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A Life of Faith — and slavery

American Girl Dolls and the American Girl organization have been in the news lately, primarily because of the flack received from the bible-beater American Family Association. Parent company Mattel in response severed its association with the pro-feminist Girls Inc.

I’m sure Donald Wildmon and his fringe AFA element have no such problem with A Life of Faith and its collection of dolls, books and other wallet-draining products “where you will find role models that help girls imagine and experience a lifestyle of faith.”

I laud this group in a way for attempting to tackle slavery in a context that young girls can understand through dolls and books, but the romanticization of this period on this site in general is extremely disturbing, though mostly it makes me sad. I don’t think there’s any good way to deal with this issue (race and the legacy of slavery is such a third rail topic, even on the Left), but you can’t help wondering what the demographics are of the people that buy into the Life of Faith product line when you read the promotional material.

After all, the Addy doll in the American Girl series deals with Addy and her mother escaping to freedom (based on what’s on the site), apparently skirting the issue of daily life as a slave. The Life of Faith series takes it head-on, for better or worse, obviously attempting to put the institution of slavery in the awkward context of how the darkies could tolerate being treated like animals. Well of course, it is because they had faith.

The Laylie Colbert Doll

The promotional copy for “Laylie’s Plantation Accessories“:
Laylie keeps the hot Southern sun off her face with this wide-brimmed “Sunbonnet Sue” bonnet trimmed in blue gingham ribbon. Like many plantation dwellers, she often carries her belongings in a “sugar sack”—a burlap or muslin bag, screen printed with the identifying design of her plantation. She carries her own tiny black Bible in it.

The marketing copy for Laylie:
While working at Roselands, Laylie’s Christian friend, Millie Keith, let Laylie choose a gown from her personal wardrobe. Laylie chose Millie’s pink printed cotton party dress with ruffles and tiny ribbon flowers at the waist. A plaid sash ties at the back, and bows of the same ribbon adorn the sleeves. Laylie also comes with lacy pantalettes, a petticoat, leather sandals, and her little black Bible. This faith-based, special edition playdoll is 18 3/4″ tall, all-vinyl, and fully-jointed so she can be posed in many positions.


Grateful little Laylie got a hand-me-down dress from Miss Millie, who “is fully-jointed so she can sit, stand, and be posed in many positions. She can even put her hands together to pray!”

It’s eye-opening to see the prism through which the folks at Life of Faith see the historical period that these dolls “inhabit.” You can find this in the Millie’s backstory and the charmed bio of the slaveowner’s daughter, Elsie Dinsmore, the flagship character. There are books that you can buy, like the American Girls series, that are companions to the dolls to flesh out history (and provide opportunities for parents to spend even more money, of course). From “Elsie’s World”…

The Dinsmores are fortunate to live near a church which they can attend each week. But in more remote areas, Christian worship was observed at home, and families welcomed the occasional visit of clergymen, sometimes called “circuit riders,” who traveled the countryside on horseback. Plantation-owners were expected to attend to the spiritual needs of their slaves and sometimes employed clergy to conduct services.

At the time this book begins, slavery was accepted economic and social reality in the Antebellum South. Well-to-do planters with large estates, such as the senior Mr. Horace Dinsmore, “owned” many African-American slaves who were regarded as private property. The workers who plowed and planted and harvested the crops were the “field slaves,” while “house servants” tended to the needs of the owner, his family, and the large plantation houses.

A master could do much as he pleased to discipline his slaves and could sell his slaves at any time, often separating families in the process. Although the planter’s control was nearly absolute, the law regulated the master-slave relationship to some extent. For example, it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write, so Aunt Chloe, who is Elsie’s nursemaid, probably learns her Bible by memorizing what she hears.

While many Southerners and Southern churches abhorred slavery and sought to abolish its practice, the right to own slaves was not officially ended in all the United States until the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

By the way, you can also learn more about about Manners & Courtship in Elsie’s World.

In the area of the site devoted to slave girl Laylie’s backstory, there is a section called How we know what slavery was like, which, to be fair, does not completely whitewash the realities of slavery. The history pages also address the role of Christianity — and the threat to the white power structure with the development of the black church and its ties to black literacy and ultimately freedom. It’s simplistic, but it’s there. It’s the one section on the site that seems more grounded in reality than the rest of the marketing material designed to make little girls feel good about owning and playing with a slave doll.

The Elsie and Mildred portions of the web site are quite full-featured, yet poor Laylie’s “Club” page has only the following message:

Thanks for visiting the Laylie Club. We’re sorry that this portion of our web site is not available until further notice. Until then, please visit the following links to the Elsie Club and Millie Club and enjoy the fellowship, devotions, and other great ideas made available there.

What’s that about. Did readers leave negative feedback on the page? Is there just not a lot of interest in the Laylie doll — I wonder why.

I could rail on about this, but there’s really no point — if there’s a market for this sort of thing, then someone will provide it — that’s the American way, right? It’s just like entering a parallel universe, an alternate, faith-based version of history and reality.

***

One side note — it’s clear that the Life of Faith organization has concerns that its dolls are made over in China, where sweatshop labor borders on slavery. It attempts to address this little problem in the FAQ on the site.

Why are your dolls manufactured in China?
Companies in the United States are no longer able to manufacture vinyl dolls at a reasonable cost. We could not even find a U.S. manufacturer that was willing and able to do our production given our desire to price the dolls at a reasonable retail level. Since U.S. manufacturing was not a viable option, we searched for companies
outside the U.S. that we could trust to create our products to our high quality standards.

We share the concerns of many people about manufacturing in China, so it was only after a great deal of prayer and very careful investigation that we chose to manufacture in China. We believe that God led us to the Chinese company that is doing our doll manufacturing. We have traveled to China to meet with the owners. We talked with them and with many of their managers and factory workers. We toured the entire manufacturing plant. It was clean, bright, and comfortable-the atmosphere was much nicer than many factories in the U.S.

We also toured the associated facilities, including the dormitories/apartments where employees may live (at their option and at no charge), plus the kitchen, the dining rooms, the recreation rooms (which had game tables, game boards, big screen movies, and other fun activities), as well as the medical clinic. Free room and board and free medical care is provided for employees. Employees at the factory work 48 hours per week and there are no children working there. This factory meets international manufacturing and labor standards. By Chinese standards, the pay scale at this factory is higher than most so many people seek to work there. They have a week of vacation six times a year, and three weeks off in a row during Chinese New Year, when the entire nation goes home for the holidays and the factory is closed. The owners of this factory went to university in the U.S. and take great pride in their employees, the excellent craftsmanship of their products, and in their work environment.

One of the key managers we met who is employed by the factory as a production supervisor is a Chinese Christian. She says that she practices her Christianity daily within the manufacturing plant, with the blessing of the owners. (She has even read our A Life of Faith novels!) There are also other Christians working in this factory.

Finally, since we cannot be on-site ourselves during our manufacturing, we have in our employ an outside, independent agent who monitors our production at the factory on a regular basis and facilitates communication between us.

Thanks to Blender Nancy M. for the pointer.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding