Growing up in a neighborhood where street games were prevalent, I never could get used to be being the last one selected for my neighborhood’s weekly cul-de-sac dodgeball game. DeMarcus Jones thought I was cute, but not cute enough to make his team lose, so he always picked me last. I spent hours one winter practicing my catch, so I could prove myself worthy of at least a third or fourth round pick. My dad would throw the rubber ball hard against my chest, “Come on, Avery. I know you can do better than that. Stop closing your eyes. The ball is going to hit your face and then you’ll never make a team ‘cause you’ll be blind.” He’d laugh, and of course, I’d be frustrated, but from those practicing sessions, I grew to be a coveted member of my street’s team.
Why do I mention any of this? Only because I think it parallels the situation we all find ourselves, wanting to be chosen, to be good enough, to be noticed, to be loved. I imagine my story is nothing like the pain Topsy endured, but I wanted to create a doll that any little child would chose to have on their team; a doll they wouldn’t mind joining the ranks of all the others lined across their beds. Historically, Topsy never got the pleasure of such representation in visual or doll form, and certainly not consistently within the text. What’s more, she is one of the least beloved characters of the time, finding disdain even in the black community. To the world, Topsy was a mockery, a theatre piece, and economic exploitation for white audiences, and a thorn in the back of progressive black artists who wanted to use self-expression and education as means of community uplift.
Stowe’s sentimentality was intentional. She wanted to create characters that her white readership would sympathize with- characters that bounced off the page and who were worthy of emotional consideration. It is no surprise that this work became theatre production and movie and traveling show and music. To some extent, she was successful in changing the psyche of a divided nation, or at the very least, adding fire to the time’s debate, but her work quickly became popularized as mere entertainment. Topsy became popularized as mere entertainment, so I had to keep asking myself, “How successful was Stowe really?”
Creating Topsy in the image I desired became impossible when I considered both my skill set and budget. Who would have thought making a doll would be too ambitious? Materials were not at the ready, I had no idea how to sew prior to this mission, and certainly no knowledge of how to make yarn into hair- hair that wouldn’t scare onlookers away. What started as a mission for a complete re-imagining, deviated into a scenario where I all I wanted was a finished product that somewhat resembled a doll. In all seriousness, I could not be more proud of my final product, but I am very aware of areas the project could improve. I’ll get there a little later.
More than her doll form, the most striking aspect of this project was the research. I think we were all aware images of Topsy were not exactly becoming. But the minstrel songs associated with her character brought tears to my eyes. They were written to make fun of the beatings she received, how violently she was knocked around. Set to uptempo banjo music, a performer sang these songs, an audience laughed, money was made, and Topsy became a caricature far beyond the scope of Harriet Beecher Stowe. A little girl was depicted in an animalistic fashion with no one to protect her body or spirit. At some point, her pain was made into performance material. What does that mean for black children? With a long-standing history of violent misrepresentation, I felt it necessary to assert that we create our own images of ourselves. I wanted a Topsy doll that no one could laugh at, an intimate character that passed between the hands of children who wanted nothing more than to love on the fictional creatures they deemed worthy of their deepest and sweetest and secrets. I wanted Tospy to have some sort of love. It’s crazy to consider that she isn’t even real. Stowe’s genius imagery coupled with a time drenched in sentimentality, in addition to our current sensitivities, produced for me a living child. Topsy personifies survival via defiance, wit, and art form. I can’t understand how she became such a performance, but I’ll leave that thread there.
What I ended with models itself after the Topsy-Turvy doll of the 1930s. There are hundreds of these figurines in antiques shops across the country. They feature two opposing characters in one doll form. One simply has to turn the doll inside out to access the other face. Most of these figurines have a black and white side- the white being the more attractive of the two. It was important for me to create a form of Topsy that had no alternative. There would be no flipping of the doll to the white (better) side, but rather a single character with plush hair, fashionable clothes, and a welcoming countenance. My doll certainly looks homemade, much like Topsy Turvy dolls of the time, though I would not admit to that being purposeful. If I had better resources, she’d be slightly more polished with a nose, ears, earrings, and more brightly colored clothes. I had intended to use real human hair, but it turn out, sewing hair onto the fabric I used for her skin is pretty difficult so I stuck with yarn. It would have been nice to find more like like eyes, perhaps with pupils, but the buttons sewed best onto Topsy’s skin as well. The nice thing about her wearing a dress is that at first glance, you won’t notice how one foot is slightly larger than the other or that some of my stitches hardly hold the skin together. At any rate, her cotton ball stuffing makes her plush and squeezable.
Additions: My initial presentation included some songs I had written to counter the minstrel sounds of the time. I would love to do a deeper study of the music and lyrics associated with Topsy, recreating those songs into something less of a mockery. My start at that project is found within my work in progress blog. Ultimately, I would like to see a Topsy take-over in a prominent museum space. Life-size depictions of art in which she is represented would be hung all around, but as you journey through the exhibit, you might see videos of actresses dressed in blackface playing Topsy in some production and listening to the laugher of audience members. As you progress, the images might focus more on black artists and their contributions to the minstrel genre and even from there, more progressive black artists whose work was influenced by the minstrel period but who found ways to better empower the black body through performance. The final stop of the exhibit would be the Topsy doll on a pedestal singing these haunting/re-worked minstrel songs. Surrounding her would be the bodies of hundreds of other black dolls waiting to be loved and appreciated. Perhaps, museum goers could take one of the dolls as their own to love on and raise up in a way Topsy never got the chance to experience. This is a far reaching idea with no real permanence, but I would like to pay homage to the little girl whose literary legacy is still impacting the black imagination and the ways in which performance can debunk stereotypes or uphold them.
This project did, however, leave me fearful. Another Topsy representation has been created. Fine. It’s done. It was fun, but what might my contribution add to this character’s history? One hundred years from now, what will people be saying about the text? Will, yet another doll, impact a new frame of thought? Probably not. Moving forward, I would like to critically examine the ways we immortalize texts and their characters, the ways we “contribute” to centuries long arguments. At what point do we stop, look back, and say, “It is finished.” As times shift, the text will read differently, my doll will be considered differently, etc. I only ask myself to be more careful and more critical in projects such as these. The goal is not for some profound argument to shake Stowe’s pages, but it is to single out a representation that might provide healing to the certain communities if examined with fresh curiosity.