo nodded, nearly choking on the possibility of speech. “It’s over there, by the register.” She pointed to an old fashioned princess phone, but Cleo didn’t move.
“You like Reba?” Tookie Lou revealed the doll again, holding her by the waist before waving it in Cleo’s face. “You wanna buy her?”
Instead of taking in the doll, Cleo instead eyed Tookie Lou in her wrinkled Don’t Mess With Texas T-shirt, khaki shorts, and house shoes—ones with the obnoxious Cabbage Patch doll head covering the top half of her feet and toes. Ashy legs, a nappy wig that sat cocked to one side, and blinding red lipstick completed the look.
“No, I only wish to use your telephone and then I’ll be on my way, thanks.” Cleo turned up her nose and started toward the phone, certain to make ridiculous sized steps over dolls along the way, careful not to crush any with her size-10 heels.
“Reba is what they call folk art, some people say rag doll. She has a mate, too, if you’d like to see him.” Tookie Lou said, warming herself up for future sales pitches.
“Plenty more like Reba around here.” She made a new place for the doll on one of the tables before glancing over at Cleo again. Tookie Lou obviously didn’t know much about fashion, but she knew that what Cleo chose from the closet that morning was most certainly loud, wrong and ugly—something she’d never expect an old southern woman like her to wear. “You like dolls?” Tookie Lou smiled, revealing her gapped lipstick-stained teeth. Again, Cleo didn’t respond right away. She figured there would be plenty of time for chatting once she dug through her purse, found the number she needed and made the necessary call that would allow her to get on with her weekend errands. “Plenty of dolls in here for you to browse if you’re interested.” Tookie Lou extended her arms like Jesus on the cross and nodded, hopeful that the woman might select something that she could tell her some made-up story about.
Cleo hesitated as she picked up the rotary phone. “Are all your dolls black?”
Tookie Lou chuckled, placed her hands on her hips and gave Cleo another careful examination. Even the white woman’s flawless makeup couldn’t manage all that ugly.
While Tookie Lou made her second inspection more than obvious, Cleo shivered momentarily as she observed the numerous other sets of eyes still on her. She thought she might be paranoid, but wondered if there was any way to escape their stares—outside of leaving. Pushing her gray bangs away from her face, she again pretended not to notice anything unusual. Instead she focused on her phone call. With coded speech, she expressed an urgent need for someone to arrive promptly. The person on the other line confirmed a 30-minute wait before the conclusion of the call.
“You look like the Barbie doll type. We got a few of them over this way. We got Sorority Girl Barbie, Apartheid Barbie, President’s Day Barbie, 19th Century Barbie, Lingerie Barbie—oh, you gotta see that one.” Tookie Lou reached out for Cleo, preparing to pull her arm in the direction of what she wanted her to see, but again stopped short of touch.
“No, thank you.” Cleo’s eyes panned from one side of the room to the next. The dolls’ stares were becoming too much. African dolls, white-looking dolls with black faces, fabric dolls with no faces at all, Aunt Jemima dolls, tall dolls, naked dolls, chubby dolls, midget dolls, baldhead dolls … and she believed all those, plus some, to be her spying audience.
“My baby girl was a tomboy, so she ain’t never much liked even being in a place like this. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved dolls. I kept every doll anybody ever gave me—even ran my husband off with all these dolls.” Tookie Lou threw her head back and allowed her laughter to fill the room. “He said I loved these dolls more than I loved real people—which is just crazy talk, but maybe part true.” Tookie Lou covered her mouth and laughed again. “And just in case you’re wondering, all these dolls here are my babies. I live upstairs in the attic, but the dolls keep me company, so I guess I ain’t never really alone.”
“And all of them are black?”
“Well, I don’t have much use for a white doll now, do I? Folks can go to Toys"R"Us for that, but these are the real deal right here, miss. All in one place just for you,” she said, holding up two by the arms before placing them gently back onto a crowded bookcase. “You ain’t gonna find nothing like these dolls in this here United States, except maybe in a museum, and you can’t buy none of them dolls now, can you?” Tookie Lou paused and sucked in the stale scent of all of her dolls, as though for the first time. “You wanna see my favorite ones?” she asked, eager to have a little human company for a change.
“I’m actually not here to shop.”
“No, ma’am. No white dolls,” she said, as though Cleo had asked again. “My momma ain’t never let me play with any white dolls growing up.” Tookie Lou moved closer to Cleo, prepared to share another personal tidbit. “You know that test they did in the ‘50s where they put the dolls in front of the black kids, and all those little children picked the white doll? You remember that, don’t you?”
Cleo didn’t have a clue.
“Well, my sister was one of the few that picked the black doll—I was too young to participate myself, but I’ll tell you what, that’s all we knew—even back then! Black dolls!” Tickled, Tookie Lou clapped her hands proudly. “Black dolls are worth more than the white ones anyway, that’s what people don’t know.”
“I’m sorry? Don’t know what?” Cleo questioned.
Tookie Lou shook her head in disgust and decided not to repeat herself.
Still looking around, something captured Cleo’s attention by the front door, and she rushed over to it, knocking a few unnoticed and unworthy dolls to the floor along the way. “I thought you didn’t have any white dolls.” She held up her find with a mocking grin as Tookie Lou struggled to make her way over to the doll just as quickly.
“She ain’t white!” Tookie Lou snatched yet another doll from Cleo’s hands, pointing once again to the Do Not Touch sign. “This here is Mixed-Up Maxine, probably made in the 1890s. Somebody must have placed her on the wrong side. See.…” Tookie Lou turned the doll upside down, pulled the purple-plaid dress over the white face and revealed a black doll with a mammy-like kerchief over her head and around her neck. “See, her face is hand-painted, and you can tell that some child just loved this one. Mixed-Up Maxine usually goes for four-hundred-and-forty-five dollars.” Tookie Lou paused to kiss the doll.
“Four-hundred-and-forty-five dollars is a bit much for that.”
“Four hundred and forty-five dollars is nothing for a serious collector, which I see you ain’t. Now I done told you I got the Barbies in the back, and those are nice. You look more like the Barbie type—you know my daddy use to work for Mattel when we lived out in those parts. They’re the ones that produce Barbie, you know. I got Corporate Barbie, Coca-Cola Barbie, Plantation Pride Barbie, Picnic Barbie—these dolls out here are for the real collectors. You probably can’t appreciate none of these, and I don’t expect you to know much about any of them. Maybe one day if you have time you can—” Tookie Lou caught herself before she could extend a return invitation. “Yeah, Barbie is probably what you want. Not that I have anything against Barbie, but you know … people that buy Barbies are different kinds of collectors.” She said softly before getting loud again, “We have some nice ones—come see, come see. I got Gone Fishin’ Barbie, Planned Parenthood Barbie—I mean Barbies like you ain’t never seen or heard of in your entire life.…”
“I don’t want a Barbie,” Cleo mumbled, like a spoiled child.
“Oh, you want one of these then?” Tookie Lou pointed to no doll in particular and waited for Cleo to say something. “I’ll give you a good deal. Just tell me which one.”
“Do you have any Japanese or Native American dolls?” Cleo said curtly.
Tookie Lou rolled her eyes and ignored Cleo’s foolishness. “How about Ashley? She was made in Germany. You like little Ashley? She’s a sweet baby. Look at those teeth!” Tookie Lou clicked her teeth together in a chomp action, causing Cleo to laugh along with her.
Cleo waited for Tookie Lou to tell her more, but the woman had already moved on to search for the next doll. Assuming it was okay, Cleo inspected the details of Ashley, first picking her up and then turning her over. “She’s so black—and you say this one is made in Germany?”
“Don’t touch. Don’t touch. Don’t touch. Now what don’t you understand about don’t touch?”
Cleo gently placed the doll back down and folded her arms across her purse and chest again.
“I don’t get how people can come in a place like this and not buy something.” Tookie Lou hinted.
“Well, if I were to buy a doll, I wouldn’t want one that looks like all the rest. All of these look alike—my doll would have to be different … unique.”
“Ain’t no white dolls in here.” Tookie Lou said aloud to herself.
“I just can’t believe you have a whole house here with only black dolls. Seems a bit absurd, in my opinion. Most black people can’t afford these dolls.…” Cleo continued as she began to scan the dolls around her again. Then something else caught her eye and she marched right over to it. In a dusty corner, she managed to squat down in her loose-fitting skirt for a careful inspection. She pushed a few dolls aside in an attempt to reveal something that she thought would surprise even Tookie Lou.
Grabbing the doll tightly, she waved it high above her head and had a seat on the floor. The doll was the most beautiful thing she’d seen since she’d stepped in the door. This was the one.
“Why, I thought you said you didn’t have any white dolls. This one here is as white as can be—she’s gorgeous.” Cleo closed her eyes as she held the doll to her chest and lightly caressed its hair. “Just beautiful. I love it!”
Tookie Lou worked her way over to Cleo and squinted at the selected doll in silence.
“My daughter had a doll just like this when she was a girl. They couldn’t be separated—had matching outfits and everything.” Cleo reminisced, while rocking and rubbing the doll.
Tookie Lou said nothing.
“Do you have any children?”
“I had a little girl.” Tookie Lou said softly. “She never liked dolls.”
“My daughter either, but she just so happened to love that one.”
“All little girls have one doll that they love, but not my baby. She was always a little different. She was a special child.”
“My little Ann loved that doll. I don’t know where it is now, but this one will do. It will have to do.” Cleo sniffed.
Tookie Lou finally managed to touch Cleo’s shoulder and held it there for a moment, “Do you like coffee? I put on a pot—”
“I knew you had to have one in here. And quite frankly, you should have several dozen more if you want your business to be more successful. You can’t segregate these dolls like this. It’s just bad business. Honestly.…” Cleo wiped Tookie Lou’s hand away and pushed herself from the floor, careful not to harm the doll.
Tookie Lou offered no words.
“Does she have a name?” Cleo asked as she looked the doll over once more.
“I said, her name? What’s her name?”
“Well, who else would I be talking about? Of course the doll.”
“Nella. Have you ever heard of Nella Larsen?”
“Nella?” She paused. “Should I know her?”
“She was a Harlem Renaissance author.” Tookie Lou took it that Cleo wasn’t catching on. “Have you read Passing? I ain’t never read it myself.”
“If you haven’t read the book, why would you name the doll after some obscure woman?”
“I don’t name the dolls. They name themselves.”
“They name themselves. Nella chose her own name.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“Don’t have to make sense for it to be true.”
“The doll is beautiful—I don’t care what you call her, and I can’t imagine why you would keep her hidden away.” Cleo dusted her off and hugged her again.
“Maybe the doll’s the one that didn’t want to be found.”
“What does that mean?”
“Whatever you think it means.”
“Well, now she’ll have a new home—and a new name. I’m going to take and put her where she belongs. Somewhere that she’s appreciated and cherished. And people that matter can come and see her.”
“Nella belongs here. She ain’t gonna … well, she ain’t gonna be happy nowhere else.”
“Oh, poppycock. I love this doll. And my daughter would too if she was.…” Cleo focused on Nella again. “I love this doll. It’ll be the first in my collection. Who knows—maybe I’ll keep buying and open my home just as you have here.”
“Nella ain’t no white doll. She might look—”
“Whatever you say, Tookie.” Cleo waved her off and walked over to the cash register where she carefully stood the doll on the counter. She then proceeded to dig through her purse for her wallet. “Now tell me how much for this little gem.”
“Nella ain’t really for sale.”
“I’m not leaving here without her.”
“Then I’ll give her to you.”
“Wha—give—as in for free?” Cleo’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Maybe you’ll come back and visit sometime.” Tookie Lou shrugged.
“Maybe.” Cleo tucked the doll away in her bag and smiled.
Tookie Lou didn’t return the gesture as she watched the doll disappear. “Sometimes I like to give away just as many as I sell. Call it foolish.”
“That’s nice of you.” Cleo said, realizing that the woman wouldn’t be in business much longer if she continued to operate in such a manner.
As Cleo neared the door to leave, she took one last look at all of the dolls, wondering how a doll like Nella didn’t stand out more amongst them. Then, one by one, she noticed each doll’s distinct features. Certain things she hadn’t observed before made each one unique. Yes, they were all beautiful in their own right, but she knew she had the one that was truly unique.