Recently American Girl announced their newest doll Melody—a Black girl from Detroit who fights for civil rights and is an aspiring Motown singer. This is the American Girl doll that we have been waiting for, but why did it take so long?
My mom was born and raised on the Eastside of Detroit. Growing up, my mother and I listened to Motown music as she told me stories of her childhood. Her heroes were her mother, brothers, and aunts who loved their Black culture. As she raised me, she passed on to me the importance of a powerful Black community, and this importance was ingrained into everything that I did as a child. The books my sisters and I read had Black princes and princesses and the toys we played with were Black Barbie dolls.
So when my old sister got her Addy, the Black American Girl doll who was an escaped slave, we were disappointed. We wondered why the Black American Girl Doll had to be an escaped slave. Why couldn’t we have a Harlem Renaissance Black Doll or a Carefree Black Girl Doll? American Girl just didn’t have a variety of Black dolls to choose from.
Melody is the third Black American girl ever made even though the company was established in 1986. The first Black American Girl doll was Addy, and the second was Cecile–a 19th century girl living in New Orleans. However in 2014, the company decided to discontinue Cecile along with two other dolls of color, and Addy was left as the only Black doll. This is important because the company is supposed to represent the diverse nature of girlhood in America. Black girlhood in this country isn’t defined by or limited to slavery.
The problem that I have with Addy is the same problem that I have with many of the acting roles that are reserved for Black actors and actresses. We are more likely to see a Black actor or actress win a role enduring suffering or violence rather than Black success, happiness, or power. There probably wasn’t a Melody doll — or many other diverse Black American Girl dolls — sooner because when people envision Black history they usually only see slavery. Choosing to have the Addy doll is fine, but it is also dangerous if representation of little Black girls and Black women stops there.
When American Girl decides to make Black dolls first as escaped slaves, but then discontinues any other representation, the company is telling its children that their story is only worth telling and representing if it reflects the harsh and inhumane conditions of slavery. Waiting thirty years to have a Melody means that there were Black children stuck with only one form of representation. This is definitely true in the case of me and my sister.
It also meant that the American Girl Company was not invested in representing Black childhood in any other light. When companies limit the products they sell in these types of narrow ways, they also limit the imaginations of the little girls who use them. It shouldn’t have taken them three decades to start fixing that problem.
(Photo Credit: American Girl advertisement)