Picturing Black Childhood: An Artist’s Journey

In 2009, sensitive to the ways that Black girls are under particular duress in American culture, the Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts began creating intricate collages of innocence and joy — “very Black Norman Rockwell,” as she described them in a recent interview. When she decided to pursue an M.F.A. in 2014 at age 48, hoping to discover ways to move her work forward, she was struck by how little research there was to draw upon to understand the lives of Black girls and the challenges they faced. “There was scholarship on Black women,” she explained, “but not on how we become Black women.”

Six years later, a lot has changed. Roberts’s own career has exploded: Her mixed-media of found photographs on paper and canvas have been lately acquired by MoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, purchased by celebrity collectors including the Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) and Spike Lee, and even featured in a recent episode of “And Just Like That…,” the “Sex and the City” reboot.

Meanwhile, the pressures that Black girls face every day — often stereotyped to be more adult, and less innocent, at a far younger age than their white counterparts, with the result that they are often sexualized earlier; overpoliced by schools and law enforcement; and held to white beauty standards at great cost to their self-esteem, for example — are being increasingly brought to light by activists, educators and researchers.

The artist Deborah Roberts in the courtyard of Express Newark. “I hope my pictures are uplifting and difficult to look at, all at the same time,” she said.Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

Two exhibitions in the New York region speak to the challenges at the heart of Roberts’s practice, though in radically different ways. In Manhattan, “Black Dolls” at the New-York Historical Society offers up a collection of more than 100 Black dolls mostly made between the 1850s and 1940s, examining them through the lens of race, gender and history. “Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility” at Express Newark, an art and design center connected to Rutgers University, in downtown Newark, includes work by established artists, including Roberts herself, interspersed with art by Black girls and teenagers.

I suggested to Roberts that we visit the shows together. Her reactions, joyful to pained, offered insight into how delicate the process of illuminating Black childhood can be.

Pride and Pain at “Black Dolls”

Our first stop was the New-York Historical Society, where “Black Dolls” opens to the public on Friday. The exhibition is drawn largely from the private collection of Deborah Neff, who has for decades acquired dolls mostly produced by African American women for their own children and those that they cared for — both Black and white.

Unlike porcelain figurines, which were treated as precious objects, these fabric confections were intended for hands-on play. The dollmakers’ inventiveness in using materials they had on hand, including scraps of fabric, embroidery thread, leather, twine, beads, coral and coconut shell, to create objects that might be loved — or, as Roberts pointed out, abused — by children is apparent everywhere. The curators, Margaret K. Hofer, vice president and museum director, and Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator, explained that these craftswomen were making aesthetic decisions about how to portray their Black subjects with dignity, as a counterpoint to the virulently racist imaging of African Americans that polluted the visual landscape at the time.

Dolls made by Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), for the Willis family children, ca. 1850-60, at the New-York Historical Society. Jacobs honed her skills as a seamstress while enslaved. She escaped, and in New York found work caring for the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis.Credit…Glenn Castellano

A very few names of the makers are known to us, including that of Harriet Jacobs. She honed her skills as a seamstress while hiding for years in a cramped, low-ceilinged, 7 by 9 foot crawl space in her grandmother’s roof to escape sexual abuse by her enslaver. (She wrote about the experience in her pseudonymous memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in 1861.) Three dolls she made after her self-emancipation, for the children of her white employers, are some of the first you see in the show. .

In the next gallery, Roberts homed in on a late-19th-century figure of a girl whose hands are fashioned from castoff gloves and feet from old children’s shoes. “That one almost looks like one of my collages,” she said, pointing out that “I do big hands and feet so that my figures are able to hold all that power and defend against all the abuse that is coming.”

“That face is very similar to what I do,” she continued. “You find humanity in that face, and those hands are work hands. And look at how young she is — or I’m assuming she’s young. It reminds you of a life of service and duty, which is also very powerful. And I love those shoes,” she said, laughing.

Turning to one array of dolls on a platform, she said, “I love that all the dolls are in a power stance. In my work, all the girls are in a power stance, too, because they have to be rooted to withstand all the history, stereotypes, and beauty standards that came before them.”

A female doll with uneven arms and large hands made of repurposed children’s gloves, at “Black Dolls” at The New-York Historical Society. The maker is unknown; late 19th century.  “You find humanity in that face,” Deborah Roberts said.Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

At the same time, Roberts pointed out how difficult it was to encounter some of these dolls on display. This was especially the case with three dolls made by abolitionists, who seem to have been motivated by a desire to encourage empathy for Black people who suffered the violence of enslavement. One, created from cotton, silk, wire and pearl by Cynthia Walker Hill in the 1850s, represents a man wearing a metal slave collar.

“I get that they were trying to give Black people agency and humanity by creating these well-dressed, groomed dolls that were good enough for their children to play with,” Roberts said. “While they’re beautiful, they’re very painful. I want to look at them and be proud of them — I want to say, OK, my grandfather might have worn a shirt like that, he may have lived this life, but he survived it. But it’s still hard to see.”

The curators pointed out that the dolls, while creating possibilities for cross-racial understanding, also raised questions of power and ownership. In front of a wall of vintage photographs showing both Black and white children posing for portraits while clinging to their well-used dolls, Roberts wondered: “What’s happening when you talk about white kids playing with Black dolls in this historical period? Because as much as it might seem to be about love and care, it’s also a way of owning Black bodies or claiming ownership over Black bodies.” She added, “These children may well be in a position of power when they grow up.”

A group of dolls against a backdrop of 19th-century tintypes and photographs that Deborah Neff collected with her dolls, at The New-York Historical Society.Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

The history that lurks behind these playthings may be painful, Roberts concluded, but it’s also important. “I hope my pictures are uplifting and difficult to look at, all at the same time. This exhibition is, too. It’s about the history and aftermath of enslavement of humans — the pride and joy, the embarrassment and shame that we felt and still feel.”

Agency and Power at “Picturing Black Girlhood”

A drive across the river lands us at a very different show, this one organized by Scheherazade Tillet, who is just completing a two-year artist residency at Express Newark, and Zoraida Lopez-Diago. (Tillet’s sister, Salamishah Tillet, a contributing critic at large for The New York Times, was recently appointed director of the space.) On three floors of a former upscale department store in the heart of the city, photographic work by Black women, girls and genderqueer artists — age 8 to 94, as the curators note — sheds light on how Black girls, and the women they became, want us to see them now.

Consisting of over 150 photographs, videos, sculptures and collages, the exhibition touches on issues of innocence and beauty, self-adornment and self-care, relationships with friends and family, politics and activism, responsibilities toward siblings and elders (an especially important theme during the pandemic, when many Black girls felt additional pressures to support their families through crisis), joy, grief and more.

Shukurah Floyd, “What?,” 2019, an experiment in illuminating her own face, is on view at Express Newark.Credit…Shukurah Floyd and A Long Walk Home

The more established names — Carrie Mae Weems, Lorraine O’Grady, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deborah Jacks, Nona Faustine Simmons, and Roberts among them — all famously turned their attention to girlhood at different points in their careers. Many of the younger photographers came to the curators’ attention through their participation in organizations like A Long Walk Home, a Chicago nonprofit founded by the Tillet sisters that introduces girls to photography and writing as a means to advocate for themselves.

Crucially, everyone here is treated an artist, no matter their age. Such is the case with an arresting self-portrait by Shakurah Floyd, titled “What?” (2019). Floyd’s mother had long refused to allow Floyd to get school photos taken, because photographers more often than not had little interest in correctly lighting darker skin tones, relying on flashes and strobes more suited to lighter complexions. Floyd’s picture, created when she was just 13, is an experiment in illuminating her own face, a defiant rejoinder to the ways that the camera can produce racial bias if not used with care.

The curators focused on creating conversations between artists of different generations, apparent in a section of the show dedicated to the theme of protest, and organized around a work from Roberts’s 2018 series based on Rosa Parks. Against a white paper support, we see a girl’s face composed of fragments of found images. Below are collaged hands holding a police booking number, borrowed from Parks’s mug shot taken during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Near the bottom of the composition a plaid schoolgirl’s kilt appears; a torso is indicated only by a few delicately penciled-in lines.

Dashara McDaniel, “#AllBlackLivesMatter,” 2016.Credit…Courtesy of the artist and A Long Walk Home, Inc.
Doris Derby, “Member of the Southern Media Photographing a Young Girl, Farish Street, Jackson, Mississippi,” 1968.Credit…Courtesy of the artist

“I find photographs of faces that feel the most innocent to me, that speak to how I felt as an 8-year-old child looking for my own notions of beauty,” Roberts explained. “I’m asking you to peer through these fractured images to see a whole person.”

Here are works by Doris Derby, who chronicled the civil rights movement in the 1960s, often focusing on women and children, and the teenage artists Fanta Diop and Dashara McDaniel, who took pictures of their fellow Black Lives Matter protesters in the Bronx and Chicago, respectively.

Looking at the work of the youngest artists in the show, Roberts was struck both by what hadn’t changed for Black girls — including the continuing need to fight for their rights — but also, at moments, what has. She stopped at a particularly effective pairing: A 1990 photo by Carrie Mae Weems, in which a young girl carefully replicates the mother’s gesture of putting on lipstick in a mirror, and “Make Up Time,” a video selfie made by Seneca Steplight-Tillet, the curator’s niece, on her eighth birthday.

“Look at the way this young girl puts on makeup and poses for the camera,” Roberts said. “You can sense that she accepts her own beauty and can communicate it, thanks to new technologies. It’s the same message as Weems’s photo, but it’s told through a different lens.”

After a day of reflecting on the creativity of Black girls and women, I asked Roberts what she aspires for kids growing up today. “I want the same thing for Black girls that white girls receive,” she said. “This sense of innocence and joy and playfulness, of being silly and immature and not being punished for it, knowing that their hair grows toward God and it is both beautiful and challenging. I want Black girls to know, just because they appear mighty doesn’t mean they can’t be vulnerable. I want Black girls to be treated as children, not adults.”

Black Dolls

Feb. 25 through June 5, New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, 212-873-3400;

Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility

Through July 2, Express Newark, 54 Halsey Street, Newark, N.J.,

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