February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor reflects on the thorny significance of Addy Walker, the first Black doll introduced by the American Girl company.
As a Black girl growing up in Connecticut’s white suburbs, seeing myself represented in media and my surroundings was fleetingly rare at best, and impossible at worst. When I stepped outside my door, the town’s demographics were immediately alienating, and even if my elementary school peers hadn’t commented on my obvious differences, I still would have known their true feelings about my Blackness. Their thoughts about me manifested in the way they stared, in their coded language, in their shameless impulse to touch my hair and test if it was “real.”
Like many girls my age at the time, I wanted an American Girl doll. Most of the dolls in the “Historical Characters” collection, such as Victorian-era Samantha Parkington or Swedish immigrant Kirsten Larson, were white. Then the company introduced their first Black American Girl doll, Addy Walker, in 1993. On the cover of the first book in her collection, Addy is an unassuming 9-year-old girl with inquisitive, dark brown eyes and a sweet half-smile on her face. Her black hair is pulled back into a low bun and covered by a straw bonnet, its blue ribbon tied neatly underneath her chin. She’s dressed in a light red and white-striped dress and brown leather boots. She carries a large satchel-type bag. A necklace that looks like a small shell threaded through a piece of cord hangs around her neck.
It’s obvious why a little Black girl studying the various American Girls would want an Addy doll; she looked like all of us who coveted her and took her home. I was grateful to finally have representation in Addy, but seeing myself in her made me simultaneously relieved and uneasy.
Her harrowing backstory set in the Civil War, she had escaped a plantation with her mother. Even at that young age, the weight of her narrative was not lost on me.
Other “Historical Characters” like Samantha and Kirsten did not have identities heavily founded upon their oppression. This isn’t to say that the white American Girls’ stories didn’t feature lessons in racism and discrimination or privilege and classism, but Addy’s childhood was the only one that had been shaped by the fatal violence of white supremacy. Her backstory was the only one that openly acknowledged America’s ugly, bloody legacy of bigotry and hatred.
I consumed Addy’s books with awe and shocked wonder. I still remember all of them. In Meet Addy, readers are introduced to Addy and her family, living on a North Carolina plantation in 1864. Her family is split up by the plantation master, who sells her older brother and father. Addy and her mother make the decision to flee the plantation and seek freedom in Philadelphia. In one horrifying scene, Addy is forced to eat worms from the tobacco leaves she’s been “assigned” to pull. In another scene, Addy witnesses her father and brother in chains after they’ve been sold by the plantation overseer. Refusing to leave her father, Addy is whipped. Yet while it was viscerally disturbing to read these incidents as a child, I didn’t view Addy’s trauma as a sign of her weakness or inferiority.
Addy’s story took the painful topic of slavery from the whitewashed pages of school textbooks and removed the distance created by indifference. Her sense of innocence was continuously and relentlessly tested. Her courage was admirable, a beacon of hope.
In her essay for The Paris Review, “Addy Walker, American Girl,” author Brit Bennett points out, “For 17 years, Addy was the only Black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998.” This decision wasn’t an accident or a harmless oversight. According to Aisha Harris writing for Slate, the creator of the dolls, Pleasant Rowland, thought that initially introducing an African American doll was a risky choice for the company’s bottom line. The former elementary school teacher and textbook author told the Washington Post in a 1993 interview, “I felt that the company initially needed to get established financially, before we could take the risk that may be inherent in presenting a doll via direct mail into the African American market.” Rowland continued, “Because typically, middle-class black consumers do not purchase much from direct-mail catalogues.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by Rowland’s remarks. The people in my town were always assuming what Black people did and did not do, basing a person’s racial “authenticity” on how they conformed to these expectations. Many white people—liberals and conservatives alike—assume that Blackness is confined to a stereotypical definition rooted in fear and distrust of “the Other.”
When the Addy Walker doll was first released in 1993, she was not unanimously welcomed. In the Washington Post article that appeared around the time of Addy’s launch, critics claimed that the doll’s characterization did not positively represent Black people. Connie Porter, a Black woman and novelist who authored the Addy books, defended the narrative and editorial decisions. She said, “Some people don’t want to see a character in slavery—that’s ridiculous…You can run the risk of being so politically correct that you can lose whole periods of history. Children are more ready to talk about these things than some adults are.”
Although they certainly weren’t foreign concepts to me, I don’t know if I possessed the maturity or even the emotional intelligence to have a frank discussion about the nuances of such evils. Yet, on the other hand, I’m also not convinced that Addy’s existence was a horrible mistake. Perhaps without Porter’s words and skill, Addy Walker would have been nothing more than a half-hearted apology for the past, an effort rooted in good intentions and ending in failure. America’s history should not be sanitized, cleaned up, and polished by a sense of oblivious nationalism, and Porter knew that.
Moreover, white supremacy and systemic racism do not thrive in a vacuum. Their poisons reach into multiple facets of culture and society—and that includes dolls. Racist caricatures of Black people, such as Golliwogs, were normalized through dolls in America’s Jim Crow era. In the 1940s, social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their famous “Dolls Test,” which was a direct response to school segregation and the ruling of “separate but equal.” Using dolls, the psychologists sought to prove that such a policy was mentally and emotionally harmful—even dangerous—for Black children. Kenneth Clark would offer the child a Black doll and a white doll, then ask the child to point out the “nice” doll and the “bad” doll.
In a 1985 interview with Clark for the PBS mini-series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965), he said, “The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self, self-esteem in children…We asked these preference questions in which a majority of these children disturbingly rejected the Black or brown doll, and [ascribed] positive characteristics to the white doll—not all, but the majority did.”
One could argue that Addy challenged this racist history. She was not physically crafted like the Jim Crow era dolls seeped in anti-Black contempt. She doesn’t have the over-exaggerated, almost contorted features associated with grotesque stereotypes of Black people. She is described as a hero. But is that enough?
Now that I’m 30 years old, I can critically examine what it meant to give a childhood doll the role of the martyr, to make her a symbol of enlightenment gained through suffering. I have to wonder if marketing a Black doll as a runaway slave was the solution to unequal representation—but like Beloved or Their Eyes Were Watching God, Addy Walker and her narrative do not sugarcoat the atrocities that white supremacy has forced upon Black people.
We could not have expected her to be some universal salve for racism’s wounds. I can still feel grateful for Addy while recognizing the thorny complexity of her significance as a doll. Knowledge is truly power, and Addy imparted her doting child caretakers with knowledge and truth over willful ignorance about America’s history. Although Addy is a fictional character, her background and racial identity do not make her a victim or a tragic heroine—but thoroughly and undoubtedly American.