“But when rendered by racialized subjects, performances of Topsy(1) potentially bring alive a sense of the ability of farce to disrobe authority. Her self-denigrating antics are executed with a sly grin, suggesting the defiance behind them. As a non-person, as a manufactured product (raised in the pen) she steals and lies, disobeys orders with impunity. The system has created its own problems: how can property steal? How can an immoral heathen, not knowing the value of truth, be held accountable for lying? These trespasses in fact reveal the arbitrary lines drawn in law between truth and deception, theft and purchase....”(2) “There was power in the tactics of farcical disobedience developed by early black children performers. Looking at the character of Topsy in light of the histories of black children dancers, a version of Topsy can be understood as a way to read a quality of defiant and disruptive resilience in black expressive acts.” “The twisting body of the dancing girl is a reclaimable trope of black expressive transfiguration.”(3)
(1) Topsy is the name of a main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; she is written as a slave girl character who cannot be reasoned with, tameable only by her master’s whip. As a stage play, the role was specifically designed for white women in Blackface. Despite the stage plays of the book beginning in the 1850s, black women were barred from performing as Topsy until at least the 1880s.
(2) Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls; Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern 74 (1st ed. 2008)
(3) Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls; Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern 77 (1st ed. 2008)
57 x 101 inches || 145 x 257 centimeters
Oil on canvas
Curated by Kendra Jayne Patrick. Essay in Journal.