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In the mid-twentieth century, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their famous “doll test” in which they asked African American children whether they preferred Black or white dolls. Most children identified white dolls as “nice” and Black dolls as “bad”—proof, the Clarks argued, that segregation psychologically damaged Black children. These findings figured pivotally in Brown v. Board of Education. In this lecture, Robin Bernstein defamiliarizes the “doll test” by locating it not in the history of Civil Rights but instead in a history of representational play—violently racist practices of play that were, for a century, coordinated through Black dolls.
Robin Bernstein is a cultural historian who specializes in US racial formation from the nineteenth century to the present. A professor at Harvard University, Bernstein is the author of the award winning book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. She has received a Public Scholars Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the William Riley Parker Prize for the best article in the journal PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association), and the Darwin T. Turner Award for the best article in the journal African American Review. She is currently completing a book about the origins of industrial prison labor in the antebellum North.

Dominique Jean-Louis is Associate Curator of History Exhibitions at New-York Historical Society, where she has worked on Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow (2018), Our Composite Nation: Frederick Douglass’ America (2022), and is the co-curator of Black Dolls (2022). She received her BA in comparative ethnic studies from Columbia University and is completing her doctoral dissertation at NYU on race, education, and immigration in post-civil rights era New York City. Dominique also regularly writes and lectures on black history, schools and education, and New York City.

Freyja Hartzell
teaches the history of modern design, architecture, and art at Bard Graduate Center. Her first book, Richard Riemerschmid’s Extraordinary Living Things, appears with MIT Press this fall. She is currently working on a new book, Doll Parts: Designing Likeness, and a related exhibition on dolls and human likeness. Her primary research interests center around the roles that designed objects play in the dynamics of subject-object relations.