Black dolls in American culture

Read an interesting article at The Paris Review titled Addy Walker, American Girl.  The author of the article Brit Bennett, talks about Addy Walker who is part of the American Girl doll collection.


Addy Walker is a nine-year old girl born into slavery in the 1800’s.  She eventually escapes to freedom with her mother during the Civil War.


American Girl dolls have been sold with accompanying books detailing the lives of each doll. Addy Walker was the only nonwhite doll until 1998.

Ms. Bennett mentions that while the white dolls enjoyed tea parties Addy’s story involved being forced to eat worms by the overseer and escaping slavery.


Against the store’s backdrop of pink tea parties, her story seems even more harrowing. Addy escapes to the north with her mother, forced to leave her baby sister behind because her cries might alert slave-catchers. In Philadelphia, Addy struggles to adjust and dreams of her family reuniting. They do, it turns out, find each other eventually—a near impossibility for an actual enslaved family—but at no small cost. Her brother loses an arm fighting in the Civil War. Her surrogate grandparents die on the plantation before she can say goodbye. Other American Girls struggle, but Addy’s story is distinctly more traumatic.

The company eventually added another African American doll named Cecile Rey. Her story took place in 1850’s New Orleans. The Cecile Rey doll was discontinued in 2014.


Ms. Bennett also talks about the history of black dolls including racist dolls. She mentions the Golliwogs which are black faced rag dolls and pickaninny dolls which were popular with white children during the 19th and 20th centuries.


Of course, you can still buy racist dolls. 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. Pickaninny dolls, racist caricatures of black children, live on in the homes of collectors and in the recesses of the Internet. eBay sellers advertise “charming vintage” pickaninny dolls with black skin, bulging eyes, and big red lips.

These dolls weren’t well loved. They were treated with violence.

Passionate love for a black doll was often couched in violence. White children mutilated their black dolls, gashing their throats, cutting between their legs, even hanging or burning them. “Love and violence were not mutually exclusive but were instead interdependent,” Bernstein writes. Although children often commit violence against dolls, “nineteenth-century white children singled out black dolls for attacks that were especially vicious and that took racialized forms.”

Check out the entire article at The Paris Review.

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