The Lulu Effect

Seventy-one years ago, when my mother was expecting me, at a time when pregnant women had to wait to give birth before they knew whether to choose baby clothes in pink or blue, my mother made a doll for me – a black cloth doll she named Lulu.

It’s remained a mystery to me all these years why she did this. I may have asked her at some point when she was still alive, but I never got a clear answer. Perhaps, when I asked, she just looked at me as she often did, with an expression that read, “Why, in Heaven’s name, do you always ask so many questions?” Maybe she just shrugged her shoulders and changed the subject.

Maybe her reason was that she just KNEW I’d be born a girl who would love and cherish dolls. Or maybe she found the McCall’s patterns for stuffed cloth dolls that came on the market in the mid-1940s irresistible, and she had to try her hand at making one. And maybe she just happened to have some chocolate-brown cotton fabric and soft black wool yarn kicking around in her sewing box.

A cloth doll pattern from the 1940s, perhaps similar to the one my mother used to make Lulu
A cloth doll pattern from the 1940s, perhaps similar to the one my mother used to make Lulu

One thing’s for sure: It wasn’t any sort of political correctness that motivated my young mother, Lee, to make an adorable black doll for me. Both of my parents were Republicans who gave little thought to broader social issues. We lived in an all-white, white bread, middle class town in suburban New Jersey. We children were not taught to hate (nor love) blacks because there were none around to hate (or love). They didn’t exist for us.

While other little kids had their “blankies” or stuffed bunnies or teddy bears to cling to, I had Lulu. Lulu was soft and tall – almost 18 inches high – with chubby hands and feet and a hand-embroidered (by my mother) face that was always, always bright-eyed and smiling. Lulu was, for years, my constant companion, a comforter (especially during times of domestic violence in our home), my first best friend.

The fact that her skin color was a thousand times darker than mine and her head was covered in short, braided tufts of black yarn-hair, so unlike my long, blond braids, didn’t matter to me. I didn’t see her differences as “foreign” or “other” or “less than.” She was a part of me. We were inseparable. She represented calm — and unconditional love.

I’m convinced my mother had no clue what the long-term effect my beloved black doll Lulu would have on me.


Fast forward to today and the heightened racial tensions that are wracking the United States as I write this. Every day, with a heavy, aching heart, I read the news online and watch reports on CNN of senseless white-on-black and black-on-white killings and hate crimes. If only, I think, I could say or write or do something that might shed some light or make a difference.

Here I am, a seventy-one-year old white woman who doesn’t fit the mold – whose life experience, from infancy through years spent living in Africa among Africans has given her a completely different point of view. In short: the concept of white superiority is absurd to me; I deeply believe that racism is heinous and slavery was (and remains) America’s original, insufficiently repented sin.

Last week I read in the New York Times online a long, brilliant, and biting Op-Ed essay by Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, titled “Death in Black and White.” He begins:

“We, black America, are a nation of nearly 40 million souls inside a nation of more than 320 million people. And I fear now that it is clearer than ever that you, white America, will always struggle to understand us.”

Essays, by their nature, are opinion pieces, the author’s point of view, an effort to understand an issue and add a voice to the larger conversation. Dyson’s fierce essay, well worth reading and rereading in full at, is a passionate polemic, designed, I believe, to make us all wake up and sit up.

It made me want to speak with him – or write to him – and share my own point of view. But I fear he would dismiss me as an unimportant, know-nothing, “privileged” old white woman whose singular voice isn’t worth listening to.

Later in the essay he makes the broad-brush statement, “At birth, you [white Americans] are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class.”

How I wish I could sit with him, look him in the eyes and say, “No, professor Dyson, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken on that point. Not all white Americans. I am living proof. I wasn’t given binoculars. I was given Lulu. And she has made all the difference.”

10 thoughts on “The Lulu Effect”

  1. Oh Bonnie….we are so profoundly shaped by our early experiences….and whether she intended it or not, your mother gave you a gift that sustained you as a child and shaped you for the important work you would do many years later. Your magnificent writing is matched only by your generous spirit and the clarity of your vision. Love to you….you continue to move and inspire me. Pamela

  2. Bonnie, your Lulu effect could have implications for our early childhood education programs. Why not provide such dolls from many different groups/cultures/peoples so young children can become comfortable with them?
    Good for you, and for your mother!

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Marge! Yes, this was one of my underlying “messages” in this blog post.If more young children had dolls from other cultures to love and connect with, those cultures would never seem so “other.” — Much love, BB xx

  3. Dear Bonnie, I too quoted Dyson in a My Turn piece that was published this week in the Taos News. I don’t think he’d be a bit dismissive if you wrote him. We are SO going to miss Obama!

    1. Hi, Steve — Yes, I subsequently learned that Dyson’s NYT essay caused QUITE a debate. I did send him my blog post, but I doubt he’ll respond to me. We’ll see! — Best to you and Donna, BB xx

  4. Wow, Bonnie! That was very moving. Of course you’re up against being a woman with an opinion, not just being white. I would love to read that essay by Mr. Dyson, but the link didn’t go through for me. Maybe just because I’m on my phone? I’ll try it on my home computer. Anyway I’m thinking of you and wishing you the very very best in your new life there. You are brave as ever, and it inspires me that you are so outspoken. Take care, and yes, yr piece about Guanajuato did actually hit home. Cheers, Jean-Vi

    1. Jean-Vi! Great to hear from you (and to know you read the Gto piece)! I hope you’re able to find the Dyson essay. I admit I’m not great at providing links, alas. Hope you’re doing well. — BB

  5. A doll that opens doors to the other. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Sometimes the best solutions actually are simple. Time to start making dolls for little people!

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