If you played with dolls between the ages of anything and anything at any point during the 1990s, you either had or really, really needed one of Pleasant Company’s American Girl dolls. I’m talking the originals—American Revolutionary Felicity, Swedish pioneer Kirsten, Victorian Samantha or World War II-era Molly—not the modern, choose-your-own-eye-color variety girls of today obsess over.
I was in elementary school in the mid-90s and those dolls made my life. I read all the books and salivated over the quarterly catalogs. I daydreamed about the day the company would make a black doll so that I, too, could situate a tiny, historically accurate doll bed next to my twin-sized one and entertain imaginary guests at a little dining table. (My mother had a strict no-white-doll policy that would not be bent, not even for a $100 history lesson.)
I had no idea what the black doll would be like, but I hoped that she would be a little like Molly, who was my favorite because her books were the most relatable, or maybe like Samantha, who was super fancy with her gold bed and flower crown.
The wait for a non-white American Girl ended when I was about 10. Pleasant Company introduced the Addy doll, to much fanfare. At first, I was elated. I told my mother that I had to have one and now there was no excuse, so I felt like the luckiest girl when I unwrapped my very own doll that Christmas. Most of my friends and cousins (all little black girls) had been denied dolls from this company, too, so I was the first in my circle to have an American Girl.
Soon, though, I began to hate my Addy doll.
First off, she was a slave. Slavery scared me when I was a kid. Hell, to be honest, learning about it still scares me, hence why I refuse to see 12 Years a Slave. Addy’s books, as wonderfully written as they are, were sad and cold and dangerous. They weren’t filled with happy people suffering temporarily like Molly’s, or people with lives of comfort struggling with societal pressures that I only vaguely understood like Samantha’s.
Secondly, her clothes. Like, really? All of the miniature accessories that you’ll undeniably lose the next day are 85 percent of the reason any kid even wants an American Girl doll and I just couldn’t get with Addy’s. All the colors were muted, all the patterns were ugly. There was no sass or pomp or shine. There was no fun.
In short, she was depressing as hell. Putting Addy in an America where she was effectively denied the privilege of being a child made it impossible for her to embody all of the qualities for which early American Girls were known—free-spiritedness, a defiant personality and the courage to defy expectations. The penalty for girls with a strong personality in any of the other books may have been a stern look or a menial punishment. For Addy, historically and in the books, if she had been any of those things the penalty would have been far greater.
Instead, she was smart and brave. Addy was a strong black woman in the making and, even in elementary school, I had had enough of that shit. On television, in movies, in books and now with my dolls, black girls were always having to overcome crazy amounts of adversity with a quick wit and an even temper. I hated Addy for the same reason I hated Jessi Ramsey from The Baby-Sitters Club—these fictitious black girls seemed to be models of perfection without the requisite vulnerability to make them human.
So, I erased the “Addy” from my American Girl doll as soon as I could. I dressed her in the modern clothes that the company had just begun making and didn’t bother asking my mother for any of her accompanying furniture or accessories. The only thing that remained of the historical figure—and, in my opinion, the best part of Addy—were her signature gold hoops.
As a kid, I couldn’t really articulate what I didn’t like about Addy, other than the fact that her stories scared me shitless and her color palettes bored me. As an adult, it drives me up the wall that she was the first non-white doll the company ever made. It’s totes insane that young black girls were presented with violent stories of a malevolent slave owner, the selling off of Addy’s brother and father and the death-at-every-corner escape to Philadelphia that she and her mother made.
Non-black girls buy Addy, too, but the appeal of the franchise was, and is, that girls from different cultures have a doll of their very own, so Addy was effectively “our” doll.
Slavery’s 250-year stronghold on American people is unquantifiably important to the story of our country. In many ways, it’s how we learned to treat the other and there’s still more to learn and understand about the culture of the institution. As much as, if not more than, the American Revolution and the immigration of European people and World War II, slavery continues to influence the culture all of us live within.
The people who endured slavery were the bravest heroes our nation has ever birthed. Kids should learn about slavery. Black kids should learn about slavery. But, maybe, a doll isn’t the right way to do it. It just feels/felt…wrong.
Even though the books were relatively tame and obviously took great pains to present American slavery in a sanitized way that wasn’t meant to scare children, it terrified me. It felt real to me as a kid, maybe because I was black and I knew that I was descended from people who lived like Addy and her family.
Black people raised families in this country in every single decade of our shared history and a black doll could have just as easily been plopped into the 1940s, with a father fighting in World War II, or the Victorian era, or better yet the 1970s, when one of the newer American Girls, Julie, was a girl. Our stories in this country didn’t begin or end with slavery, a fact that seems lost on many combining “black” and “history.”
The company caught flack in the ‘90s for Addy and later when they created historical dolls set in 19th century New Mexico (then, just Mexico) and an American Indian girl. Mara Tapp, a mother to girls and writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, summarized what may be the company’s problem, saying, “Then there's the confirmation that American Girls offer the most trite-and-tired stereotypes: the black girl as slave, Mexican as revolutionary and so on.”
Still, I feel traitorous for bashing Addy’s right to exist. Her story is important and little kids should know it. What other character could have dealt with that era of American history? Not a white doll. Yes, she was strong and brave, because she had to be, just like the many, many, many real-life black girls who survived enslavement.
My discomfort with Addy probably has less to do with her, her books and her clothes and more to do with the possibly unavoidable discomfort of being a black girl in a country that still doesn’t really know what to do with me. I am strong, too, because I have to be. There were aspects of little-girldom that were denied to me because, in some ways, I had to grow up faster and know more things than white girls to thrive in this country, just like Addy. I am brave, like Addy, because the act of living in a hostile environment requires that. But, most of the time, I wish I didn’t have to be so strong and so brave and maybe Addy just reminds me of that.
I’m glad black kids today have a second black American Girl to covet. Cécile Rey is a free-born black girl in 19th century Louisiana and with her jaunty hat and big barrel curls, she’s just as fancy as Samantha. Beyond that, she’s sassy and allowed to be a kid. Ten-year-old me would have loved her.