When I first heard that the new American Girl doll Melody released last week was from Detroit, Michigan, I felt amazed; the same way I did when I found out that Madonna, Serena Williams, and Kristen Bell are all from Michigan — bizarrely proud, as if I myself had plucked them from our humble mitten state and seen them rise to stardom.
The point is, Michigan has been in the headlines for less excitement-inducing reasons, such as the Flint Water Crisis and the fact that Detroit was recently ranked the most “stressed-out” city in the nation. But Michigan’s past — full of hard work, racial tension, and economic challenges — speaks to the larger issues of civil rights and racial inequality happening nationally today. Which is why a black doll from Detroit is so very important right now.
The official story of Melody Ellison follows the 9-year-old growing up in Detroit during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and how she “lifts her voice” for equality — speaking up for change. Although there’s been a lot of focus on the civil rights movement in the South, as Melody’s story illustrates, African-Americans throughout all of the country faced inequality and discrimination, so Detroit was an intentional choice on the part of American Girl to show the story through a different lens.
At the time, Detroit was home to one of the nation’s most vibrant and thriving black communities, boasted more independent black-owned businesses than any other city in the nation — such as Motown Records, and was host to the automobile industry — which employed thousands of African-Americans. Detroit also had significant civil rights activity, including the 1963 Walk to Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the first version of his “I Had A Dream” speech and the (still-running) largest chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
I’m embarrassed to say that I live in Michigan, hours away from Detroit, and I knew none of this. Melody, it would appear, is something that even 30-year-old mothers can learn a thing or two from.
The point is, Detroit is important to this country’s history and Melody’s story is important to this country’s future.
“We always focus on pivotal periods in history that had a significant impact on our country’s development,” Julie Parks, American Girl company spokesperson, tells Babble on the decision to bring Melody to life. “Our goal with these characters is always to help bridge the past and the present for girls today and show them those common threads that bring girls of all times together.”
“The 1960s was a hugely influential era,” Parks continues. “At the time, in the early ’60s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. It was not only a key movement in our country’s history, but it’s still a revenant and powerful force in American society and culture today. We’re most proud of how Melody can really show girls through these stories how ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they come together to make a positive difference.”
American Girl put an incredible amount of time and attention to detail to ensure that Melody was both historically and culturally accurate. A six-member advisory board that included the late Horace Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP Board of Directors and founding member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), worked with American Girl for over two years to make sure every last detail of Melody was perfect. Even getting her textured hair just right, an important detail for American Girl’s second African-American doll, took several tries.
I had the opportunity to speak with one of the advisory board members Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and founding executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, who educated me on the rich history that Michigan has in the civil rights movement — and why a doll like Melody is so important for the next generation.
“The people that participated [in the civil rights movement], thousands of people, they weren’t rich, they weren’t powerful, they weren’t famous,” Moore explains. “And they changed the way every single person in this country lives today and really influenced human rights worldwide. So it’s an appropriate time to really have a doll that encourages and models for young people, especially young girls, that they have the same kinds of opportunities.”
Moore also noted the significant contributions made in history by youth, such as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 where children as young as 7 and 8 were doused with water, beaten with batons, and attacked by police dogs. Some children were jailed, and later that year four young black girls would be killed by bombs planted by white supremacists. Children and youth, Moore points out, can and have made a difference, from staying informed during presidential elections to speaking out on today’s current issues like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, economic disparity, and gender sensitivities.
Melody’s story is about empowering young people to make a change in their communities and as a result, the world, so American Girl has been working locally in Michigan to help make that happen. The company has partnered with the Detroit Public Library’s 22 branches, donating over 10,000 Melody books to be given away to anyone who requests one through their local library. Additionally, American Girl donated $50,000 to improve programming for children’s literacy and each branch received over $25,000 worth of actual Melody dolls to be given away.
Because Melody’s story takes placed in Detroit, centered around Motown and using music as a universal language to bring all people together across racial divides, American Girl has also launched a special “Lift Your Voice with Melody” campaign. Fans can watch this Melody video and then share their own inspiring videos and photos on how they make a difference, using the hashtag #LiftYourVoice. There are also all kinds of Melody-inspired events happening at American Girl stores across the country, including the brand-new pop-up store in Michigan, located at Twelve Oaks Mall.
Mothers of black daughters across the country are also excited to see a special role model for their girls that is both culturally appropriate and historically relevant.
“Melody is a beautiful, well thought-out doll,” commented Trina Small of Baby Shopaholic. “When my daughter first laid eyes on her she said, ‘She’s so cute! Look at her hair!’ First thing I noticed was the style of her hair and the details in her dress. Melody is a perfect reflection of black girls during this special moment in time. Pictures of my mother in the ’60s look just like Melody. I appreciate American Girl for delicately handling Melody’s story and details. This beautiful doll is right on time.”
I know, I know, we are a bunch of grown women here swooning over a doll, but let’s face it — we all love American Girl just as much as our kids do. And the real heart of the matter is that there is a deeper reason to our secret love of American Girl, because it’s not just about the doll or the accessories. American Girl is about so much more and the message of empowering our girls, teaching them the importance of the past so that they can move forward in the future with confidence, and representing all individuals with pride and cultural sensitivity, is priceless.
OK, fine — plus the catalogues are just plain fun to look at.