Doll Portrays Inspiring Story
by Timaya Pulliam ‘23
A number of companies that market to children and their families reflect historical and current struggles to represent the black community. This often appears to the public and consumers that a company is inclusive and diverse. When a company depicts one side of a story only through hardships, however, then the story is misrepresentative and stereotypical.
Mattel, the company that owns the American Girl doll franchise, has in the past mischaracterized African-American history as one of only trauma and hardship. But recently, the representation of the black community portrayed by the American Girl franchise has changed with the introduction of a new, history-based American Girl doll, sharing talents and experiences not often acknowledged in stories about black history. Claudie Wells, the new American Girl doll, is situated in the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1937), a revival when black people from all over the world joined together in Harlem, New York to celebrate their culture, instill pride, and discover new possibilities for their community within art, music, and literature. Claudie Wells showcases positivity in black culture, as well as the history that is not as known and recognized as it should be.
Representation in dolls has been shown through the historical lens of black people living, fighting, and struggling. These representations include Cecile Rey (now discontinued), who lived through the Yellow Fever contagious disease rampaging through New Orleans, Louisiana in 1853, and Addy Walker, who fled from slavery in 1864. The doll Melody Ellison sang, as she had to fight against injustices and segregation, and for civil rights in 1964.
These dolls taught me and girls like me that black girls are strong and can overcome obstacles and hardships. However, black girls are much more than that. Black girls are intelligent. Black girls are creative. Black girls are ambitious. Black people have many more talents that must be portrayed, so little black girls develop high self-esteem. That is the long overdue benefit when it comes to the creation of the Claudie Wells doll.
Claudie Wells grows up through the Harlem Renaissance observing people throughout her community with diverse gifts, but Claudie does not know what her own gift is. She must search to find her true love and talent among other people that already know their strengths. Not only does Claudie provide a fun and inspiring story, but she provides insight into real life, then and now for young girls who look to see themselves in the dolls and other toys that they play with. The new doll also shows a rich and joyous piece of history that is often missing from textbooks. Though there is much more work to be done to provide better representation for young black girls, the new Claudie Wells American Girl doll is a step forward.
Assigned Books Not Telling the Full Story
by Perri Williams ‘23
It is important for all people to have role models in their lives. It does not matter if those role models are fictional characters or historical figures. However, positive role models are lacking for African American students, specifically in many of the books that are assigned in English classes from the MCPS curriculum.
MCPS provides teachers with curriculum guides divided into units, along with a list of approved books that correspond with each unit. From this list teachers decide which books they think best fits the instructional plans and learning objectives, among other considerations. Many of the novels that teachers select to assign are arguably interesting and fit the unit’s goals. The books also often showcase a range of plots with a diversity of characters. Unfortunately, the African American protagonists and other characters regularly face the same conflicts centered around racial injustices, inequities, and violence. Such novels collectively lead to a recurring stereotype about African Americans and their lives, both today and in the past. Therefore, there is a desperate need for positive reinforcement via alternative stories with African American characters that do not revolve solely around the lack of justice that African Americans get from the justice system, and how a lot of times they are treated poorly. It is time to move away from such stereotypical narratives.
Some of the assigned books in Sherwood English classes are ones that primarily are centered around police brutality and injustices in the criminal justice system. All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds is taught in 9th grade and gives the perspective of a young white boy who witnesses the police brutality of a boy that he goes to school with while also giving the perspective of the black boy during and after his conflict with the police. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, which is an option for 11th grade, tells the story about a boy who is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to a state reform school where he is violently abused. Similarly, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, an option in AP Lit, explores the generational legacy of racial brutality at a notorious prison camp in Mississippi. Finally, there is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which has been taught in 9th grade, and follows teenager Starr Carter who lives in a rough neighborhood but goes to an upper class private school, when she witnesses her childhood best friend being killed by the police and her two worlds collide.
It can be assumed that teachers are picking these titles because issues within the justice system are very prevalent in today’s society. There are both benefits and disadvantages to reading books of this sort. Students can become more politically and socially aware, allowing them to have impactful conversations in the classroom. However, too many of these stories over the years have perpetuated dangerous stereotypes for both black and white students alike. Specifically for black students, it reiterates the thought that they should fear first responders and that the only stories about people who look like them derive from those specific and relatively uncommon experiences. But there are a variety of topics and issues that are faced by all ethnic groups.
It would be more beneficial for students to read books that highlight black history and positive black experiences. That way students aren’t reading stories that harp on the negatives to interest the reader. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett focuses on identical twins that run away; both girls are black but lighter skinned. The twins separate and live totally different lives as one marries a black man while the other one lives her life as white-passing. This book tells the stories of black protagonists that still struggle with the issue of race but in a way that tells alternative stories to police brutality. The book Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour is about a 20 year old black man that is living under the poverty line during the 1930s, and addresses capitalism and white supremacy in America.
The solution is that teachers should talk to each other about what books they will be reading with their classes and why. If teachers that teach different grades are communicating with one another, it is less likely that over four years students will read books in their English classes that address the same topics. This would end the current cycle of students who end up reading books that address the same stereotypical racial issues.