Selling Topsy



By Yasmin Hartary

Originally published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains a popular and engaging novel that contributed to many anti-slavery protests. In the novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe introduces the character Topsy, a young slave girl. Her performance in the novel inspires a number of new Topsies that would appear across the country in different manners, particularly in theatrical performances. Without copyright protection for Stowe’s writing, theater produces and advertisers could manipulate Topsy into a dehumanized object used for profiting. This large poster of Topsy’s Recreation is one of the ways we can see how Topsy is transformed by the American theater. Unlike in the novel, her appearance in the advertisement is solely for profit rather than to educate and encourage anti-slavery movements[1]. Topsy’s construction into this commoditized item reveals how the American theater capitalized on her moments of forced comical relief in the novel to entertain large audiences and skew the understanding of black girlhood.

Topsy appears in the novel as a young slave girl recently gifted to Miss Ophelia. Topsy is to be trained, educated, and used for comical relief by her masters. Stowe describes Topsy as “one of the blackest of her race” and that “the expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a kind of veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity.”[2] In this same scene, St. Clare orders her to dance for her new mistress with a tone of delight in order to show her worth as a comedic object. Topsy agrees to her master’s command and in the scene is “spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing in her throat all those guttural sounds which distinguish the narrative of her race.”[3] Topsy does not question or hesitate to follow the command because even in her young age, she has already identified that refusal to comply will mean punishment. In addition, Stowe uses Eva, an “angelic” and “innocent” young white girl, to demonstrate the differences between young blacks girls from young white girls. Because of the innocence carried in Eva, Stowe contrasts her with Topsy to highlight the mistreatment between the girls and points out the difference in behavior of other characters when interacting with either Eva or Topsy. As historian Robin Bernstein points out in her book Racial Innocence, black girlhood is separated from white girlhood because it lacks the innocence and pain associated with slavery that many young black girls have to face.[4] In the novel, Topsy appears as a source of amusement, but also a child in need of guidance from her white mistress in order to be set on the path of righteousness.

During the late 1880s and early 1900s, theater directors commoditized Topsy by using black girlhood as a marketing tactic to attract more customers to ‘Tom Shows.’ The poster of Topsy reveals how the American theater encouraged a new understanding of black girlhood, one that highlighted a humorous aspect rather than address the unfair treatment of young black girls. The specific type of dancing Topsy did on stage, wild and uncontrollable with a limited number of lines, effortlessly pleased the audience and continued to be performed not just in ‘Tom shows’ but also in black minstrel shows.[5] The poster represents this connection to the audience by relaying the meaning that Topsy is still under the control of those in power. She is powerless against producers and advertisers who direct her to behave in specific, sellable ways that show less concern for her character and more attention to the increasing profits. From the poster we can clearly see that, although Topsy is a smiling young girl, she is still untamed as indicated by her dancing position and torn clothing. It is questionable, however, how much of a girl Topsy represents in this poster as her character itself looks more like an adult and less like a child, furthering removing her from her girlhood.

It is beneficial for ‘Tom Shows’ to advertise Topsy as wild because that type of behavior is humorous and increases the profits of the show. It is equally important to note that there is no other development or significance of the character. Unfortunately, due to the manipulation of Topsy’s character as solely comedic, the knowledge and identity of what it means to be a young black girl to predominately white audiences is distorted. In addition, when using Topsy to highlight Eva, many audiences are made aware of the “disobediences” and “ill mannerisms” of young black children, particularly girls. Furthermore, Topsy appears as “damaged goods” because of this negative portrayal of black girlhood.[6] The creators of these ‘Tom Shows’ are singling out the negativity of blackness by contrasting it to the innocence of whiteness and the tools for this portrayal are found in the interactions and mannerisms of Topsy versus Eva.

Topsy’s ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘wild’ demeanor falsifies young black girls experiences and further increases the likelihood of generalizing and stereotyping black girls. Her representation alone in the poster is self-evident that Topsy made enough profit for the ‘Tom Show’ creators to stand alone in marketing tactics. The big red poster catches your attention and promises a show filled with laughter based on Topsy’s portrayed happiness and dancing. The visual representation of Topsy suggests the elimination of girlhood by making her character look more like an adult than a child. This manipulation of Topsy creates an unconscious understanding that all young black girls are happy, despite their circumstances, which produces a generalization that is detrimental to the history of black girlhood.

[1] Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy’s Recreation, 1910, Erie Litho. Co., Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 338.

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 339.

[4] Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 20.

[5] Jo-Ann Morgan, Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 50.

[6] Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 15.