Hating Our Past: The Shame of Playing With Black Dolls

November 19, 2013  |  

When it comes to being black in America, even the simple act of playing with dolls can have political and social connotations.

To understand what I mean, check out this fantastic essay by Whitney Teal entitled, “I Secretly Hated My “Addy” American Girl Doll.” Here’s an excerpt:

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.”

Teal went on to explain how she dressed her Addy doll in mostly contemporary clothing (with exception of Addy’s signature gold hoop earrings) to disconnect her from her historic roots but yet how traitorous she still feels to this day for “bashing Addy’s right to exist.” She writes:

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.”

Blackness-related exhaustion is real, folks. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard over the last few weeks, a person ask with the same annoyance ‘why do we have to keep talking about slavery?’ As if we really talk about slavery? I don’t know about the rest of y’all’s secondary educational experience but the only academic discussions around slavery we had centered around the politics of it, most particularly how the government eventually did black folks a solid and made it illegal. And in the last 20 years, I can only think about three or four films on the subject, and those films just so happened to have been produced in the last couple of years (including 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained). In fact, the only time I hear black folks nowadays make any sort of slavery-reference is when we are demeaning each other with so called slave-archetypes like Mammy or Uncle Tom or Negro Bed Wench. So the idea that the national conversation is saturated with proper introspection and reflection of how our great nation used actual human beings as chattel and then denied those same human beings justice and equality for years thereafter, just kind of rings hollow to me. Or at the very least, insecure.

If it was just slavery, black folks might not be so uncomfortable about contemporary conversations around the personalization of the institution however a discussion of slavery ultimately brings about a discussion about the generations of black folks after enslavement, who had to suffer, struggle through and ultimately bare the humiliation of second-class citizenship. And that, in turn, may bring about feelings of insecurity and inferiority, especially in the face of a reality of our history. Or as Jerry Large writes in this archived article entitled About Slavery: No Need for Embarrassment from the 1996 Seattle Times:

As a psychologist might say, there was no closure. The wound is still open. Most people throughout history have had the luxury of creating a romantic myth of how they got to be who they are. Jews, Aztecs, Romans, white Americans, Zulus. But not black Americans. White America protects its myths as true history and rejects the incipient myths of black Americans as revisionist pap. Afrocentrism is bad, Eurocentrism is good. (How much Chinese or Japanese literature did you read in school?). Black Americans are not all descended from kings and queens, but neither are white Americans. Bad luck brought us both here, some running, others dragged.”

However, in the midst of all this wanting to forget the bad stuff, are much richer and complex stories – not just stories of survival in the face of dire circumstances but of camaraderie. Take for instance the actual background narrative to the Addy doll. According to the American Girl Wiki page, outside of hard labor as an enslaved nine-year old black child (and eventually a free child in the North), Addy Walker is also described as a proponent of fairness and a questioner of the status quo. Moreover:

Addy tends to leap before she looks; so far, this has yet to get her in any trouble. She is also curious and wants to surge ahead. She does feel she can trust people before she meets them more often than not. Watching anything – people or animals – suffer bothers her. In her heart, she is an optimist and thinks good of people. However, due to her young age, she is easily influenced and upset by other people, especially her classmate Harriet. Addy is also very upset and sometimes ashamed of her poverty status, especially in comparison to Harriet, who has the kind of life Addy expected in freedom. Addy has a lot of pride at times. She wishes her family did not have to work so hard to make a life for themselves in freedom.”

The irony, of course, is that Teal and the Addy doll have lots more in common than she likes to believe.
I will say that as a kid, who took pride in her collection of 32 Barbies and Ken dolls of all varying hues and made up backgrounds, one thing that I most look forward to was the ability to conceptualize my dolls in all new identities, particularly when it came to restyling their hair. And by styling, I mean making uneven and raggedy bobs with kindergarden scissors. I could be rough in play with my Barbies in a way I couldn’t with my more cultural dolls without it feeling like abuse. There is a delicate balance of educating kids about a history, which often gets neglected and whitewashed over in school and just letting kids be free to explore their creativity on their own, which many of us haven’t master. And a slavery themed toy doll is pretty damn heavy no matter how you try to dress it up.

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