In 1993, American Girl doll company set out to introduce its first black character. All she had to do was represent the entire history of black America.
In February, the American Girl brand, beloved for its expansive (and expensive) line of books, toys, and clothing, made an announcement: A new doll in its collection of historically themed characters, a black girl growing up in Detroit in 1963, was on her way.
Though it wasn’t noted in the press release, the significance of the news wasn’t lost on parents of American Girl enthusiasts or women like myself who grew up with the dolls. Melody Ellison is only the second black doll that is currently for sale from American Girl’s line of historical dolls. (Her immediate predecessor Cécile Rey, a girl from a well-to-do family in 1850s New Orleans, was introduced in 2011 and “archived” in 2014.) And, perhaps more important—unlike American Girl’s only other available black doll—she wasn’t born a slave.
For almost two decades, generations of young black girls turning to the American Girl series for stories about characters who looked like them only had one choice: Addy Walker, a 9-year-old girl born into slavery who (in the accompanying books) eventually escapes to freedom alongside her mother. Ever since she arrived as the fifth doll in the company’s incredibly successful collection of mail-order dolls, Addy has been a polarizing figure, revered by many as an inspiring character and an important educational tool and criticized by others as a vehicle for wallowing in black suffering. Much has been written about the painful memories she conjures up—I’ve had my own difficulties wrestling with how Addy made me feel as a child. A lot of these feelings are rooted not in a disdain for Addy herself but for the clear-cut lack of choice: While my white peers could pick from any number of varied characters made in their likeness, I could not.
By the early 1990s, America’s major toy companies, all of them run by white CEOs, had become hip to the notion that there was a hunger and a market for a wider range of more culturally specific black dolls. In 1991, Mattel introduced the Barbie-esque new character Shani, whose dolls were promoted as having “African-American souls and a strong identification with their culture.” Along with her friends Nichelle and Asha, Shani was sculpted with attention to facial features commonly found among black people, including a wider nose and fuller lips, without caricaturing them. Around the same time, Tyco released the cherubic brown-skinned Kenya dolls, and Hasbro teamed up with black-owned toy company Olmec to produce the Kids of Color rag dolls, which wore clothes made of Kente cloth. Even Pleasant Company (as American Girl was known prior to being sold to Mattel in 1998) produced nonwhite dolls before the arrival of Addy in 1993.
But the face of the brand was undoubtedly the megapopular American Girls Collection, which paired historical fiction about young girls with dolls created in their likeness. Pleasant Rowland, a former elementary school teacher and textbook author, launched the mail-order dolls in 1986 in response to her disappointment with the offerings available to girls. Originally, there were three characters, all white: Kirsten (a Swedish immigrant who settles out West with her family in 1854), Samantha (an orphan living with her wealthy grandmother in a fictional New York town in 1904), and Molly (a Midwestern girl coping with the effects of World War II in 1944). In 1991, a fourth girl was added, also white: Felicity, a plucky tomboy growing up in colonial Williamsburg.