Happy birthday, Vivienne!

The birthday of one of my favorite (sh, don’t tell anyone!) girls. Miss Vivienne Devereux of course began life as a Cecile, and there are times I briefly consider returning her to that era. But then I recall how precious she looks in Georgian fashions and she remains where she is.

I managed to get pictures of Vivienne in our first real snow of the year and she looks gorgeous! Even though he would not have been too familiar with snow, either in Haiti or New Orleans.

This doll was actually a 6am purchase at one of (if not the?) first Jill’s Steals and Deals. A friend and I got up at the crack of dawn to make our purchases, and then my two girls went into hibernation in the closet until they could be gifts from my husband. This particular girl was my Christmas gift the first Christmas after we married, when it was just the two of us staying home for the holidays. She spent a day in her meet dress and then I began to sew.

I was so nervous about getting a pretty doll. This mold during Cecile’s time had an issue with a sort of pinched face where the eyes are too close together. Not great. But without the issue, what an absolutely gorgeous doll!

I’ve also had a great time researching Vivienne’s story. I knew I wanted to keep her in a wealthy family, but didn’t want to do a direct copy of Cecile’s story. I became particularly interested in the complicated racial history of Haiti, where gens de couleur meant Haiti had the largest population of wealthy, free people of color in the Caribbean. They owned land and even slaves, despite there being many strict laws limited their freedoms. Then the French revolution shook things up for all French colonies, and the spirit or revolution struck Haiti. In 1790, the National Assembly in Paris, after intense lobbying, agreed with the gens de couleur in Haiti that they too were citizens of France under the new revolutionary law. However, the French governor of Haiti refused to recognize this, and the gens de couleur refused to either free or arm their slave to help revolt, and so this rebellion was defeated.

img_2068However, a much bigger revolt was on the horizon. In August 1791, the first slave rebellion occurred, marking the beginning of the revolution. Because of the types of crops and method of running plantations on the island, slaves greatly outnumbered whites, creating an important power imbalance when the rebellions began. In an attempt to stabilize the colony and maintain French control, emancipation spread throughout the colony, and was actually outlawed in France and French colonies in short order. However, many slave owners in Haiti –both white and gens de couleur— refused to recognize these proclamations. They allied with the British, who attempted a full-scale invasion of Haiti, but were driven back by the armed and freed slaves of the island, including famous leader Toussant Louverture (one of my favorite names in history). Louverture went on to conquer the remaining colonies of Haiti and Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo. Though Louverture did not call for independence from France, his control of the island was independent enough that Napoleon sent an invasion force to strengthen French control. Louverture was captured and deported to France where he died of pneumonia while imprisoned. Meanwhile word got out that the gens de couleur were set to lose the rights they’d won only a decade earlier and slavery was to be restored. What followed was a horrifically brutal war in which the French did all manner of terrible things in the name of reconquering the island. The Haitian soldiers held their own though, and when at last France entered a separate war with Britain so that their forces were divided, Haiti succeeded in defeating the French and declaring independence. Most of the remaining French loyalist left (mostly for Louisiana or Cuba). Those that didn’t leave were slaughtered by the new leader, Dessalines (several thousand people.)

SO I realize that was a long history lesson, but I have always been fascinated by revolution. For a length of time when I was younger, I thought I’d go into formal studies specifically of revolutions (but what do you do with that degree)? Instead I will just be fascinated and explore those historyies with doll characters!

First photo of Vivienne and still probably my favorite. Maybe I ought to move her to Charleston just so she’d have an actual reason to wear warmer clothes so often because she looks great in them!

So what does that long hitory mean specifically for Miss Vivienne Cecile Devereux? Vivienne was born into a wealthy family in Saint-Domingue. Her father is a gens de couleur who works for his father on his plantation –his father being a white Frenchman who married a black Haitian woman whom he loves dearly. Vivienne’s mother died when she younger, but was of African descent, the daughter of a seamstress and a sailor. As the Haitian rebellions kick off, her father feels it’s time to remove his family to safety, so he, Vivienne, and her older sister Marguerite move to New Orleans. Vivienne’s older brother Girard feels like their father is a coward abandoning their people in favor of his French white heritage, and so takes off to become a pirate attacking French ships for supplies for the rebels.


In New Orleans, Vivienne’s father takes a second wife, which is the last breach between Girard and their father. She has two young children of her own –a young son and daughter. Soon violence against French whites in the colony drives Vivienne’s paternal grandparents to New Orleans as well. They blame Vivienne’s father for not sending Girard or Marguerite to school in France and are trying to convince him to send Vivienne. They also make no secret that they vastly prefer this new wife (who is not an aristocrat but is also mixed race and comes from a well-off family) to Vivienne’s mother, though they do not like that he married a woman with children from a previous marriage. Vivienne as a child already has to come to terms not just with complicated race and class issues within her home country and her new country, but even within her family.

IMG_0251I continue to tweak pieces of Vivienne’s story as I learn more about this time in Haitian, French, and American history. I’m in awe of people who had to fight so hard for their independence and civil rights, and heartbroken by the poverty and natural disasters that continue to plague the country of Haiti. Having dolls that represent time periods like this that explore the strength and bravery of people of color is so important and something I wish American Girl did more regularly. The history of the Americas is not just a white history, and the fact that our history curriculum focuses mostly on white history is unacceptable. I try to be respectful and sincere in my creation of non-white historical characters and hope that even if I have missteps here and there (as a white woma learning about non-white cultures) it can be an area of growth and learning.

IMG_1421So I’m happy to take a day to celebrate this culturally rich, brave girl I created from a beautiful doll created by American Girl. I can’t wait to do the same thing with the Girl of the Year in a few weeks –yes, the first and only black Girl of the Year that American Girl is dropping the ball on in such an egregious way. I’m not sure in what way reminding people that it was a rush job is supposed to be an acceptable excuse… anyway, that’s a whole rant itself that I will make when the time is right.

For now, happy birthday, Vivienne! You’ve helped me learn a great deal about Haiti and its people’s fight for independence. And in return, I will continue to make you a beautiful wardrobe.


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