Best of 2021: We were American Girls: What Addy taught me about Black hair, freedom and myself

The white American Girl dolls' fights for freedom were figurative. Addy's fight was literal

Published December 24, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Ashleé and Addy (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo provided by Ashleé Clark)
Ashleé and Addy (Photo illustration by Salon/Photo provided by Ashleé Clark)

This essay was originally published in Salon on May 15, 2021. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2021 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2021 here.

Addy Walker wasn't my first Black doll, but she was my last.

First, there were my brown Cabbage Patch dolls with black yarn hair, pinched faces and plush bodies that smelled like baby powder.

Then Barbie, Skipper and the rest of the gang lured me away. I kept a couple dozen of them in a red duffel bag. Two chocolate bodies stood out in the knot of tangled hair and naked limbs — a Black Barbie and a Black Ken.

My toy collection got a little more "ethnic" with Kenya's arrival. I brought home this Afro-centric doll sometime after "Malcolm X" hit theaters and during the reign of "In Living Color," "Living Single" and "Martin" on TV. With Kenya, you could select one of three skin tones — light, medium, or dark. I chose the caramel doll with light eyes that was right in the middle of Blackness, even though my skin was browner and my eyes were darker.

Then I met Addy — not in a toy store, but a library.

I was about nine years old. I ached for Black heroes, real and imaginary, to prove that my experience was not a unique one, that I was not alone in a world in which I was darker than many of my peers. I was old enough to know that being Black meant being different, but too young to understand how my race would impact every aspect of my life. I was sheltered in the working class, mostly white, and Catholic city called Shively within Louisville, Kentucky. My family moved there when I was four. At the time, we were one of three or so Black families on my block. Over the next 30 years, Shively would become one of the neighborhoods in Louisville with the largest concentration of Black people. But in my childhood, I stood out like a spork in a cutlery drawer.

RELATED: The politics of black women's hair

The Shively-Newman branch of the Louisville Free Public Library was one of my safe spaces. Mommy took me there about once every other weekend. After we slid the books we had read into the return slot, we split: Mommy to the room with the adult fiction, me to the left and down the steps to the children's area. This is where Addy Walker lived.

Addy was a character in the American Girls book series, a collection of stories about fictional girls who lived during significant moments in American history. A former teacher came up with the concept 35 years ago, and began with the stories of three girls. By the time I was in elementary school, there were five American Girls, as described by the publishers at the beginning of each book: "Felicity, a spunky, spritely colonial girl"; "Kirsten, a pioneer girl of strength and spirit"; "Samantha, a bright Victorian beauty"; "Molly, who schemes and dreams on the home front during World War Two." I was drawn to Addy, "a courageous girl determined to be free in the midst of the Civil War." She was the only Black American Girl.

Each girl had six books in her collection, their names interchangeable in the titles. Unlike the tales of her white series sisters, Addy's story was steeped in tragedy. She was a slave when I met her, a piece of property that belonged to Master Stephens, a white man illustrated with a thick mustache and grimace at the beginning of "Meet Addy." The other American Girls had their hardships. And every girl was in a struggle to find herself and become an independent young woman apart from the people who raised her. But the white American Girls' fights for freedom were figurative; Addy's fight was literal. Addy was enslaved, only three-fifths an American Girl.

RELATED: Why we need diverse YA books more than ever

In "Meet Addy," I saw this young girl with a face like mine pluck worms from tobacco leaves, feel the fire from the crack of a whip across her back, and cry out when her father and her brother were sold to a different plantation. I was in the small cabin with Addy when her mother told her that the two of them would run for freedom with the hope of reuniting with her father and brother. For pages and pages, I was with Addy as she and Momma, dressed in men's clothes to keep the hound dogs off their scent, slept during the day and followed train tracks at night toward the house that they prayed was indeed a stop on the Underground Railroad. I held my breath when they had to cross a rushing river and it almost swept Momma away. I didn't get to see Addy arrive at freedom in "Meet Addy"; when the book ends, she's hidden on a wagon to be smuggled onto a ship bound for Philadelphia. For Addy's adventures to begin, she had to risk her life for a chance at freedom, stakes that Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha and Molly would never understand. Without her tragedy, Addy wouldn't have even been an American Girl.

"Meet Addy" was bold in its depiction of chattel slavery. Yet Addy smiled on the cover beneath her straw bonnet, her head turned toward me. I could see that she was a survivor. But the book and the rest of the series put Addy's struggles in a distant past that I was too young to connect to the present. I couldn't see the throughline of Addy's escape to freedom and the struggles that I would wade through for the rest of my life.

The merchandising that accompanied the books was just as American as the girls. Not only could I read the books, but I could also buy a doll in the likeness of my favorite character, plus the accessories and outfits that corresponded with each story in her series. A thick, square American Girl catalog found its way to our mailbox one day when I was in fourth grade. It displayed the girls and their corresponding merchandise in chronological order, which put Addy right in the middle, her picture divided by staples and the thick, white order form. Addy, like the other girls, was displayed horizontally like a centerfold so her body filled up two pages. The Addy Walker doll was literature made palpable. And it would cost $115 to get her home. Barbie dolls only required an upfront investment of about fifteen bucks. A Cabbage Patch was a little more. But $115? That was asking a lot from Mommy. Even though my parents were in a relationship and worked together, they lived separately — me, Mommy, my older half-brother Timmy and my uncle Bobby in the ranch-style home in Shively; Daddy in a one-bedroom bachelor pad with velvet paintings and mirrors on every wall. The arrangement left Mommy as the head of the household. Major decisions like $100-plus purchases went through her.

I realized that money didn't come easy. It came from Mommy being on her feet doing hair well into the evening, five days a week. She never talked to me much about money or the lack thereof.

"It's your job to be a kid," she said.

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But I knew not to disturb her on Sunday evenings when she gathered her spiral notebook, checkbook and stacks of twenties from her customers. Her quick additions and subtractions filled the lined pages at all angles. I couldn't understand what the numbers meant, and I was too afraid to ask.

I went for a subtle approach to get Addy — I studied the American Girl catalog like homework whenever we were both at the kitchen table. Eventually, she caught on.

"I know you want Addy, but we'll have to save up to get her," she said.

Mommy offered me a deal — she would put aside the money she made from tips and $5 eyebrow arches so I could order Addy. I agreed, and she got to work.

It took a whole summer to collect $115.

Mommy kept her tips and eyebrow arch money in a white security envelope, the same kind in which she tucked bill payments.

"How are we doing?" I asked every week when she tallied the numbers.

"Almost," Mommy said.

One Sunday, Mommy removed all of the bills from the envelope. I watched as she counted and sorted fives and ones into neat piles in front of her.

She smiled.

"We've got enough," Mommy said.

One day, Mommy and I pulled into our driveway. Uncle Bobby stood on the front porch and leaned over the white metal railing. I could hear him from inside the car.

"She's here! She's here!"

Addy was dressed in the same clothes she had worn at the end of "Meet Addy" when a member of the Underground Railroad named Miss Caroline helped deliver Addy and Momma to Philadelphia: a pale pink dress with wiggly white stripes and white buttons that "was prettier than any she had imagined when she dreamed about freedom"; white bloomers, and a straw bonnet with a navy ribbon that tied under her chin. I held a hero in my hands, and she was as beautiful as I imagined her to be.

I removed her straw bonnet so I could see her hair.

Mommy raised her eyebrows.

"Addy could use a relaxer," she said.

Addy had nappy hair. Wefts of coarse, black hair covered her head. When I undid her braid, the roughness of the strands amazed me. It would need special attention, according to the booklet tucked into her box. I could only use a small, wire wig brush on her hair, and I had to use my fingers to work out any knots.

I had never felt hair like that on a doll. I had never felt hair like that on my own head.

The Black dolls I loved before Addy Walker had straight hair like mine. It wasn't the hair with which I was born – it was the hair my mother gave me. It was the same hair that she and my father gave their clients at their hair salon. Every six weeks, Mommy straightened my hair with relaxer, a chemical concoction that feels like cold pudding and smells like a science experiment.

With such a regular schedule, my roots didn't have the chance to grow more than a quarter inch or so in between relaxer touch ups. The suggestion of rough, coarse hair that appeared closer to the end of the six-week mark was the only hint of how similar my real hair could be to Addy's.

To love Addy's hair, I'd also have to love my own natural texture. But I didn't know how.

Addy's hair tangled easily. Her strands would be knotted when I picked her up from the corner of my daybed, no matter how gently I handled her. With the wire brush, I heard pops of hair break off and see it wind into the brush's bristles. I'd never had a doll with nappy hair. Neither had Mommy. We didn't know what to do except to keep brushing when there were knots and try to leave her alone as much as possible. I couldn't. Within months, Addy had bald spots on her tiny head from all the hair I'd broken off. I could see bare brown plastic and tracks where the kinky doll hair should've been.  I saw in Addy what my mother must have seen in my own curls — a nuisance.

Mommy took me to an American Girl meetup at a bookstore in our end of town. I was one of the only Black girls there, and the only one with Addy. The other little girls probably didn't have to worry about their dolls' hair. They could go on adventures and be brave and take chances, just like the white American Girls in the books. For the first time, I was ashamed that Addy was so different from the other girls. Unlike the Cabbage Patch dolls and Barbie dolls and Kenya dolls, she couldn't fit in with the white dolls. And if she couldn't fit in, neither did I. It didn't matter that my own hair was just as straight as the girls drinking juice and eating dry cookies beneath the dull, flickering fluorescent lights. When you took away the relaxer, I was Addy — a nappy-headed Black girl who descended from slaves, carrying the weight of the ancestors' deferred dreams on shoulders too small for such a burden.

The same year Addy arrived, the maker of American Girl dolls released a line of contemporary dolls. Instead of choosing between five historical figures, you could personalize one of the "American Girls of Today" to look just like you — or the idea you had formed about who you thought you were. Everything could be adapted to your tastes — the girl's skin tone, eye color, hair texture.

I wanted another doll.

I wanted a straight-haired girl.

I wanted another chance.

I couldn't tell Mommy, though. Not after a summer's worth of eyebrow arches. Yet she let me order some of the modern American Girls of Today clothes for Addy, a compromise she must have known I needed. I couldn't straighten Addy's hair, but I could change her clothes. So a few weeks later, I slipped Addy out of that pink dress, bloomers, and bonnet. I replaced them with blue jeans, a purple varsity jacket that looked like the ones worn by the football players in the Sweet Valley High books, and a little pair of black Chucks. I pulled Addy's hair back into a braid and placed a baseball cap on her head to hide the bald spots.

For the first time since Addy arrived at my house, she didn't look like the book character I had grown to love and admire. I still carried Addy's story of bondage and freedom from the pages into my heart. I knew she could never be an American Girl of Today, something I wanted so desperately for both of us. If she looked like she was in a costume when I put her in modern clothes, was I also wearing a costume by keeping my hair unnaturally straight? Would I, like Addy, never fit in?

I did what kids do when something's too hard: I put Addy away to play with something else. When she first came home, Addy rested amongst a huddle of stuffed animals in the corner of my white wrought-iron daybed. A couple of years later, when I was about to begin middle school, I placed her on the first shelf of my closet. She joined the milk crate of Berenstain Bears and Little Critter hardbacks. Addy watched as I filled the closet with polo shirts and khakis required at my middle school. She saw me cut out pictures of boy band members and celebrities from the latest Seventeen and YM magazines and tape them on the back of my bedroom door, which stayed closed more and more with each passing year. She watched me forget about her.

I kept Addy in the closet for about 25 years. Addy became the only sign that a little girl had ever lived in my bedroom. Once I had gotten settled into a career after college, Mommy put a couple of coats of eggshell over the robin's egg blue walls, added a full bed, hung some pictures, and called it a "guest room." Then, Daddy moved in and turned the guest room into a dressing area.

By the end of my twenties, my husband, my straight hair and I had moved on up to a two-story house not too far from Shively. By the middle of my thirties, the husband, the house and the relaxer were memories, and I was making a new life in my own home. Maybe all that change inspired Mommy, who decided to reclaim her guest room and began clearing out the closet.

"Do you want your Addy Walker doll and all her stuff?" she asked me one day.

It was time to take my girl home.

Mommy gave Addy back to me one Sunday after our weekly family dinner. Addy's clothes were still folded inside tiny cardboard boxes that were crowded inside a gift bag that was at least as old as the doll. Addy still wore the modern outfit from my attempt at her assimilation. I brought her home in a canvas tote that I hugged against my torso. As my dogs chased one another from the living room to the bedroom, I examined Addy with the wonder I had when I first took her out of the box all those years ago. I saw myself in her nappy hair. And I was happy.

Read more of Salon's Best of 2021 Life Stories.

By Ashleé Clark

Ashleé Clark is a writer based in Louisville, Ky. She is the author of the book "Louisville Diners" (History Press, 2015). Her career has included time as a newspaper reporter, a healthcare communications consultant, a food blogger and an oven reviewer. She currently is the Vice President of Digital for Louisville Public Media.

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