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An American Girl Tale

Marie-Grace and Cécile, and a little-known history of race in America.

Catherine Langston writes about rushing out to buy Marie-Grace and Cécile dolls from the popular American Girls collection, after she heard that they would be discontinued. Excerpt:

Set in 1850s New Orleans, the story behind this “friendship pair” is that of the daughter of a white do-gooder doctor newly arrived in the city, Marie-Grace Gardner, who gradually becomes friends with wealthy Creole Cécile Rey, and the two go on to have a variety of learning adventures.

I don’t know any more specifics than what I learned from the blurbs in the catalogues, because my own daughter was too young at that point for the American Girl historical character dolls. But oh how I loved the fact that the stories were set in New Orleans, the city where I’d gone to college for four years, and a complicated place indeed. I loved the costumes with their Empress Eugénie skirts, the mosquito net covered beds, and lacy iron chairs.

And perhaps most of all, I loved the narrative of inter-cultural friendship. In keeping with both the particulars of New Orleans itself and the unspoken complexities of race relations in America, it reached beyond our standard —and greatly separated—narratives of Black and White toward recognition of the new and multiracial America dawning before us.

When I heard during the spring of 2014 that “AG,” as online doll collectors refer to American Girl, had decided to retire Marie-Grace and Cécile entirely as part of a revamped marketing campaign for the historical characters, it occurred to me that perhaps the rest of America had not quite been ready for the new and multiracial America that their introduction had represented.

My daughter Nora has Marie-Grace and Cécile. When Nora asked for American Girls, we acquired that pair because they’re both Louisianians, and we thought they would offer a way for Nora to feel some sort of emotional connection to the history of the state (we were living in Philly when the first of the two, Marie-Grace, came in). I remember thinking that this friendship between the white girl and the Creole girl must be a sentimental invention, though it was one I was willing to work with to teach Nora something about friendship across the racial divide.

I didn’t, in fact, educate myself about the history of race relations in New Orleans, so that I could teach my daughter something about it through her dolls. I satisfied myself that through having a black doll to play with, Nora would absorb a lesson about equality. Nora stopped playing with her American Girl dolls some time ago, and I had forgotten about them myself — until this summer, when I spent time researching New Orleans history. It turns out that the Marie-Grace/Cécile situation wasn’t as implausible as I first thought.

The history of the races in New Orleans is complicated; I’m not aware of anywhere else on the North American continent where it was like it was there. It has everything to do with the fact that slavery in south Louisiana was instituted by French and Spanish colonists, not English ones. The Latins had a different view of race relations than the Anglos did. To be sure, they were still slavers, but the slave society that emerged out of Franco-Hispanic colonization was more, well, Creole. When he visited New Orleans, Tocqueville speculated that the race-mixing that resulted in a light-skinned Creole class there had to do with the fact that the French and Spanish colonists who came over did so as single men looking to make their fortunes. If they were going to take wives, or at least sexual partners, they were likely to be with black women. The English colonists, on the other hand, came primarily seeking religious liberty, and came with their families. Whether or not Tocqueville was right in this analysis, it was certainly true that the shortage of European women in the French colony gave rise to the practice of plaçagecommon-law marriages between white men and black women, and in some cases, the subsequent freeing from slavery of children born of their sexual union.

The slaves in Louisiana were under the French crown’s “Code Noir,” a law that governed the slave trade and master-slave relations in the French colonies. It was an incredibly cruel document, of course, but it set conditions that differed from English forms of slavery in a crucial way: it provided for the possibility that slaves could be freed and made into naturalized subjects of the French crown. This meant that slaves under French rule had more freedoms than slaves under Anglo-American rule. The Code Noir obtained even after New Orleans went to Spanish governance. Under it, there arose the “free people of color,” a third class of people in New Orleans. They could own property (some owned black slaves) and had rights that black slaves did not have. Whites and Creoles (free people of color) mixed freely. In 1831, on his short stay in New Orleans, Tocqueville wrote:

“Evening at the theatre. . . . Strange spectacle offered by the chamber. First stalls (loge) white, second grey, coloured women, very pretty, white ones among them, but a remainder of African blood. Third stalls black. Audience, we think ourselves in France, noisy, uproarious, turbulent, talkative, a thousand leagues away from the United States. We leave at ten. Quadroon ball. Strange sight: all the men are white, all the women coloured, or at least of African blood.

What’s historically and sociologically interesting about that is that blacks (as distinct from colored people) were permitted to attend the theater in New Orleans. I presume they were free, but not of mixed racial blood. Reader JB, an American who lives in France, said in the comments thread on this blog the other day that French society has a different approach to race relations than American society does. I would love to know more about those fundamental differences. Obviously both societies practiced slavery, but I would like to know why one had more liberal views on racial mixing than the other.

When the Americans took control of the city in 1803, US laws and customs governing race and slavery took hold. To be honest, I can’t remember from my reading exactly how this went down, but it wasn’t sudden. It couldn’t have been, if Tocqueville, nearly thirty years after the Louisiana Purchase, was attending balls and the theater with mixed-race audiences that were socially interacting. Nevertheless, as New Orleans became Americanized, the relatively progressive (relative, that is, to the conditions of non-whites in other American cities) situation of people of color in New Orleans began to change for the worse, reaching its nadir in the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896), in which the US Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s separate but equal laws. Plaintiff Homer Plessy was a New Orleans Creole. Decades later, it took another New Orleans Creole, civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, to lead the fight in the courts that would result in the steady destruction of Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws.

I don’t know where Nora’s Marie-Claire and Cécile dolls are now. I suspect they are packed away in a box somewhere, as yet unextricated from our recent move. But I’m going to make a point to find them and teach Nora a little real history.

UPDATE: Here’s an irony for you. Marie-Grace and Cécile’s friendship is set in the 1850s. To the extent that their friendship would have been possible, it is because they would have been American girls who are heirs to French culture, however debased by racism. The more American their daughters and granddaughters became, the less likely they would have been to have been friends. An intimate, cross-racial friendship between a girl of color and a white girl in 1850s New Orleans would have been far less likely by 1900 New Orleans, and all but unheard of in 1950s New Orleans. Am I wrong?