I have a confession. I purposefully keep my girls from getting involved in the American Girl craze. There are several reasons I could offer to explain myself, but I won’t make excuses. I love the brand, the empowerment it offers girls, and the history lessons it teaches. But can I be honest for a moment? The dolls are expensive and there aren’t very many dolls of color. I need to be able to leverage all the brand had to offer – books, films, online interactives, AND the doll – in order to invest that amount. OK, maybe I am being cheap. Sue me.
But the release of the newest character from American Girl changed my outlook. The story of Melody Ellison, a young African American girl growing up in Detroit during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement is the perfect way to help me teach my 9 and 11-year-old daughters what it means to be black in America.
My family was super excited to watch the Melody 1963: Love Has To Win on Amazon Video. It’s a story of perseverance, hard work, and disappointment, but most of all it’s a story of hope. We watched it together and had a short discussion about what we learned and how it affects our lives in the present.
The thing I loved most about the way Melody 1963 was told on screen are the subtle messages woven throughout the story. They are hidden in plain sight. So obvious, that my family overlooked most of them, and I bet you did too.
Messages You Missed: Frances Ellison was well educated
By day Frances Ellison worked in the textile industry taking inventory to make a living. By night, she played the piano in her home – beautifully. For some, playing a musical instrument is a gift; they can mimic what they’ve heard on the keys. What Frances possessed was a skill; one that she had to work hard to hone. She wasn’t just playing any music. She was playing classical concertos. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. And she wasn’t playing by ear either. She was reading the music, line by line, and note by note. She was taught to read music and play piano as a young African American woman probably in the 1940s or 50s. And she taught her daughter as well. Melody could not have been her mother’s page turner if she could not read music.
Messages You Missed: Melody went to an all-white school in Detroit
If you believed everything you hear on the news, you would think that the only people who ever lived in Detroit were African American. But here, in the middle of the Civil Rights Era, Melody attends an all-white school in Detroit. One that her mother worked hard to get her into so she could excel academically. It was just three years prior that another little girl walked through doors of an all-white school in New Orleans. Her name was Ruby Bridges. Even though “separate but equal” had been ruled unconstitutional nearly 10 years earlier, it was still practiced in many places. Including the school in Melody’s neighborhood. That wasn’t acceptable for Frances, even with the emotional stress it placed on Melody. In her mind, the benefits outweighed the challenges.
Messages You Missed: Melody is being raised by a single mother
The Ellison home consists of Melody, her mother Frances, and her grandfather Frank. Melody’s father is not there. He died, serving his country in the military. Set during the Civil Rights Movement Era, many people sacrificed their lives and safety fighting for equal rights. In a moment of social consciousness Melody questions the validity of the words “one nation, under God, indivisible” and her patriotism is challenged. The irony in Melody’s story is her father died protecting freedoms and rights that he and she could not fully enjoy themselves.
There were so many other subtle messages woven into the masterful presentation of this American Girl story. I would love to hear the messages you saw when watching it. If you haven’t yet seen Melody’s story, you should watch it soon!
Were these three messages you missed? Were there others you took from it as well?