Addy Walker and the Role of Black Dolls in American Culture

by Brit Bennett for The Paris Review

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. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges?

* * *

An American Girl store is designed like a little girl’s fantasyland, or what the Pleasant Company, owned by Mattel, imagines that to be. Pink glows from the walls; yellow shelves hold delicate dolls in display cases. Nurses tend to a hospital for defunct toys and a café hosts tea parties for girls and their dolls. The company has retired many of the historical American Girls from my childhood—the colonist Felicity, the frontierswoman Kirsten, and the World War II–era Molly, all among the original set of dolls, released in 1986—but Addy remains.

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.

For seventeen years, Addy was the only black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998. 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.

Since 2013, a petition has gathered nearly seventy signatures demanding that the Pleasant Company discontinue the Addy doll. “Slavery was a vile, cruel, inhumane, unjust holocaust of Black Americans,” the petition reads. “Why would this subject matter ever be considered entertaining?” The petition accuses the Pleasant Company of “diminish[ing] the cruelty of slavery and instead glorif[ying] it as some sort of adventurous fantasy.”

I’ve never found Addy glib and insensitive, as the petitioners do—but she does trouble me. She is a toy steeped in tragedy, and who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms? When I received an Addy doll for Christmas, I was innocent enough to believe that Santa had brought it to me, but mature enough to experience the horrors of slavery.

“I didn’t even think about that,” my mother told me. “I just thought it was a beautiful doll.”

* * *

My mother didn’t own a doll until she was seven or eight. She grew up in rural Louisiana, one of nine children, and her mother couldn’t afford to buy dolls, so she made her own out of corncobs. One year, her uncle brought back dolls from Chicago. They were white. Mass-produced black dolls were not readily available until the late 1960s; before then, many of the black dolls in existence were ugly racist caricatures.

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. An Etsy page describes a windup toy as “a historic remnant of America’s past,” an antique that depicts “a crying little black boy performing the iconic action commonly seen in the pickaninny stereotype as the child is eating a slice of plantation watermelon.” The seller acknowledges that the piece is “certainly racist,” but hails “the adorable characteristics of a precious little toddler with his charming little shape and cute chubby cheeks and limbs.”

In Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, Robin Bernstein describes the popularity of pickaninny dolls with white children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 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.” This is no coincidence. Pickaninnies are often depicted as targets of violence, as in a 1900 postcard that features a white man throwing baseballs at pickaninny dolls in a carnival game called “Hit the Nigger Babies.” Likewise, a cloth-doll ad in an 1893 issue of a juvenile magazine reads:
What child in America does not at some time want a cloth “Nigger” dollie—one that can be petted or thrown about without harm to the doll or anything that it comes in contact with[?] “Pickaninny” fills all the requirements most completely.
What does it mean for a doll ad not only to acknowledge but to encourage a white child’s violence against a representation of a black child? Maybe it means nothing. Dolls aren’t real—they can’t feel pain. But neither, apparently, can pickaninnies: in books and postcards and minstrel shows, they were shown crushed by boulders, mauled by dogs, and dangled over alligators as bait.

Addy is not a pickaninny doll. She is beautifully crafted, and her story portrays her as a girl who is smart and courageous. Generations of black girls before me would’ve loved to hold Addy in their arms. But she is still complicated, fraught with painful history. If a doll exists on the border between person and thing, what does it mean to own a doll that represents an enslaved child who once existed on that same border?

Continue reading at The Paris Review.

Photo: The Meet Addy cover; original Addy Walker doll

Brit Bennett recently earned her M.F.A. in fiction at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, The Mothers, is forthcoming.

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