Meet Rebecca de Schweinitz, BYU’s own historical adviser for American Girl’s newest doll, Melody Ellison — a young black girl living in Detroit during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement.
De Schweinitz, an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, is the author of If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality. She has studied children and youth in the Civil Rights Movement for years, and her current research focuses on the voting age and youth in politics from World War II to the mid-1970s.
After coming across de Schweinitz’s book, a research historian for American Girl contacted de Schweinitz to assist them in the creation of Melody. De Schweinitz advised American Girl on the doll itself, the doll’s accessories, and the accompanying American Girl books that are included with the purchase of the doll, detailing the life of Melody.
De Schweinitz recently talked with University Communications’ Amanda Chase to discuss her role on the American Girl advisory board, Melody’s story and the impact it can have on youth today.
Amanda Chase: What was the advisory committee’s process in developing Melody and her story?
Rebecca de Schweinitz: The advisory committee discussed some of the possibilities for Melody’s story, ideas for issues they’d like to see explored, and ways of approaching these topics. We first met in Detroit to brainstorm and share ideas, and to respond to ideas American Girl’s “Melody Team” had come up with. Melody’s story tackles some hard issues in history. At that initial meeting it was important for us to really talk about what might be most important for young people to understand about this time and place and about how Melody and her stories might open up the history of the Civil Rights Movement to kids in ways that are appropriate for their age. We also talked a lot about what Melody would look like—her skin and hair and clothes. And we talked about some of the fun accessories that might go along with her. Later we came together on conference calls to discuss the character’s development, met again at American Girl headquarters, and offered feedback on various drafts of the books. Sometimes folks on the American Girl team would contact specific board members about issues or details especially pertinent to our individual areas of expertise and experience.
AC: How were your contributions unique?
RDS: A lot of my specific input in the story drafts related to my research on children and youth in the Civil Rights Movement. So I especially gave advice about how “this fits” or “this doesn’t fit” with the ways kids or young people would’ve responded to situations and events and with the kinds of contributions they would’ve been making. I generally helped to tweak the story so that it’s more authentic to the period and the civil rights movement history in general, and especially to young people and what they were doing and how they were responding to what was happening. I don't’ want to give anything away in the books so maybe I’ll just share that I had some specific input, for instance, on Melody’s exploration of black history. In the story, Langston Hughes visits Detroit — which really happened during that time — and Melody and some of her friends are reading his books and others’ about black history. American Girl wanted to feature literature that black kids were actually reading at the time period, so I said, “here are some possibilities that we might include,” and suggested some specific titles and things that I know kids were reading at the time and that they were inspired by. Also, Rosa Parks makes an appearance in the books, and I offered some advice on how to make sure she’s portrayed in a way that’s authentic to who she was and what she contributed — and that moves away a little bit from popular images of Rosa Parks, but really captures a little of her true story.
AC: Why this story of Melody so important today?
RDS: American Girl has been wanting to do a civil rights character for a long time. It’s something that American Girl fans have asked for. They took their time developing her because they wanted to do it right, and they knew that this was really important history to incorporate and to tackle. This new character happens to emerge at a moment in which we have considerable racial tensions in American society, and so I think that makes her even more valuable for opening up discussions and opening up new perspectives and points of understanding. We see Melody and her family struggling with some of the less visible points of discrimination and racism — that are still around today. We see differential treatment by business owners to her and her family, differential treatment from the police, racial discrimination in housing and employment — some of the more subtle, kind of harder-to-tackle issues of racism that makes Melody’s story really timely.
AC: What advice do you have to parents in integrating Melody’s story into conversations with their children?
RDS: I think the books do a fantastic job of introducing kids to this history and getting them to think about racial issues and about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I think it offers some great points where parents can help their kids think about “what would this feel like?” or “what do you think about Melody’s response to what’s happening?” For some kids Melody’s stories are going to offer a reflection of their own, or their family’s, experiences and their own, or their family’s, history. And for many other readers, they will offer a window into a world that they may not know very much about. These stories can offer some opportunities for developing empathy and understanding of this history, and what it feels like to experience racism and discrimination.
AC: What are some lessons that you hope children take away from Melody’s story?
RDS: There are some great lessons about how to overcome obstacles and how we can learn from the past and those who have gone before. There’s a great moment in one of the books that talks about how Melody comes to understand that she is standing on the shoulders of those who came before. She gains confidence that she can overcome the challenges she’s facing as she thinks about the ways that her parents, grandparents and people of her race have overcome obstacles in the past. I think that’s a really powerful message. I love in the story that Melody comes to understand the role she can play in making change. She’s kind of this quiet, shy girl who’s not totally comfortable in traditional positions of leadership but she comes to see that leadership is most importantly about recognizing the talents of others and helping facilitate and bring together different people. Her friends have different talents and she realizes she can help them and that together they can build something really beautiful and meaningful. Leadership is not just about being in charge, it’s about recognizing the gifts and abilities of others and facilitating their development and inclusion. There are a lots of other great lessons — about the strength of families, about friendship, about judging others, about what you do with fear, about so many important things.
AC: How can Melody’s story be empowering for young people?
RDS: I’ve wanted, in my research, to show how young people mattered in history. Melody’s story helps to demonstrate some of the ways that young people contributed to the civil rights movement and, I hope, shows that young people matter today — that they can make a change today. Children and youth matter in history. They’re political actors. They have made and can make a difference. I try to teach my students to have a sense that they can do something — now, not just in the future. One of the things that I talk about in my book is that young people have a different sense of possibility. They have grown up in different circumstances, with different constraints, often fewer constraints than their elders, and so that opens them up to envision a more open society. They can see possibility where sometimes adults run up against their sense of limitations. I hope that young people will be inspired by Melody and look for ways to make a difference and change in whatever issue or area of life they feel passionate about. I hope they recognize, like Melody and her family, that there are all sorts of ways to make change and that different talents can be brought together to make a difference.