Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Who is an American Girl?

This post almost didn't happen.

My day was winding down, I was scrambling to finish up some work and I had no idea what was going on in the world and what I could write about it. I was worried that my streak of never failing to post on a weekday was coming to an end.

Then, a friend of mine brought something to my attention that begged for a longer discussion, not just by me but by all the smart folks who visit this blog. What she pointed out to me was a series of books and dolls called American Girl.

That link introduces you to "Addy" one of the 14 American Girl characters immortalized by a doll and book series. The toys appear to be based on an amalgamation of historical character in certain ethnic groups and are designed to tell diverse stories of America's past through the eyes of young girls.

Oh, and Addy's a slave.

Yep, of all the periods of black life, of all the little girls that could be immortalized through a doll and book, Addy the slave wench made the cut. Actually, I guess if Addy had been anything other than a slave it would have been pretty unrealistic since the only time black people are involved in any thing important is when they are being oppressed.

Ok, I'm toning down the snark and bile.

Honestly, when I initially sat down to write this blog, I couldn't decide whether Addy made me happy or angry. The books do attempt to teach important lessons about racism and discrimination, the writer of the series is a sister and Lord knows there aren't enough black dolls on the market for young black girls. Addy has several sets of nice clothes and wonderful accessories so it wasn't the typical presentation of a slave ragamuffin. I really had to think about why my initial reaction to Addy was so negative.

What I determined was that Addy's slavery had nothing to do with reality.

Oh, she suffered at the hands of white folks, saw her family separated and had to deal with hardship, but Addy just didn't feel like a slave. After all, what type of slave has six or seven sets of clothing? What type of slave or newly-freed former slave owns summer dresses, traveling trunks and bonnets? What type of slave sleeps in a cute little trundle bed?

That slave doesn't exist.

Clearly the author of this series and even the manufacturers of these dolls had a good intentions, but some things just don't lend themselves to cute back stories and pretty clothes. I know it's hard to discuss racism and slavery with kids, but the answer is not feeding them a sanitized, happy-go-lucky version of the past that comes equipped with matching galoshes.

If y'all take the time to look over all the dolls you will notice that the creators played fast and loose with stereotypes for everyone. I know children need things simplified, but sometimes things can go too far. More importantly, even in their rush to present an authentic black experience, the doll designers still decided to go with long straight hair for Addy; a decision that will surely spark some uncomfortable moments for black parents everywhere.

I want black children to have dolls that look like them, that tell their stories, but I also want those children to understand that those stories didn't begin or end with slavery. (Although the doll designers did give a shout out to Addy's African heritage with a straw dress and bone necklace.) Black people were involved in every step of American history; our stories do not have to be limited to slavery and the Civil Rights era. I also question whether these dolls were really being targeted to black kids considering the fact they cost roughly $90.

It's good that somebody thought to tell the story of a little black girl who showed pluck and courage. There is nothing inherently wrong with discussing slavery or the families it affected.

But, I think I'll stick with Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry when it comes time to introduce my children to historical fiction for black folks.

20 comments:

Oaktown Girl said...

Black people were involved in every step of American history; our stories do not have to be limited to slavery and the Civil Rights era.

Shhh! Don't tell that to Whitey - makes them uncomfortable...very uncomfortable. And keep that slavery shit nice and sanitized. Slavery was the best thing that evah happened to us darkies.

Even with the best of intentions, it's not good that the Black doll's story is about slavery. Even if that particular story is one of strength, it does little to help the self-esteem of Black girls today, or inform White girls that Black people are about far more than what's been done to them by White people.

Excellent post. Thanks.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Those dolls are extremely popular and I used to see blacks girls with the dolls walking around the Grove Mall in L.A. where there is an American Doll store.

I didn't know the black doll was a slave. sigh.

Is "Addy" in the movie that is coming this month?

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Big Man,

I have known about Addy and the American girl series for sometimes, she has existed for sometime even saw her in Chicago at the flagship store.

American girls originally were supposed to be in the early America time period then they added dolls as they go of course we only have Addy I had always hoped that they would add additional more current black dolls as they ad to the line, but they don't add the dolls that often.

They also have a native American doll sans small pox blanket. The girls are suppose to be everyday girls, so I doubt any of the girls should have the large wardrobes etc because in those time that was something only affluent children/people would have had.

American Girl audience really wasn't us in the beginning but they are working on it, I am surprised by how many black women collect all the dolls or start their daughter collecting the dolls.

Maybe we will be introduced to another black doll soon from them. I'd have to hope that Addy would be a great teach tool starting off point for black parents who are responsible and maybe even a few white ones. Unfortunately those parents aren't the minority.

And who says former slaves don't do well for themselves and get large trunks of clothes and lots of shoes maybe she is to be the female Frederick Douglass. Just a thought.

-OG

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

I meant majority!

-OG

WNG said...

I'm kind of with OG on this one as I think part of the problem is a time period thing although they could have gone out west and done a black town story for Addy the truth is that at the time period they're working in most black girls were slaves. So then they have to either not have a black doll or figure out a way to deal with it.
It makes me uncomfortable, but the entire line bothers me in that it reduces history to an accessory for dolls. So I guess my main reaction is hmm...

sixfive said...

oh wow. My sister-in-law (now 8), had this doll a while back and I never knew she was intended to be a slave, probably because of all the extra gear she came with.

dp said...

I went to chk out the dolls. I kinda see where they are going with the idea. The necklace was a stretch. I like the Julie Albright Hippy Doll, the fun loving San Francisco girl. What is her purpose?

Big Man said...

WNG and OG

The dolls I saw went all the way up to WWII. Consequently, they could have just as easily made a black doll during the Harlem Renaissance (sp) or even a black doll during the Great Northern Migration.

They instead chose slavery. And then they had a completely unrealistic representation of slavery. I could deal with a slave doll if they handled slavery in a real way, but this doesn't seem to be totally true. However, I think that's more a function of trying to take one of the most heinous periods in American history and make is "clean" enought to market doll and outfits. That's where I think the problems began.

Big Man said...

It's very hard to satisfy the purpose of a doll, namely dress-up and make believe, and still treat the horrible condition of slavery fairly. Unfortunately, I think this company has failed.

Deacon Blue said...

I only have a passing familiarity with the American Girl line, though with a little girl now, my wife was already thinking along American Girl lines one day. I am kinda startled that they would have focused only on slavery and that part of history for a black girl. I'm with WNG that if you wanted to do early American history the old west would have been a good place to go (either instead of or in additon to the slavery themed doll). There were so many black cowboys and Lord knows those cowboys weren't sporting many white wives or lady friends. There's a whole history there and some interesting stories to tell there. I mean, most white Americans have no clue how much blacks were a part of the West and there was plenty to learn about in terms of discrimination and racial issues then. Not like the Old West was far removed from slavery and reconstruction times...they bumped right against each other and overlapped if I have my history right (historical dates were always the kryptonite to my getting A's in social studies).

WNG said...

Big Man -
I didn't realize they had gotten that far in time. I knew that they were working their way through history. Which also begs the question: Why is there only ONE black doll if they are all the way to WWII???

Completely off topic I'm trying to get some journalists and people who know journalists, and well, everyone else too aware of something brewing in SC so if you have a moment: http://sorkinsaturdays.blogspot.com/2008/06/southern-gentleman.html

Big Man said...

I saw that post WNG.

You know I try to come by daily. It seemed like a bad situation and the school board member seemed out of line. But, as long as you have the only people who could collaborate his story backtracking it's going to be hard to get journos interested.

the uppity negro said...

Well, this is apologist and revisionist history at its best, but this nothing new, it's been going on for a while. Here's a case in point.

I went to a clearly Afro-Centric pre-school on the south side of Chicago, learned about Kwanzaa, all the people there either had dredlocks or Afro's it was real fight the power. We sang about Marcus Garvey and Malcom X and MLK, real good stuff. My momz pulled me out in kindergarten and I just went to an all black public school. A good one, one class per grade, well, we had one white kid in our class.

Anywho, in the school year 1990-1991 I was in 1st grade and my mother tells this story about how we learned about slavery one day in class and I came running home to tell my mother that "Why didn't the slaves run away to America?"

Um...and my first grade teacher was my only white teacher at this school.

Now YOU tell me what's up with that.

I didn't even know Addy was a slave girl until reading this post and go figure. I'm just as pissed off about that as everyone else. It just reeks of white powers that be trying to desensitize and comfort their own sensibilities just so they can sleep at night. Because trust me, if enough young white girls see Addy and realize that she was a slave, I would go out on a limb and say less than 1% of white parents would DARE challenge that image of a slave. So what does that produce, yet more white people disillusioned to history and furthermore to the marvel that is black contemporary culture.

JLL

WNG said...

I hear you, Big Man, but it's not the 'only' people - it's the most powerful. He's admitted he said it now, but says that he was taken out of context.
I'm staying on this, you know how I can be :)

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

books should engender more thought, unless fiction, or research in the case of using pseudo science to prove presupposed beliefs - from the purview of this scientist at least

Danielle said...

I have to wonder why so much of who we are begins and ends w/slavery. It angers the hell out of me that out of everything we've given to this country, even some Black folk want to sell the idea that it's all we are.

Big Man said...

I'm finding out that these dolls are pretty popular. I had never heard of them before yesterday, but now I'm noticing references to them everywhere and a lot of folks did not know initially that the black doll was supposed to be a slave.

If her slave status is overlooked that easily, there is a problem.

WNG

Hit me up on my email and let me know what you think I could do to help your cause.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Yes I didn’t know that had gotten as far as WWII either. If that's the case we do need to see a few more black dolls in the line and probably a yellow one too, you know Interment Camp Jane and a few other nationalites that had contributed to the melting pot by now.

Slavery is kinda hard to clean up though. My friends and I always talk about if we can remember when as children we found out our ancestors were slaves and what our reaction was I certainly rememebr the reactions of my little cousins or if we can pinpoint when we realized that blacks were seen as second class, funny is it must have been REAL early in life cause it seems like I always knew. Anyway…let me get to WNG page and see what she is talking about. I’m late in all my blog reading that actually wanted me to WORK today!!

-OG

kjen said...

I had the Addy doll when I was a little girl (I remeber loving her kinky/crinkly hair which I had never seen on a doll before.)
*-A minor point - Addy was born a slave but ran away North to be free -the first book shows her following the 'drinking gourd' to freedom - and this is where the doll and her clothes and accessories represent - this period in her life.*

But thinking about it now, I'm not surprised about the period chosen for the Black doll - Black people didn't exist until slavery, the Civil Rights and the 70s for many media representations.
But since the American Girl Line has expanded so much, it would be interesting to see them introduce a new period Black doll.
Anyone care to petition/pester them with me until they do?

Big Man said...

i'll pester

Raving Black Lunatic