Black Dolls: Trapped in the Tangles of Racism

Debbie says:

Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing points to a superb piece in the Paris Review, Addy Walker, American Girl by Brit Bennett.


For seventeen years, Addy was the only black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998. If you were a white girl who wanted a historical doll who looked like you, you could imagine yourself in Samantha’s Victorian home or with Kirsten, weathering life on the prairie. If you were a black girl, you could only picture yourself as a runaway slave.

As Bennett recounts, Pleasant Company gave Addy a realistic, horrifying history, made age-appropriate, perhaps, but not prettified. Her story made a huge impression on Bennett as a child. And it was a controversial choice.

Since 2013, a petition has gathered nearly seventy signatures demanding that the Pleasant Company discontinue the Addy doll. “Slavery was a vile, cruel, inhumane, unjust holocaust of Black Americans,” the petition reads. “Why would this subject matter ever be considered entertaining?” The petition accuses the Pleasant Company of “diminish[ing] the cruelty of slavery and instead glorif[ying] it as some sort of adventurous fantasy.”

Bennett is conflicted about this petition (as am I, from a much greater distance).

I’ve never found Addy glib and insensitive, as the petitioners do—but she does trouble me. She is a toy steeped in tragedy, and who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms? When I received an Addy doll for Christmas, I was innocent enough to believe that Santa had brought it to me, but mature enough to experience the horrors of slavery.

“I didn’t even think about that,” my mother told me. “I just thought it was a beautiful doll.”

(from later in Bennett’s piece)

In 2011, the Pleasant Company launched their second black historical doll, Cécile, a girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. She has a white best friend and dreams of finding a gown for the Children’s Ball at Mardi Gras. Many black parents were relieved when Cécile was introduced. Shelley Walcott, a Milwaukee reporter, wrote that although she “believes learning about the history of slavery in America is critical and should in no way be hidden from our children,” she had also wished that the Pleasant Company would release another black doll, one that “celebrated a more positive time in African American history.”

“As a parent,” she writes,

I find Cécile’s story a lot more appropriate for playtime than plantation scenes and a bullwhip-cracking slave master … Much of African American history is painful. And I’m glad to see the folks at American Girl have introduced a new doll that can allow children’s fantasies to be … less intense.

But Cécile was discontinued in 2014, along with the only historical Asian American doll, Ivy Ling. Cécile is light-skinned with long, beautiful ringlets. She dreams of pretty dresses. If I had been offered Addy or Cécile as a girl, I wonder which I would have chosen.

The article goes on to describe the history of racist black dolls (British golliwogs, American pickaninnies), which Laurie and I have discussed before as well as the social history of black children identifying with white dolls. Bennett comes to no conclusion about Addy or Cécile, dark-skinned and deeply oppressed or lighter-skinned and lighter-hearted; she just raises the hard questions.

Here’s what I think: black dolls can’t be viewed outside the context of American racism and the oppression of black people, because the only thing a doll can do is reflect a cultural understanding, belief, or myth. As long as America (along with the white-dominated world in general) remains tortured by our inability to accept black people as full citizens, human beings, lives that matter, black dolls will be a center of confusion. How much truth do we tell children? How much is right about “teaching racial pain to the next generation” (Bennett’s phrase)? When do we protect and when do we reveal? These questions are every bit as important for white parents to confront as for black parents to confront–and realizing that is one of the crucial steps toward change.