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Finding Power in a Black Doll

Twenty-five years ago, a Cape Town speech therapist named Helen Lieberman paid an illegal visit to the South African black township of Langa to check up on a little girl whom she had treated. Concerned for the child’s welfare, Lieberman violated the segregationist laws of apartheid to make the visit. What she found was much worse than what she had imagined.

“I was upset to see [the children’s] fear and repression, [and] suffering. . . . The mothers caring for them were unable to extend the physical love necessary because they were caring for so many children in plastic or tin shacks without food or health care,” she told LILITH.

Almost immediately, Lieberman began her involvement in community development, helping to provide food, shelter, day-care, job-training, employment— and dolls for the children. “The empowerment of our people,” she says, “is happening because of the teaching of the skills of sewing and doll-making to women who have never been employed”—”our people” being the township people; Lieberman, white and Jewish, says she doesn’t see race when she looks at a child—she sees “human beings on a basic level: do they have food, homes, schools?”

From those initial projects, Ikamva Labantu (The Future of Our People and Our Nation), was born in 1992, because even though apartheid has been overturned, black South Africans still live with high rates of unemployment and poverty. The project offers services to address these needs. Among the aid it has provided: thousands of black dolls.

Research over the decades and throughout the world have shown that black children consistently relate positive adjectives with white dolls and negative adjectives with the black dolls, leading some to point to an impoverished self-image among black children.

Along with Lieberman, Linda Tarry, president of the Project People Foundation—created to carry out this project—and others worldwide, have been working to change that. In addition to fundraising campaigns, donations, and home-made efforts. Tarry, a black American educator who was introduced to Lieberman’s project by the American Jewish Congress, has transported the target 15,000 black dolls to South African children. “It is a crucial ingredient for positive self-esteem,” she explains.

Now, black South African women and disabled men are sewing their own dolls in hopes of marketing them in the United States. Tarry has mobilized the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, the Riverside Church, and others to purchase and direct these dolls to black children. The kickoff program, to be held on the eighth night of Hanukah, is scheduled to be a joint program of the New York Board of Rabbis and the African-American Clergy Council, which, under the co-chairmanship of Dorothy Tananbaum, will purchase 1,000 of the cloth dolls. Half the dolls are to go to Ethiopian children in Israel; the other half to needy African- American children in New York City.