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My Little Black Doll

She didn’t have a name. She didn’t need one, because I never had a reason to call her; wherever I went, she was already with me, right there in the little pram I would push in front of me or clutched to my chest in a tight embrace. She was not a doll, she was my baby and she never left my side, not until that one day, the day that I would remember for a long time as the worst day of my life. I never knew back then, at the age of three, four or five, how lucky I was to have a black doll. It was the late 80s, early 90s, black dolls were barely a thing in most parts of the world, but I didn’t know about any of that. I was not aware of race at all at the time. Not because children cannot be aware of racism, they can, and they are. In fact, one of my earliest memories - I was no older than four - is of me and my parents and some of their friends on vacation together in a rural part of Germany. We sat around a wooden table outside of a farmhouse when some local girls - a couple of years older than myself - arrived. One of the girls sat down with us, but her friend hid behind a wall, peeking her head around it every now and then, watching us with curiosity from a distance. One of the adults said to the girl: “Why don’t you come and sit with us?”. But her friend responded on her behalf: “Sie hat Angst vor N***” - She’s afraid of N***. I might not have known the history of the word or any of its social implications, but I knew immediately and without question who she was talking about. I was aware without anyone having ever had a conversation with me about race or racism, probably without being able to have the capacity to grasp what any of those very abstract concepts even meant, but still I immediately understood who the girl was afraid of. Years later, during PE class at the German School in Cape Town we would play a very popular German children’s game “Wer hat Angst vorm Schwarzen Mann” “Who is afraid of the Black man” where a group of children are lined up against one side of the wall and one tagged person who represents said “black man” stands against the other wall on the opposite end. The tagged person calls: “Who is afraid of the black man?” and all the other children shout: “No one!” And the little tagged child taunts: “But if he comes?” and the children sing in unison “Then we’ll run away”, and then the tagged child runs toward the other children and tries to catch one of them, as they run as fast as they can to reach the other side of the wall without getting caught by the “Black man”. The entire aim of the game is to run away from the black man, who they so confidently shout they aren’t afraid of…The teachers said the “Black man” had nothing to do with race. It was supposed to be a chimney sweeper or something like that. But I knew based on my experience that that was a lie…. But I digress. Back in Berlin, at the age of four, in my kindergarten that I went to, there were children who looked like me and there were children who did not. We were a mixed group of kids from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds and the kindergarten even had the same black doll that I had in their own toy collection. At that time and in that space, diversity was my normality, so a black doll was not unusual or special, it was just my doll. That changed – ironically - when we moved to South Africa in the early 90s, just as Apartheid was officially, slowly coming to an end. Naturally my baby doll emigrated with us. When we landed in Johannesburg - my father’s hometown that was so close to free but not quite - my family, an interracial couple with two mixed children, were quite the spectacle. People stared at us shamelessly, some in shock, some surprise, some in admiration. We were at the airport or a shopping centre, I don’t quite remember, it was all new and foreign and I did not really understand the gravity of the situation; my father returning home after a decade abroad, bringing with him a white wife into a country where that had been until very recently punishable by law. We weren’t just a family, we were as we stood there, the symbol of The New South Africa. A black man, a white wife and two brown children, one of them clinging on to her doll for comfort in this new, totally unknown strange place. Suddenly, this woman who had come to fetch us and who they had called my grandmother, grabbed my doll, my little baby, right from out of my grasp and flung her into the air. Then, waving her high above her head she began to run around showing her to everyone who was there that day. The women who caught a glimpse of her shrieked in excitement, there was clapping and ululating and singing as she was passed around; I think that little black doll made of plastic and fabric received a welcome probably akin to the one a freedom fighter received at the Grand Parade upon his release from prison after 27 years. She was not just my doll anymore; she was a symbol for change. Of course, I only understood this many years later, at the time all I saw was a bunch of women strangely excited about throwing my baby into the air – and I didn’t like any of it. After the incident, was overprotective, and became cautious to never let her out of my sight ever again. That is, until that one day. My parents decided to set up a new life in Cape Town and since this was before the time cheap(er) flights became available to South Africans to travel for work between cities, we had to travel by train. That train ride is really a reminder of how large the surface of South Africa is, taking over 26 hours to get you from Johannesburg to the Mother City (granted, it’s a slow train, but still, the country is big and that example should serve as a great reminder to any European person who refers to “Africa” as a place; the UK could fit into South Africa comfortably 5 times): Understandably, somewhere on that long journey I must have tired of watching my baby sleep (her eyes are always closed, really just two slits carved into plastic, so she looks as though she is always peacefully resting) and fallen asleep myself. It was only when we arrived in Cape Town and had already gotten off the train that I realised that she was no longer with me. I panicked. My parents didn’t have her either. I was distraught, fear and sadness overcame me all at once. I think it’s safe to say it was the worst day of my five years of life, worse still than the day I fell off a ladder at kindergarten and got that scar that splits my left eyebrow in two. My mother found a way to calm me down. We sent a letter to my old kindergarten in Berlin and asked them if they would be willing to send me their doll (the identical replica) from their toy box. The other children, my old friends, were so kind and sent her all the way to South Africa for me. Of course, at first I felt bad about replacing my baby with another baby, but my mother comforted me: there is a big chance that the baby in the toy box at the kindergarten was actually my baby and had accidentally been swapped on one of the days I took her along to kindergarten. I was convinced that this must be true. Still, I sometimes think of that doll that got left behind somewhere on the Shosholoza train. I wonder who might have found her? Did she end up with a little girl in Klerksdorf or maybe a young boy in Kimberley? Did my little brown plastic doll bring a little black child as much joy and comfort as she brought me? I do like to think that wherever she landed, she became a symbol for change.

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