Brown and white


I love American Girl. Really, I do. Yeah, they’re overpriced. Yeah, the store experiences can tend toward the snobbish. Yeah, I’m going crazy with admiration and/or horror as the Maiden squirrels away money in the hopes of purchasing her very first AG doll this spring. We said we weren’t going to get into this, so we made her save up for it herself (thinking she wouldn’t) . . . and now she’s almost there. That’s scary in more ways than one.

But what I like best about the AG world is the storylines behind the historical dolls. They’re borne out in novels, mysteries, and supplemental nonfiction books–but it’s more than just cute stories. They tackle issues. Like Molly, the Maiden’s fave, whose dad went overseas to fight in WWII and whose teacher’s fiance was killed in battle and whose mom had to start working to help pay the bills and whose family took in a British girl who’d lost her mother in the London bombings.

Like I said, issues.

The newest historical dolls are Marie-Grace and Cecile, BFFs who hail from 1850s New Orleans. I thought the books would be fun because, having spent most of her life in Louisiana, the Maiden might feel a kinship with the girls.

Turns out it was something else that fascinated her.

On Friday I was trying to do my job–I didn’t have the day off, even if the Maiden did–when she burst into the office with a big question face on. I could tell it was going to be important, so I saved my work and swiveled my chair.

“I think Marie-Grace and Cecile Rey must have lived before that guy whose holiday is on Monday,” she said. “He said you shouldn’t separate black and white people, and Marie-Grace and Cecile Rey had to go to different balls because they were different colors.”

She paused. “That’s dumb,” she said.

Out of the mouths of babes.

I remember the first time the Maiden noticed skin color. It was at a time when she was obsessed with color in general. Look, she has a pink shirt! Look, her hair is yellow like mine! Look, his pants are blue! Look, his eyes are green!

Skin color commentary was inevitable.

Dealing with kids and race relations involves quite a bit of trepidation. We want to say enough, but not too much. We don’t want to make a big deal about it–they already say enough embarrassing things in the checkout line at Target–but race relations is a big deal, so we don’t want to completely gloss over it, either.

I agreed with the Maiden: the person did have a different skin color than she did. And Mommy had red hair, and hers was yellow. And everyone in our family had different-colored eyes. And look, that man had a purple shirt! Colors are fun, aren’t they?

It’s easy to deflect a two-year-old from getting hung up on race and color. It’s as they get older that more difficult questions come up.

Reading has been the source of most of our best discussions. The context of story gives us something concrete to hold onto when we’re discussing something that’s hard to grasp even for grown-ups.

Little House on the Prairie launched a fabulous talk about white settler/Native American relations. Age four was pretty young to figure out this stuff, but we laid a foundation. Now Meet Marie-Grace offered the setting for a discussion not just about race but also about civil disobedience. And someday, we’ll talk about Huck Finn–the original, unsanitized version–and all the issues and attitudes that she’ll encounter there.

But all in good time. Gradually maturity will bring greater understanding, and perhaps a few insights that cut through the density of my own generation. Time will tell, but I’m convinced good books will remain a life support for getting us through the biggest issues.

As for Marie-Grace and Cecile? They swapped costumes and attended each other’s parties. Something silly like skin color wasn’t going to keep them from laissez les bons temps rouler!

Martin Luther King, Jr., would definitely have approved.

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