Meet Addy
May 29, 2015 7:25 AM   Subscribe

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it. This girl is not real.
posted by ChuraChura (52 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic article, thanks.
posted by rue72 at 7:46 AM on May 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

Golliwogs—blackfaced rag dolls—are still sold in the United Kingdom; only in 2009 were they finally removed from a gift shop on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate.

I haven't actually seen one for many, many years. When my daughters, now at university, were at junior school my mother mentioned golliwogs and they had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
posted by Segundus at 7:54 AM on May 29, 2015

Really great article. I actually preferred Addy to most of the other American Girl dolls, many of whom I found insufferable in the books.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:55 AM on May 29, 2015

In a round-table discussion at the University of Michigan, Marilyn Nelson said that when her publishers asked her to write a children’s book about Emmett Till’s lynching, she laughed in disbelief. But she did—she wrote A Wreath for Emmett Till, thus completing the work that black authors do, that black adults do, in teaching racial pain to the next generation. I’ll have to do this work someday, too, and I hope I handle it with the grace of my parents, for whom exposing me to brutal stories was an act of love.

Brit Bennett is an incredible writer and I'm so glad she's doing the work.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:57 AM on May 29, 2015 [24 favorites]

It always struck me (as a white person; I was just too old for these dolls when they started getting wider distribution in the nineties) that the Addy doll was maybe the most interesting, because she had a real story. The other dolls seemed historically inaccurate to me, despite their trappings. I remember thinking that it was so interesting that there could be this doll which was designed to recognize the existence and weight of slavery, which was something that not a lot of mainstream stuff was doing at the time. (I mean, we all read Beloved in high school, but I clearly remember that I didn't have anything approaching a sense of the....massiveness, I guess, and the long-lasting effects of slavery until I was probably thirty and reading Eric Foner. The Addy doll was the only one I actually kind of wanted, even though she also seemed weirdly out of keeping with the others and I used to wonder why there was only one black doll.

Obviously, this is a response that's only really possible for a white person.

Also, it's a lot of weight for one doll to carry. It seems like a weird echo of Afro-pessimism, the idea that whiteness and our whole entire existing social world is constructed by perpetually rendering Blackness as other and outside the human. All the other dolls have struggles, yes, but nothing like Addy's.

For me, I would be really interested to see - but we won't - story dolls that express all the bad weight of US history and the resistance to it. Dolls of, maybe, the factory girls at Lowell; little girls who were attending the Black Panther breakfasts; the girls who survived the internment of Native people at Fort Snelling. I think it's possible, in theory, to tell those stories through artifacts that wouldn't be trivializing but also wouldn't be totally about pain and loss. I mean, I think that creating the Cecile doll and other dolls that bring Black stories into parallel with the already-existing white dolls' is equally important or maybe more important given the already-existing white dolls.

(My mother had a golliwog doll tucked away in a chest with some old family stuff - she got rid of it some time in my childhood. I don't think it had been hers, I think it came to her with some other stuff. I found it when I was little and rummaging around. I didn't recognize it as a black person because it didn't look like a black person or like the black doll I had; I thought it was some kind of pre-muppet and that it was cute, and was puzzled when she wouldn't let me play with it. That was probably what prompted her to actually throw it away.)
posted by Frowner at 7:58 AM on May 29, 2015 [17 favorites]

Previously on MeFi, we discussed the retiring of the other original and more historically based AG dolls.

THis article is excellent. It does a great job of raising the complexities of representation in children's toys, and they are many. I appreciate that it opens questions without closing them, without just condemning the dolls. I think of one of my favorite colleagues, an African-American historian, who loved all the AG dolls and told stories about traveling with her family to Laura Ingalls' birthplace wearing a sunbonnet. She was able to experience all American history as her history, too, though of course her understandings grew more complex as she got older. I think there has been both good and bad done by the AG dolls, but before they existed, there were really no pop-culture entry points into American history for young girls, outside of, say, the Laura Ingalls books. They started with a serious purpose, and I am mostly sad they weren't able to continue that way, because in the hands of Mattel they have become fairly stupid.
posted by Miko at 8:03 AM on May 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was very, very into American Girl dolls as a child, and I had Molly and Addy and read all the books, which introduced me to issues from gender inequality to child labor. Daniel Hade has an incredibly negative article about the original American Girl franchise that eviscerates the series for relatively small historical errors. The original Pleasant Company dolls and books deserve high praise, especially when you consider the other toy and book options that were/are available.

The Addy books shocked me, and were the grittiest works I read on slavery until at least high school. Perhaps more valuable was the way some of my grandparents reacted to my Addy doll--as a nine/ten year old I learned from the horrible things they said about my *doll* that racism was not over or historical for real living people in the world.
posted by mmmbacon at 8:10 AM on May 29, 2015 [49 favorites]

I mean, we all read Beloved in high school

I grew up in the deep south and slavery was skirted around so daintily I think I was probably the most informed kid in my class having only read the Addy books. (Which I did on my own, not through school.) If you don't count the day in English class talking about Jim from Huckleberry Finn, which I don't, my school curriculum didn't get around to discussing the plights of black people until we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 11th grade. Addy's story was a pretty significant part of my childhood education.
posted by phunniemee at 8:12 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I grew up in New Jersey, was never assigned Beloved, and was not introduced to literature by non-white people in any other month than February.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:31 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

I haven't actually seen one for many, many years. When my daughters, now at university, were at junior school my mother mentioned golliwogs and they had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

The imagery persisted on jars of Robertson Marmalade until quite recently. Wikipedia has an interesting quote from 2001, when Robertson discontinued it: "We sell 45 million jars of jam and marmalade each year and they have pretty much all got Golly on them. We also sell 250,000 Golly badges to collectors and only get 10 letters a year from people who don't like the Golliwog image".
posted by James Scott-Brown at 8:32 AM on May 29, 2015

I don't think that there's anything particularly wrong, and a lot that's pretty useful, about a toy or other form of entertainment that can (although not necessarily so; you don't actually need to read Addy's backstory to play with the doll) teach you about cruelty or tragedy. One of the most compelling stories for me as a kid was Oliver Twist (in the form of the filmed version of the musical); I was scared, yet fascinated, by both the institutionalized cruelty of the orphanage and the causal brutality of Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed, never scarier). Later, in the seventies, I found out about the reality of slavery from reading Roots and contemporary racism from reading Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree in a way that never came up in history class in school.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:38 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm old enough to remember my parents watching Roots (on videotape, we lived overseas and some friends sent them over) and I was not allowed to watch, but still managed to see the scene of Kunta Kente getting whipped. That was probably my first exposure to the idea of "slavery" (along with the stories of Moses and the Jews in Egypt, which often focused on whippings and deprivation). But it was a shallow understanding. I was too old for American Girls dolls and my parents would never, ever, have bought me a black doll even if I had asked. I did actually want a black Barbie but knew even then that it was not going to happen, though I was not really sure why.

It was probably through various PBS specials on lynchings or civil rights that I truly began to have some understanding of what racism was and what it has been in the US, but honestly, I still feel very ignorant. Certainly school shied away from any discussion of such topics, we didn't even really get to the Vietnam War in terms of history and MLK was the only figure we learned about in the civil rights movement. And my parents didn't like him and complained about any mention of MLK Day and so on.
posted by emjaybee at 8:40 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Beloved was not in the curriculum in my AP Literature class in southern California in the mid-1980s. I never read it until my 30's, though I often heard my sister (who read it in college) reference it. I don't know if it should be in the curriculum--clearly, there are adolescents who are not willing or are unprepared for the work of reading it.

I remember my 8th grade English class (private school, Montgomery Alabama, earlier in the 80's) was grossly unprepared and frighteningly unwilling to engage with To Kill a Mockingbird. There were 3 of us students in the class (27 white kids with one white teacher--there were actually two black children, a brother and sister, also military kids like me & my sister in the entire K-12 school) who were not born and bred in Montgomery; 6 of us students who had been further away than Atlanta. At the time, I thought my classmates were stupid for missing the point. Thought they were philistines for rejecting the literary strengths of the work. Until the moment in class, when I saw our teacher stop struggling to engage them and give up and let them revel in the small hail-southern-gentry details that dot the book, like everyone's maiden aunt's Lane cake.

That moment taught everyone in the classroom something, even the kids who did not notice our teacher actively give up trying to teach them about racism. But the kids who did know the lesson they were rejecting? They knew they had won and were not going to be forced to confront themselves any time soon.

My mother always said putting us in that private school for a year was a bad decision. But that moment has grounded my understanding of many problems in the U.S., directly related to how we perceive race and class and how we enshrine those perceptions. From better understanding the criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help and its ilk of "benevolent white person explains the problems of the oppressed minority to us" to better internalizing how carefully taught these attitudes once were and how carelessly they are still perpetuated.

Anyway, what JB said.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:43 AM on May 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

Frowner: For me, I would be really interested to see - but we won't - story dolls that express all the bad weight of US history and the resistance to it.

Well, in the large-format book for Kristen, the Scandinavian girl growing up in Minnesota, there is a two-page spread about the Dakota War or Sioux Uprising of 1862, including the horrifying image of mass execution that I have seen in most accounts of the event since I was a kid.

Growing up in Minnesota in the 1970s & 80s, we read Beloved and other books about slavery, and discussed it quite openly as part of studying American history.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:55 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I remember to this day stumbling onto the Addy backstory book as a 2nd or 3rd-grade bookworm and being utterly shocked to my deepest core by the tobacco worm story - in the book, if I remember correctly, it's not just one worm but a whole mouthful of them. I think it was my first introduction to the concept of being degraded and I have never forgotten it.
posted by Aubergine at 8:56 AM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Great article!

I have spent a lot of time researching the history of racism and racial violence. Sometimes I think I've seen it all, can't be really shocked anymore, whatever... until last year when I was researching my neighborhood (in Duluth, MN) and heard of the "Hit the Nigger Babies" carnival game. Circa 1900, this game was so popular it was mentioned in a local newspaper article as one of the "highlights" of the local elementary school carnival. yipes.
posted by RedEmma at 8:58 AM on May 29, 2015

I grew up in New Jersey, was never assigned Beloved, and was not introduced to literature by non-white people in any other month than February.

That's interesting. Maybe my school was more liberal than I thought, or maybe there really was a liberal/"multicultural" moment in the nineties. We read Beloved and The Bluest Eye and we discussed the depiction of the slave-owning relatives in Huckleberry Finn (in terms of how they were both "kind" and evil, basically).
I remember that we read quite a lot about Ida Tarbell, who was sort of paired with Nelly Bly. We also read a bunch of poetry over the years - Gwendolyn Brooks and that "Booker T and WEB" poem. And I remember that we had a book of essays and stories in my freshman year of high school which contained several things about race - there was a Tony Cade Bambara one that really influenced me. (It was "The Lesson" now that I look for it.)

I remember reading about Harriet Tubman when I was quite small, first grade maybe. There was something about her in one of our books and then there was also an article about her in some kind of school-ordered magazine that we all got. We also read about Cesar Chavez when I was small. (I never heard of John Brown or Nat Turner.)

I lived in a very, very conservative that I think about it, I look back and see that these instances were probably mostly the result of three or four dedicated teachers, when I assumed that they were standard.

Not that any of this began to be enough; it's just weird to really realize that what seemed like so little was much more than normal.

What I remember about that time, though, was feeling like I needed to "prove" that racism and inequality existed. There was so little information, and I know I said plenty of ignorant things that would probably have been quite hurtful had there been anyone but conservative white people to hear them. It was like - I remember telling people about that Toni Cade Bambara story, because I could not think of any other resources to express the idea that it wasn't fair to have a society where some people could shop at FAO Schwarz and other people couldn't ever have, say, a microscope, or that this was about race.

If there's one incredible change from my childhood, it's that no one with regular and sustained access to the internet has the ability/excuse to be as ignorant as I was and as people were in my town growing up. I feel like Addy - regardless of other issues - was so much a product of sheer information scarcity. When I was growing up, you could want as much as you liked to learn more about things and still come up very short - we didn't have a lot of books by Black authors at the library, and I remember because I went through one summer trying to read all of them. (Several of them were boring so I didn't finish them...) So just seeing Addy in the American Girl catalog was kind of a big deal. (We couldn't afford those dolls, but I always looked at the catalog even when I was way too old.) It would have been better, honestly, if there could have been Addy and Cecile and maybe a jazz age girl doll or something. But now if you want to learn that stuff, you can; and if you want to teach it, you can, so maybe there's more space for different toys.
posted by Frowner at 8:59 AM on May 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

For me, I would be really interested to see - but we won't - story dolls that express all the bad weight of US history and the resistance to it.

Datapoint: my father ensured that I--as an advanced reader for her age--was reading the heaviest and most brutal stories of U.S. and world history from the time that I was able to read them--like, age six or seven. So that I would be able to engage with reality as it truly was in the world. Genocide, wanton human cruelty, destruction, arbitrary death and brutal, brutal reality in all its truth.

Result: anxious, depressed and suicidal child.
posted by Naamah at 9:01 AM on May 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

The husband is a history buff, so he has talked with our preteen kid about things like the Holocaust and slavery and even nuclear war, although in a simplified form. He didn't intend to, it's just that when a kid asks question after question you can find yourself in dangerous waters pretty quick if you're trying to answer honestly.

The hardest thing about these discussions is not that they're sad, it's when your kid looks at you bewildered and asks "Why did they do that?" and you don't have a good answer.
posted by emjaybee at 9:10 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sometimes I think I've seen it all, can't be really shocked anymore

I've learned there's always something worse, whether we're talking about old pop culture artifacts with racist depictions of minorities or the actual physical, mental and emotional horrors of slavery.
posted by marxchivist at 9:13 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

For me, I would be really interested to see - but we won't - story dolls that express all the bad weight of US history and the resistance to it. Dolls of, maybe, the factory girls at Lowell; little girls who were attending the Black Panther breakfasts; the girls who survived the internment of Native people at Fort Snelling.

Actually, this is a thing: Dear America.
posted by capricorn at 9:20 AM on May 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

I grew up in New Jersey, was never assigned Beloved, and was not introduced to literature by non-white people in any other month than February.

I also grew up in NJ, but in a very racially integrated school district with a lot of black teachers. We learned a lot of black history as well as music, literature, civic issues, etc. I simply thought of it as "school." It is only as an adult that I learned how unusual that education was, and I'm grateful for it.
posted by Miko at 10:00 AM on May 29, 2015

Never heard of this doll. Only have a very small awareness of American Girl in general. Never read Beloved in school. I can't think of anyone who I grew up with who even knows Beloved outside of the Oprah Winfrey movie. Most of them never saw the movie either. We did learn about the horrors of slavery in school. The kind that happened to the Isrealites in Egypt.

I am thankful for things like this that bring me awareness and will help me bring awareness to my kid. Anytime someone says something like "we all read Beloved in highschool" it reinforces the privilege some of us have. No, we most certainly did not all have the same upbringing and we have to acknowledge this every. single. day.
posted by M Edward at 10:06 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wow. Amazing essay. I will keep my eye open for more of Bennett's work.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:08 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I truly had no idea that Beloved was not basically a set text in high schools across the land - in fact, I had always had a little bit of a problem with the way it seemed to be taught, very much a "here is our Worthy Book By A Black Writer. .....and done" thing with sort of a tragedy-porn angle. It's the one book that virtually everyone I know who wasn't homeschooled read in HS, whether we're talking Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina, California, and pretty much ranging from working class people to upper middle class people. I wonder whether that's partly a cohort thing - the majority of the people I can think of would have been in HS between 1990 and 1998, right during the "multicultural nineties"/Clinton years. I also wonder whether it's a bit friendship-self-selecting - whether my social environment somehow selects for people who went to high schools that had at least some effort to teach black writers.

Seriously, I really, truly thought that almost everyone read that book. Ignorance, huh?
posted by Frowner at 10:52 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had an American Girl doll - Samantha, the Victorian era doll. My mother wanted me to get Molly - she thought Molly was so cute with her glasses - but I had glasses and didn't like them. I was already a nerdy looking kid, why would I want a nerdy looking doll? No way, I wanted the pretty doll with the fancy doll accessories. Thinking of that while being reminded of the doll test referenced regarding Brown v. Board of Education is a little heartbreaking.
posted by kat518 at 11:03 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

It may be worth noting that Beloved was published in late 87, so wouldn't have entered even the most inclusive of curricula as a standard text until somewhat later, so there's pretty much no way "we all read Beloved in high school" unless we're all under 40.
posted by vunder at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

(Well, yes, in my comment I did mean to imply "people of my general cohort/background and subsequent to the publication of the book" not "every high school student from the dawn of time".)
posted by Frowner at 11:24 AM on May 29, 2015

I do apologize if I offended or upset anyone by my assumption about access to the novel or by my tone in writing about it, though.
posted by Frowner at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2015

That's not what I meant, I meant more than if people were evaluating whether their own curriculum didn't have it, they might remember that it wasn't written all that long ago. Someone mentioned that they didn't read it in the mid-80s, and well, it didn't even exist yet.
posted by vunder at 11:39 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

huh, vunder, thanks. I would not have placed Beloved's publication date in the late 80's (although, as I recall, we read nothing published later than the 30's, except Salinger, in high school).
posted by crush-onastick at 11:58 AM on May 29, 2015

Love the Dear America books.

I went to high school in California in the early 00s and did not read Beloved. I shrugged it off while reading this thread, thinking "well, we read other books by black writers." Um, yeah, we read Black Boy, Native Son, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, all in my 11th grade AP English class (meaning that most of the school did not read these). I cannot think of a single book by a black writer I read outside that class. I'm really appalled at myself for only now realizing this.

I actually wrote a report on the Harlem Renaissance for my history class that same year and was accused by my teacher of plagiarizing it. In hindsight, no wonder. The teacher was a dick and accused a third of the class (basically anyone with decent writing skills) of plagiarizing their papers, but I always felt that there was an element of "How could you possibly be interested enough in a black artistic movement to write a good paper on it?" to it. (On the plus side, he asked me to bring in my sources to prove that I wrote it, and coming in the next day and slamming this 2000-page brick down on his desk was one of the more satisfying moments of my high school career.)

posted by sunset in snow country at 12:09 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I did not read Beloved in school because I graduated the year it came out. Too early for it to have been in curricula. We did read Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker, though, with some similar thematic content.
posted by Miko at 12:29 PM on May 29, 2015

I had a golliwog as a child. I also had white clown dolls and toy animals.
Not for one moment did I ever consider I was being racist.
In fact the concept never even entered my mind until I was told later in life that there was such a thing. By which time I had a circle of mixed race friends who also didn't care a toss about being racist.
posted by Burn_IT at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Huh, it's interesting to see how different our school experiences are here. I feel like we were taught about slavery in Ohio, although I'm struggling to think of concrete examples beyond reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and watching Amistad. Somehow we always learned about how some of the nearby towns were stops on the Underground Railroad, so we Ohioans could collectively pat ourselves on the back for being such an ally to runaway slaves escaping terrible places like Kentucky. We also "read" Beloved, but that was a summer reading assignment so we were expected to read it and write some sort of paper entirely on our own, with zero discussion or analysis of it once the school year started. Even as an A-student who actually read the book, my takeaway was basically that Beloved was really bizarre, but not as painfully boring as The Scarlet Letter.

As for American Girls, Kirsten was always my favorite, mostly because I was obsessed with the whole pioneer thing (and it probably didn't hurt that she had blonde hair like me). I always liked Addy too and I do have strong memories of that worm scene, but I never considered how Addy's story was on such a different level than the rest of the girls'. And from the article, "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." Not only that, but if you were a white girl, you could only picture black girls in American history as slaves, which isn't entirely healthy either.
posted by gueneverey at 12:56 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Beloved didn't even exist whe I was in High school. I read it with my kids when they were in HS.
And, although I thought I ws raised in a pretty progressive place, my HS lessons on the civil war very sepcifically taught that it was purely the result of economic and state's rights issues, not a result of slavery. I got a 'C' on the essay final because I argued against that.

This is a stunningly excellent article.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:26 PM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well that's me crying at work. Thanks?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:45 PM on May 29, 2015

Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it. This girl is not real.

But at the time, was this a real punishment?

If so, I think it must have been a pretty severe one because it's highly probable a tobacco worm concentrates nicotine in its body as a deterrent to predation, and I'd guess that a single worm would make a child ill, and a handful could kill her.
posted by jamjam at 1:54 PM on May 29, 2015

But at the time, was this a real punishment?

I've never encountered anything like that, though I haven't done a tremendous amount of research into primary sources of slavery, but I admit it doesn't strike me as something in the normal run of how slaves were treated. Lots of people have worked with slavery data and narratives - I'd be interested to know if this was made up by the author, or derived from a primary source.
posted by Miko at 2:30 PM on May 29, 2015

Looks like it's real.
Judge Menzies of Boone County, Kentucky...told me that he knew of some overseers in the tobacco growing region of Virginia who, to make their slaves careful in picking the tobacco, that is taking the worms off (you know what a loathsome thing a tobacco worm is) would make them eat some of the worms, and others who made them eat every worm they missed in picking."

-American Slavery, as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:40 PM on May 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

Also, I know this was not anyone's intention, but I'd be wary of characterizing any behavior by slave-owners as unlikely or beyond the pale. At the time, it was perfectly legal to murder your slave, rape and forced impregnation of slave women was incredibly common (you could even sell off your own children at a profit), and severe beatings were commonplace. If you think anyone was standing in a field calculating the LD-50 of tobacco worms, you should probably read a few more slave narratives. I quite like this one; here's more.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

I'd be wary of characterizing any behavior by slave-owners as unlikely or beyond the pale

No, that was not my intention, and my question does not come from naivete; as a public history worker I have certainly read a lot of slavery-related material. But never came across the worm. It's not that I thought it "beyond the pale" as much as it seemed almost too innocuous. Rape, for instance, that was common. Beating, sure. Eating worms, I had not run across.
posted by Miko at 6:01 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I kind of regretted my second comment immediately after making it, and totally get your intention, Miko. Sorry about that.

Yeah, I didn't know about the specifics of the worm either before this thread. You can see how Bennett is fulfilling her stated goals of making people reflect on the history and legacy of slavery.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:23 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Turns out the specifics are interesting, so I'm glad that you found that reference.

Yeah, this piece was great.
posted by Miko at 7:44 PM on May 29, 2015

My best childhood friend and I were obsessed with the historical American Girl dolls, and we both came to know of them because we read, and were fascinated/disturbed by, the "Addy" books.

We both saved up our money for months and months, and pored over the American Girl catalog for, geez, probably an hour a day. I can still vividly picture the doll furniture you could buy to go with Felicity, all of Kirsten and Molly's various outfits... but I can only picture Addy in her signature striped red dress.

My friend ended up getting Felicity and Kirsten, and I ended up with Samantha. For as compelling as we found Addy's story, I don't think buying the Addy doll ever even crossed our minds, or our parents' minds.

Reading about the "Doll Test" kind of puts that in perspective.
posted by Pizzarina Sbarro at 12:18 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Beautiful, thank you
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:37 AM on May 30, 2015

Content warning: slurs

This essay was excellent, and deeply resonant for me as an African-American woman. It's hard to put everything into words. I never heard of the Addy doll or her story, but she's a beautiful doll and I think I would have adored having a doll like that when I was a child. As it was, I treasured my black Barbies. I never liked white dolls and stopped playing with them when I was very young. I'm not certain I would have chosen the white doll in the doll test if I took it before I was seven, because I remember craving representation and loving anything that looked like me and the people I loved. But that was all before I was really cognizant of racism. That was when I hardly saw white people in my life outside of cartoons, just black people and Hispanic people everywhere, and the tv shows and movies I watched usually had black people in them.

When I was seven I began bussing to a majority-white school in a middle-class white neighborhood. Being black and shy and introverted surrounded by black people never made me feel unwelcome or like an outsider; people comforted me and let me be and treated me like a child. But being black and shy and introverted surrounded by white people was devastating. I hadn't watched Roots or anything like that and I don't think I knew what was going on, why I was suddenly thrust into this strange antagonistic position. Because I took solace in being great at school I was an Oreo (black people didn't call me this, white kids did), and I was a nigger, and I could never, ever belong to anyone. My home life was turbulent and school was anxiety-inducing to the extreme.

I will never be able to understand the extreme dislike of black people in Northeast Philadelphia. I'm still scared to walk in those neighborhoods where people threw things at me and called me slurs. And school, where I frequently got into fights or hid in the bathroom for hours.

When I was eleven my teacher was black and she was dedicated to teaching all of her students about black history, including all the bad. It meant nothing to the white students as far as I can remember, in fact I was called a nigger once right there in her class, but her influence was tremendously important. After that I threw myself into black history, year after year, reading and writing.

I think I needed to see the negative stuff and needed to see the strength of black people, along with the systematic, designed, and imposed weaknesses. I dived right in and swam in the pain. Being treated like dirt, I needed to know it wasn't just me. Still, I would have chosen the white doll when I was 20 and 25 and probably when I was 30.
posted by Danila at 4:12 PM on May 30, 2015 [18 favorites]

Danila, thank you for sharing your story.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:26 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

A few years ago, I was looking at the pile of creepy 50s and 60s dolls at my grandparents house, when I noticed something I thought was interesting.

They must have tried to come back with a 'doll of the world' for the kids every time they'd been on a trip*, or perhaps they'd deliberately tried to collect non-white dolls? They must have, because there were maori dolls, american indian dolls, an african doll, and 'eskimo' dolls (in inaccurate white and blue suits, but supercute, smiling faces) - more than third of the dolls, weren't white.

Which didn't really strike me, and then I struggled to think how many dolls collections I'd seen that had that level of representation... let alone from the 1960s?

I think it's important not just for girls to see multple female role models, but for boys to see and have female rolemodels, so they can grow up able to identify and empathise with women.
We need Dolls of Colour representation, first for 'Children of Colour', but secondly for white children, so they can grow up able to identify and empathise with PoC.
Growing up being able to tell when things are whitewashed, not 'colour-blind'.

Final note, I found a picture of MY barbie doll, which I got when I was 4 - Dancing Action DeeDee!

* It's interesting that they got to see a usually unimaginable-to-their-peers level of world travel, due to playing Trombone in the national brass band. The glitz, the glamour!
posted by Elysum at 7:34 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

They must have tried to come back with a 'doll of the world' for the kids every time they'd been on a trip*,

This was a big trend, the doll collecting. I ended up getting a bunch of these destination/ethnic dolls as gifts in the early 70s. Dolls in national costume, etc. It was part of the place commodificaiton of tourism.
posted by Miko at 9:30 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of the last time I visited my grandmother, my partner and I were put in the guest room with all of her doll collection. (Yes, my life is as Sexy as it sounds.)

As I looked at them as they watched over me as I slept, I was horrified to realize that Grandma had segregated her dolls by race until I later realized they were organized by where she had purchased them. The white dolls and the black dolls were perfectly able to live with each other as long as they came from the same trip.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:55 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wow, this article was great and the ensuing discussion very interesting, especially where it includes Beloved.

I used to pore over the American Girl catalog, but never had a doll because (influenced by my mother) I realized they were really expensive, and I wasn't into human dolls anyway. Addy never really stood out to me, and I never read any of the books. Neither did Molly, even though I'm white and wear glasses, and at the time it was the closest era to when my mom was alive. A different one did because we shared a birthday, but her outfits were still too frilly for my taste. I did have a lot of the modern books about crafts, puberty, how to be a good friend, etc. and thought they were great.

More on the subject of Beloved and race, I feel extremely lucky that racism and the sordid parts of American history were pretty well-covered, though not always perfectly. New Jersey, public school, 1990s-2000s. Some snapshots:
-In elementary school, we covered Thanksgiving and a lot about the Lenni-Lenape (because New Jersey), plus a sampling of lots of other tribes and how they were different, though I think we glossed over the atrocities and some of our projects involved dressing up in Native American "costumes."
-In 5th grade, I was encouraged to enter an essay contest about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy and how it comes into play today, and I distinctly remember my teacher helping me polish my essay and highlighting the fact that we certainly still have racism today, though I don't remember concrete examples.
-In 7th grade we had an entire huge unit on genocide, including the Holocaust, slavery, the systematic killing and stealing from Native Americans (including the Trail of Tears), Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda. We covered the stages of genocide as well as what happened in those specific cases mentioned above.
-In AP US history class my textbook presented the Civil War as being an economic issue, but in class discussions we definitely talked about slavery and things like Roots. We ran out of time before we were able to cover the Civil Rights movement, though.
-In english we read Maya Angelou and something else depending on which english level you took. Unfortunately for AP English, we had to read Beloved over the summer but didn't talk about or analyze it in class, which would have been helpful because I was left very confused about it and wrote it off.

Anyway, even though the discussion has mostly petered out, it was really interesting to hear everyone's different backgrounds and how uncommon my experience probably was, so I thought I'd contribute.
posted by j.r at 5:00 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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