On Exhibit: black history writ small | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: black history writ small 

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In the summer of 1975, Cassandra Fay Smith noticed something strange: virtually all the actors at the colonial museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, were white. Smith, then a PhD candidate in American history, had already found a historical document stating that in the 18th century half of the town's population was black. "There was this accurate representation down to the buttons on the clothing," she recalls, "but they ignored 50 percent of the population." When the subject of slavery did come up, the actors' answers teetered on the edge of historical revisionism. "The people in costumes called blacks 'servants,' not 'slaves,' and they never said they came from Africa," says Smith. When she questioned the omission, she was told that references to slavery made black visitors uncomfortable. But, says Smith, "I think I only saw one black couple there."

Smith had collected artifacts and documents on black history while working as a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution. One document was a contract that she deduced was a "funny kind of IOU" between a slave and a white man, allowing the slave to buy back his daughter in exchange for the daughter's services, probably as a wet nurse. "The girl was the collateral on her own loan," Smith says. Yet, despite such compelling fragments, slave history was not a subject that garnered much attention from her colleagues--in part because of the lack of "legitimate" documentation. "Every statement had to be footnoted from archives, which came from the white perspective up to the 1880s because they were the only ones who wrote things that anyone kept," Smith says. "Most slaves were illiterate, and even if they dictated their narratives to someone, there was the question of 'Did he or she really say that?' So I kept running into stories that I could put together with guesstimates, but they weren't good enough for historians." She says the research papers she managed to get published landed in library collections not readily available to the general public.

Discouraged, Smith dropped out of the history program at Howard University and traveled west to earn an MBA at the University of Southern California. She spent the next ten years as a marketing executive for corporations like Coca-Cola and Helene Curtis, then worked as the marketing director for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. In the late 80s, as she approached her 40th birthday, Smith decided to leave the business world to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Her fiction has since appeared in journals like TriQuarterly and the Crescent Review.

In the course of writing her first novel several years ago, Smith returned to antebellum scholarship. She was having trouble "seeing" the novel's environment clearly enough to create a believable backdrop. "[The novel] was set in the mid-19th century, but it might as well have been the late 20th." To find her footing, Smith began studying historical interiors, and soon she found herself creating miniature rooms reflecting the south of the 1850s, perfect down to the last detail.

But when she started looking for dolls to people her little rooms, Smith had to make do with an extremely limited selection. "All I found were maids and mammies. And grotesque mammies at that, with their lips poked out and the whites of their eyes popping out of their heads." The only option was to make her own. She spent the next six months learning the craft of doll making, then began to search for porcelain doll parts. Finding faces with the right features was her biggest challenge. "It took me nearly a year to find people who would make porcelain parts in brown that weren't just mammy parts or brown Barbies."

In 1995 Smith showed her diorama "Clara Brown" in a group exhibit at the Guild Complex. A photograph of a slave washerwoman provides the backdrop for a landscaped scene in which a doll stands doing laundry. Behind the diorama is the photograph of the real Clara Brown, a former washerwoman who went to Denver after the Civil War and made a fortune in real estate.

Since that show Smith has created some 40 dolls, some with accompanying dioramas. To make their vintage clothing, she relies on costume historians, photographs, and 19th-century paintings by Winslow Homer and others who painted southern subjects. "In a very large percentage of American domestic scenes before 1870, there will be a black person in the room that the painter painted in because he painted in all the objects in the room," says Smith. "The black person is just kind of an aside."

No detail has been overlooked in Smith's dolls, from the variety of skin colors to subtle touches like jewelry and painted dirt on hands, feet, and petticoats. Each doll takes her about six hours to make and sells for $125 to $175. Smith has also created biographies for many of them, using fragments from plantation narratives, war journals, and her own imagination. The loan document Smith found became the backbone for the story of "Mary McCormick," a wet nurse who hires herself out to buy back her infant son. "Mammy Get Your Gun" spoofs the notion of the happy, devoted slave. In "She Came in Second," a well-dressed doll stands before a poster advertising a raffle in which a mulatto girl named Sarah is the second prize; a horse is the first. "You can imagine being raffled off," says Smith, "and you're not even the first prize."

Smith's dolls are her witnesses to the past. "That's why this is so attractive to me," she says. "I can take the fragments of history that aren't enough for a scholar to put together a reasoned argument but that are enough for a storyteller to put together a story."

Smith's dolls are available all this month in the gift shop of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; she'll answer questions and offer demonstrations from 1 to 3 this Saturday and Sunday. Her dolls are also sold at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., and at Woman Made Gallery, 1900 S. Prairie. For more information, call 312-409-8182. --Pat Price

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cassandra FAyu Smith/ doll and doll house photos by Cynthia Howe.

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