Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT
Transcription of Chapter 19
One morning, while Miss Ophelia was busy in some of her domestic cares, St. Clare’s voice was heard, calling her at the foot of the stairs.
“Come down here, Cousin, I’ve something to show you.”
“What is it?” said Miss Ophelia, coming down with her sewing in her hand.
“I’ve made a purchase for your department; see here,” said St. Clare; and, with the word, he pulled along a little negro girl, about eight or nine years of age.
She was one of the blackest of her race, and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth, half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new mass’r’s parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. 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. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging, and stood with her hands demurely folded before her. Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance—something, as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, “so heathenish,” as to inspire that good lady with utter dismay; and turning to St. Clare, she said—
“Augustine, what in the world have you brought that thing here for?”
“For you to educate, to be sure, and train in the way she should go. I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line. Here, Topsy,” he added, giving a whistle, as a man would, to call the attention of a dog, “give us a song, now, and show us some of your dancing.”
The black, glassy eyes glittered with a kind of wicked drollery, and the thing struck up, in a clear, shrill voice, an odd negro melody, to which she kept time with her hands and feet, spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing in her throat all those odd guttural sounds which distinguish the native music of her race; and finally, turning a summerset or two, and giving a prolonged closing note, as odd and unearthly as that of a steam whistle, she came suddenly down on the carpet, and stood with her hands folded, and a most sanctimonious expression of meekness and solemnity over her face, only broken by the cunning glances which she shot askance from the corners of her eyes.
Miss Ophelia stood silent, perfectly paralyzed with amazement.
[Continue reading the full text of chapter 19, here.]
Commentary by David Reynolds
Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
This chapter introduces us to one of the most memorable characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy, who exemplifies Stowe’s strategy of redirecting images from a popular entertainment form of her day, the minstrel show, toward a protest against slavery. Minstrel performers were whites who smeared their faces with burnt cork and spoke in an exaggerated version of what was considered the dialect of the “plantation darkey” (Jim Crow) or the “northern dandy negro” (Zip Coon). Earlier in the novel, Stowe had described Eliza Harris’s young son, Harry, who is called by his master “Jim Crow,” cutting capers and singing a humorous song. But behind the apparent fun are pathos and imminent tragedy. The comic performer is not a white man in blackface but an enslaved child whose innocence makes his prospect of being sold away from his mother truly alarming.
Topsy also illustrates Stowe directing minstrel devices toward an exposure of the cruelties of slavery. At first glance, Topsy seems to have walked straight off the minstrel stage into the novel. St. Clare presents her as “rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line.” At his command, she does a weird dance that involves contortions, spinning, clapping, and making guttural sounds. Topsy becomes noted in the household for “every species of drollery, grimace, and mimicry,–for dancing, tumbling, climbing, singing, whistling, imitating every sound that hit her fancy.” Her behavior recalls the antics that Thomas Dartmouth Rice (the original “Jim Crow” of the minstrel stage) had introduced in the 1830s with his trademark bizarre dance step, later developed by popular minstrel troupes who gyrated, made funny faces, and sang nonsense songs, driving their white audiences wild with hilarity. It’s understandable that when the Topsy character was later developed in Tom shows, minstrel acts, and films, she became a stock figure of wild silliness, the ancestor of slapstick comedians.
In the novel, she possesses minstrel-like qualities along with far richer qualities. Her rebellious naughtiness typifies minstrelsy, as does the racial stereotyping associated with her ignorance. But within Stowe’s apparently amusing depiction of Topsy are powerful messages about slavery, religion, and racial prejudice. Topsy is a vehicle for Stowe’s idea that enslaved blacks, even when they were thoroughly dehumanized, are capable of profound human feeling that can obliterate racial barriers. When Topsy announces that she “never was born” but “just grow’d,” we laugh, but on another level we feel the same kind of pity that we feel for Frederick Douglass, who reports in his Narrative that as a child he, like many other enslaved blacks, was barred from knowing basic facts such as his birthday or the identity of his father. Our pity grows when Topsy courts punishment by stealing small household items. She expects to be whipped. “I spects it’s good for me,” she says. She jokes about Ophelia’s feeble lashings, which she says “‘wouldn’t kill a skeeter,’” and adds, “‘Oughter see how old Mas’r made the flesh fly; old Mas’r know’d how!’” This is comical but at the same time appalling. Repeated torture has inured this child to the horror of the slaveholder’s whip.
[Continue reading the full text of David Reynolds’ commentary here.]
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