The black slave child is imaginative, insightful, and acutely observant. To be presented as anything but detracts from the humanity of the child. Topsy is a product of that detraction as our initial and sustained impression of her is as a performer. Her presence is consistently dramatic, meant to entertain, and fleeting. Topsy is lost to us the minute she enters the book’s world, a character whose script remains guarded and whose trajectory is marked by the saintliness of a white child and not her own talent or volition.
Historical visualizations of Topsy present her as muscular, big-lipped, clownish, and wild-haired. I was interested in remolding her character from object of abuse to a visualization of comfort or, at the very least, relatability. Abolitionist authors, at the time, sought to create writing that allowed for “deadened” Americans to feel the suffering of the slave. Stowe’s intent to create literary impressions is based on a theory called “sentimental wounds” in which graphics and language are so vivid that the reader experiences the same pain as that present in the book. It called readers to use “intuition and imagination” to relate and even live inside the horror that plagued slaves.
Jackie Ormes was the first African American cartoonist, whose doll, Patty-Jo, was based on her prominent comic book character. Both the boxed doll and the paper-doll version of Patty-Jo were ushered into the market at a time when African American dolls were being created specifically for a black customer base. Up to that point, American African figurines served white consumption and entertainment, often depicting derogatory stereotypes. Patty-Jo was a physical symbol of the cartoon character whose entire comic platform centered socially relevant issues like education inequality, labor rights, and housing equity. Not only was she politically adept, she was incredibly stylish and well-groomed. Though she was only manufactured for two year, Patty-Jo paved the way for similar products. Because Harriet Beecher Stowe was so interested in graphics and representation, I thought it appropriate that Topsy’s newest form would be based on one graphic artist who sought to redefine the black image and consciousness in a visually striking manner.
Goals: My hope is to add to a long line of Topsy representations that span time and mindframes. My addition will be one of vulnerability with a special emphasis on Topsy behind the scenes, Topsy as a child caught in the circumstances of a world that decides there is no place for her.
Project: Topsy’s visualization will be in the form of a doll. My goal is to create a three dimensional figure, however, if I am unable to secure the necessary body foundation, she will be a two dimensional figure with three dimensional accessories. Moreover, her figure will be accompanied by audio pieces that engage the viewer/listener with the sides of Topsy not explicitly presented in the novel. If, when we encounter Topsy, she is most akin to a performer, this doll, is to represent a de-masked, reflective child who no longer performs, but wishes for or seeks her freedom beyond the slave dance.
In addition to both the visual and audio, I will include a trinket box. Within each drawer, a viewer might find a piece of clothing Topsy has stolen, a gift from Eva, or a pair of earrings. Topsy would have had a collection of procured items, items that she would have then called her own. Taking the object, one dimensional misnomer off her character, requires allowing her the right to possessions.
Significance: This work is especially significant as it has been clear, in my very young lifetime, that media and imagery impact the ways people are able to interact with one another. What more could be accomplished if we saw each other for who we truly are, in moments of “performance” as well as the quiet moments of reflection with pretenses aside. Topsy is a beautiful representation of what it means to be lost and misunderstood, but resilient with a creative survival. I want the sort of doll, little girls chose off the shelf, take home, explore with, research about, connect with when it’s time for bed and the lights are out. A doll that is beautiful and iconic for the time and the human experience of pain. This representation would hopefully grow into an Uncle Tom’s Cabin renaissance in which all of the characters are reimagined and displayed in their multidimensionality.
Further Research of Interest: The likes of Sigmund Freud and Richard Krafft-Ebing describe Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a book that lends itself to the fantasies of readers. Some patients interacting with the text received sexual, or at the very least, intense, excitement from reading scenes depicting master-slave relationships. Ebing stated the following, “the aim and end of all masochistic ideas is the unlimited power of life and death, as exercised over slaves and domestic animals.” Stowe’s writing is so vivid as to depict intensely intoxicating scenes that simulated life and death moments. Topsy is a child and while all descriptions of her are both memorable and detailed, I was disturbed at the thought of a reader, past or future, experiencing arousal at her story. It rubbed me the wrong way. Recreating her as an imagine/figurine is a desire to create something that doesn’t create a masochistic fantasy for a twisted reader with alarming preferences. I would like to consider further research about the psychological impact of Stowe’s piece to her white readership. Through this knowledge, perhaps, I could create a Topsy that causes arousal for empathy or curiosity versus sexual fantasies of power.
I’d also like to dig deeper into more recent re-imaginings of the character- ones like Kara Walker’s whose meanings and intent are not so clear to the viewer. Do they add to the stereotypical Topsy representation or offer more the a re-invented, empower character?
Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), 94-133.
Nancy Goldstein. Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008.