A month or two ago I went to a panel discussion with a friend on activism and social justice, mostly related to race and issues like this weird tradition we have in America of killing young black men for no reason. At one point, a panelist made an offhand comment about how, you know, “Harriet Tubman would go to a new plantation, be like, ‘hello, massa, I’m the old washerwoman from blah blah plantation,’ and then go and rally the slaves to escape.”
Hold the phone. WTF?
I, like probably every other black Millennial (and just Millennial) in the United States, grew up learning that there were only ever three black people of consequence in the world, and their names were Martin, Rosa, and Harriet. And even with that, that one comment made me realize I never knew anything real about Harriet Tubman. It’s not just that black history is a single story in American education. It’s that it’s a really fucking slim story. How did I get through a quarter-century and a bit more not ever learning that Black Moses didn’t use magic like Torah Moses, she was a SECRET AGENT. I even went to my bookshelf and grabbed this book, given to me by my second grade teacher with the strict instruction to tell the other kids that it was a book that came in late from a book order if anyone asked why she was giving me things, and it didn’t say anything except your general magical Underground Railroad.
My world has been broken. I know even less nothing than I thought. (Even more nothing? Integers are weird.)
Enter this other book that I finally read today after getting it in my Mattel employees “holiday box” when I worked at the American Girl store for a hot second. Meet Cécile is about the second black American Girl character, who along with her co-protagonist Marie-Grace was retired after only three years because the Mattel iteration of American Girl likes to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to innovation or diversity or doing what its original fans want. Now, you probably know that I am a lifelong, diehard fan of American Girl historical characters, for all that they are sanitized and simple, because they also promoted imaginative play, made really high quality, long-lasting playthings (pre-Mattel, I mean; post-Mattel, it’s all cheap plastic), and did a decent job getting you acquainted with major historical periods. I don’t need to tell you about all the problematic elements and overwhelming whiteness because we are all familiar, so that’s a waste of my time.
The cool part: this character is a black girl living in 1853 America (that’s probably why she was cursed to archive–all other characters live in years ending with 4) as a person who has always been free. That is amazing. That is a thing I never even knew was a possibility from my Murican history classes. And then there was this line:
He shrugged off his heavy coat as their new maid, Ellen, a young Irish girl, stood waiting to hang it up.
THEY HAVE A WHITE MAID. RICH BLACK PEOPLE IN THE 19TH CENTURY HAVE A WHITE* MAID. OH, THE LITERARY AND SOCIOLOGICAL POTENTIAL IN THAT.
This book is simple, don’t get me wrong. It’s seriously awkward about race and avoids words that would actually have been used at the time, and though it’s been awhile, I’m quite sure that in the 90s, the books kept it fairly real, if not graphic, when it came to things like whipping slaves or treating people badly. But the amount of tiny offhand details that made me wish I had had better history teachers (there are many reasons I wish I had had better history teachers before college, I mean geez) or that there were some amazing historical fiction books I could read as an adult is endless, and if I had had Cécile as a character as a kid, I would have been like “WHAT!? Amazing!” to see a black character in a socioeconomic status that I had really never seen black characters in, and I definitely would have considered getting her when I got a doll.**
Offhand, tiny things are EVERYTHING in the conversation about diverse books and mirrors and windows. Subtle signals. When you’re used to whiteness being presented as the norm, as almost boring, it’s actually incredibly validating to see your own identity being presented as quotidian and not worthy of extended comment. Identifiers significantly different from the single story usually offered us presented as matter-of-fact instead of exceptional are powerful. Cécile is amazing just for that, and if anyone can find me another novel about that era and that community, I’ll give them a million dollars.
*Okay, Irish people weren’t yet considered “white,” but we all know they are white, so this is still amazing.
**I got Addy because loyalty, but I didn’t really care for her as a character, and Josefina’s story resonated with me as far as growing up in the Southwest, plus she was way prettier and had better hair. But she might have had competition if Cécile had been around back then.