Lovecraft Country, those frightening girls, and a history of grotesque Black caricature.
This past week’s Lovecraft Country titled Jig-a-Bobo was a doozy. Lots happened in this episode. I mean LOTS. The backdrop was of all things the murder of Emmett Till, or better put the broken people and communities left behind. Till had been Dee’s (Diana Freeman’s) friend. And she is reeling from his senseless and violent death (in the wake of her father’s death and her mother’s disappearance) unable to even attend his funeral–where those who leave, sick up at the sight of Till’s corpse. In our real-life history, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley refused to have the mortician touch up his body, left bloated and grotesque by his murderers. She said she wanted an open casket funeral, so that everyone would see the uncaring and horrific brutality that had been inflicted upon her 14-year old son by America’s racism. Dee, hurting and with no one to turn to, runs afoul of Chicago’s police chief–who we have all learned is tied into the strange affairs in the show. He and his deputy place a spell on her and it’s sometime after that, that they appear.
They are Topsy and Bopsy (played by Kaelynn Gobert-Harris and Bianca Brewton). At first glance they appear to be two Back girls. Or better put, some grotesque maniacal caricature of Black girls. Dressed in simple cloth dresses reminiscent of slave cloth, their hair is unkempt and arranged in odd plaited pigtails that jut in every direction. Their mouths are overly large jagged blood-red gashes with sharp teeth. And did I mention they dance? These two got moves! But even those seem off. More jerky and hurried than amusing. And they’re always smiling. They won’t stop smiling. Grinning like some broken clown. As if there’s some joke only they know. They flip and jump and act at times like children–but with murderous intent as they relentlessly hunt after Dee. All the while, in the background, a minstrel song from the 1840s blares out: “Stop dat knockin!”
I think just about everyone agrees–those two were perhaps the creepiest things we’ve seen all season. Something about their unnaturalness, as distorted images of Black children, evokes a strong sense of discomfort–to put it mildly. There have been some great write-ups altogether on Topsy and Bopsy, and how they embody so much in relation to Dee: as haunting and haunted Black girls, the loss of innocence of Black children, and what this says about the treatment and trauma of Black children in America. Kinitra Brooks has a great piece here. And the official Lovecraft Country Radio podcast does a deep dive into the minds of the writers in the showroom, including a guest appearance by horror writer Tananarive Due. But what moved me to write this blog, was the way that the show used Black caricature to symbolize the grotesque and inspire racial terror. Because as always, there’s a history there. And as Due herself has so profoundly stated, “Black history is Black horror.”
“Wheel about, and turn about, and do just so; Every time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.”
In the early 1830s a white New Yorker named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice stepped onto a Manhattan stage after painting his face black with shoe polish and dressing in colorful shabby clothing. He called himself an “Ethiopian delineator”—that is, a white person who could perfectly and precisely imitate a Black person. Thomas Rice claimed he had been to the south where he saw an enslaved man who was physically disabled doing a shuffling dance. On stage, in his black-face, in his shabby clothing, and by exaggerating his lips and eyes, Rice performed what he would call the “Jim Crow dance.” His performance was done in a mock Black dialect to a jig likely interspersed with Irish influences. White audiences in New York loved it. Rice sold out his performances. Soon, throughout the North, blackface minstrelsy was all the rage. Long before the term Jim Crow would come to symbolize segregation in the American South, it was a form of entertainment in the north–based on a cruel satire of Blackness.
This was not the first time white men had “blacked” up on stage. Much as white male stage actors played women, they also played every “other” imaginable. But what differentiated the minstrel era from this longer history of theater, was that it moved away from exoticizing performances to a crude and definitively racist mockery.
It was no coincidence that such caricatures took root first in a place like New York. African American communities had been growing in northern states since the end of the Revolution, with the passing of gradual emancipation acts–imperfect vehicles, in great part the result of continued Black agitation. But freedom didn’t mean equality. Many white northerners saw no place for free Black people in America, whose proximity to slavery was deemed antithetical to republican notions of liberty. As the free Black population grew, white northern states and territories passed greater restrictions on their ability to find employment, receive equal treatment under the law, participate in government, receive a public education, and to live daily lives as free citizens. In Ohio, the state constitution banned slavery but also instituted Black Laws meant to deter African American migration, stipulating that any Black person entering the state had to post $500 bond–to guarantee their good behavior. Other regions followed suit, and through the early 1800s Black men were disenfranchised of the right the vote, with some state constitutions inserting the word “white” as a requirement to the ballot. In 1816 some of the most prominent white men in the country met in Washington DC to form the American Colonization Society, whose key aim was to encourage the migration of Black people out of the United States: an attempt to be rid of a population they perceived as “unfavorable to our industry and morals.”
Free African Americans responded to these many indignities by forming their own institutions: churches, schools, meeting houses, mutual-aid groups, and more. This was essentially community building: creating networks of support as they worked to pull more of their kin (at times literally) from slavery. Alongside working with white antislavery and manumission groups, who were often reluctant to speak out against inequality, free Black people produced their own pamphlets denouncing racism and slavery, and demanded citizenship rights. But the more entrenched in northern society they became, the more the racism grew. Black churches were vandalized and their congregants beaten. In Boston, Black onlookers at a Fourth of July parade were chased away by a violent mob: as if to say they had no right to even glimpse upon rituals of national belonging. And when African Americans, shut out from national celebrations, decided to hold their own rituals–such as July 5th commemorating the end of slavery in New York–they faced the possibility of drunken and jeering white mobs, hurling bricks or assaulting their procession.
And there were other ways to wound.
In the early 1800s in cities like Boston, broadsides went up just before African Americans held their parades and processions commemorating abolition. They usually depicted crude caricatures of Black people, in gaudy dress and with exaggerated, almost unintelligible, speech. These so-called “Bobalition” (a mocking of the word abolition) broadsides were reprinted in newspapers and passed along at times as factual. Frustrated African Americans took to reprinting their own speeches in pamphlets, as if to provide evidence against such slander. But the broadsides remained popular, as did numerous other caricaturing artwork. In 1828, E.W. Clay’s Life in Philadelphia Series, took direct aim at the city’s moderately well-off free African American population. Black Philadelphians were depicted as overly dressed and hyper-elegant, with speech that mimicked white perceptions of Black dialect: a stinging rebuke of their aspirations to economic, educational, and social prosperity.
A quaint cartoon, drawn and etched by E. W. Clay. Philadelphia: Published by S. Hart & Son, 1829. Caption: “How you like de Waltz, Mr. Lorenzo? ‘Pon de honour ob a gentleman, I tink it vastly indelicate. Only fit for de common people!!” Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia. [caption source)
A quaint cartoon, drawn and etched by E. W. Clay. Philadelphia: Published by Wm. Simpson, 1828. Caption: “Have you any flesh coloured silk stockings, young man? Oui Madame! here is von pair of de first qualite!” Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia. [caption source)
It was out of this racial atmosphere that Thomas Rice emerged: building on a long held tradition of cruel anti-Black mockery that white northerners eagerly consumed as entertainment. But where Bobalition broadsides and Clay’s series trained their ire on free African Americans, Rice gave northerners something new: a supposed glimpse into the life of enslaved Black people in the south. And white audiences in places like New York or Boston or Philadelphia, could not get enough. Blackface minstrelsy arose in popularity not coincidentally parallel to a rise in abolitionism from African Americans and their white allies in the 1830s. These caricatures thus provided a social and political benefit for white northerners now being asked to consider slavery’s immorality. According to minstrel shows, the lives of enslaved people were not the oppression and brutality that abolitionists claimed. Instead, Rice’s Jim Crow routine implied it was a comedy, a state of idle affairs to evoke laughter, not concern. In an era where race science was ascendant as a proslavery mantra, the dehumanizing images minstrelsy provided were not only a means to excuse Black bondage, but as well a means to justify it.
Blackface minstrelsy also reinvigorated attacks against free African Americans, just at the moment where Black activism and abolitionism was gearing up. One popular minstrel character was Zip Coon. Like the Jim Crow persona, this figure was a white man in black shoe polish who dressed in garish and bright clothing. But Zip Coon was meant to mock free African Americans in the north. He didn’t speak in the exaggerated Black southern dialect of other minstrels. Nor did he dress shabbily. Instead, he used nonsense words and overdressed in top hats and monocles: a buffoon playing the part of a man of education and culture. Like earlier Bobalition broadsides and Clay’s mocking series, Zip Coon was meant to imply that even when not in slavery, Black people could not properly adapt to freedom–and thus had no place in America or any rights to its democratic privileges.
It’s important to recognize that blackface minstrelsy was not simply some idle bit of low culture, peculiar to certain niches of society. It was instead America’s first popular entertainment art form that garnered universal appeal from white audiences. What started in New York traveled throughout the United States, as minstrelsy was adapted to music and well-known songs. Entire groups of white performers took to blacking their face and singing and dancing in mock dialect, becoming known as minstrel troupes. When Thomas Rice took his act to England, it was met with applause from London to Ireland. Even Britain, then in the throes of abolitionism, loved Blackface. Through songs, imagery and shoe polish, minstrelsy was exported throughout the world, finding new anti-Black caricatures to mock in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and as far away as Australia. It inspired music and plays in Vaudeville acts. It was there with the invention of the first films like Birth of a Nation and even the first talking film: Al Jolson’s The Wedding Singer. It was part of Ragtime and inspired endless reams of sheet music. Minstrelsy became a common staple in Hollywood films and later television. It’s still in the songs blaring from our ice cream trucks. In Britain, the popular series The Black and White Minstrel Show did not end its 20 year run on BBC until 1976. Blackface was so popular, later Black entertainers were forced to “black-up” on stage or behind the camera to appear “authentic” to white audiences. Even when they chose to sit within their own skin, the stereotypes and caricatures inspired by minstrelsy clung to them like a shadow: insisting they play the parts expected and written for them.
But minstrelsy didn’t exist in a vacuum.
Alongside these traditions of shoe polish, there were other (often related) means to mock Blackness. After the Civil War, Lost Cause nostalgia and minstrelsy created a vast array of stereotypes: the Uncle, the Mammy, the Coon, and more. These racialized caricatures dotted the pages of children’s literature and later cartoons. In fact, minstrelsy was an integral part of early animation and the creation of cartoon characters. Everyone from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny blacked up. There were minstrel joke and riddle books. There were lithographs and postcards. Black caricatures were featured on household items like candle holders, cups, dishes and tea sets. They were fashioned into dolls and toys and every knickknack imaginable: as furniture for lawns and houses, as key chains and mechanical money banks, etc. Racist caricatures of Black people dotted so much of the American landscape, an entire museum was created just to collect the voluminous amount of memorabilia: The Jim Crow Museum. In fact, hunting down such items–which can still be found for sale or within the passed-down items in white households–has become a hobby of Black amateurs and historians alike, to place them into museums and to provide proper context.
Perhaps the greatest use of this imagery however, was in marketing and selling products. Grinning black men and women with wide mouths advertised watermelons. Ink black caricatures of Black children posed beside white clothes to show the strength of a detergent. Businesses made Black caricatures their logos. Nigger-hair Tobacco. The Coon Chicken Inn. Even Dr. Seuss got into the act. The list was endless. And its had a long reach. Until June of 2020, Colgate was still selling Darkey Toothpaste–complete with a minstrel figure–overseas. That’s right, 2020. It wasn’t until this very year that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (two cleaned-up and reformed caricatures) were finally put out to pasture. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
In 1987 the Marlon Riggs documentary Ethnic Notions attempted to chronicle much of this history, and related it to media depictions of Black people in modern day Hollywood and television. The similarities were disturbing enough. But there was one thing that struck me the first time watching it. The documentary asserted that many of these Black caricatures were not just racist and offensive–but grotesque. There was something feral in these expressions staring back at us, something not quite human. Many of these caricatures if truly given form in real life would appear monstrous. They would appear inhuman.
Riggs’ documentary drew a direct line between the physical violence committed against Black people through lynching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and these caricatures: a necessary dehumanization in order to justify the taking of Black life.
It is chilling then that some of the most inhuman depictions were placed upon Black children.
The Picaninny caricature was ubiquitous in racist imagery: unkempt Black children, hair in kinky knots or plaits sticking straight up, and prone to mischief. Often they were the butt of jokes or used to sell items. Sometimes they were contrasted to white children, as if highlighting the difference in color would uplift the latter’s innocence. At other times the Picaninny was so divorced from their humanity, they served as possible bait or food for alligators and predators: just another animal to be eaten. In Ten Little Niggers, a minstrel song popularized in the 1860s, most of the Black children each fall prey to some form of macabre death: choking, chopped with an axe, swallowed by a fish, hanging, even being “frizzled” to nothingness by sitting in the sun. This song of young Black children as merely disposable, often interchangeable with the similarly disturbing Ten Little Indians, was repeatedly adapted to other forms including children’s literature. In 1939, Agatha Christie named a mystery novel of murder after the ditty, though the alternative title And Then There Were None is most known in the United States. It even become a movie. The Picaninny Freeze advertisement featured below, can still be found on Amazon in Canada–though it’s currently unavailable. Maybe it sold out.
All of which, brings us back to Lovecraft Country.
Topsy and Bopsy, the demonic twins hunting Dee in the episode are caricatures ripped right out of the Picaninny stereotype. Topsy was actually a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). While an antislavery narrative that would help bolster abolitionist sentiment, the novel at the same time reproduced numerous harmful stereotypes of Black people, in an attempt to show the debasing nature of slavery. Topsy was depicted by Stowe as having “woolly hair…braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction.” She was dressed in “a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging,” while her face depicted “an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning.” Topsy in the book is described as prone to wickedness and mischief, a “heathenish” figure whose appearance is altogether “odd and goblin-like.”
While Stowe blames these behavioral and physical characteristics on slavery, Topsy would be picked up by minstrel shows, illustrators, and later films, who enhance these qualities to make her the quintessential Picaninny. With each rendering, she becomes wilder, more grotesque, and less human–now far from whatever antislavery intent Stowe may have been seeking to create. Much as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy is contrasted to Eva, the slave owner’s moralistic daughter whose whiteness and angelic innocence is her polar opposite. Topsy and Eva appear in numerous illustrations and books. There was even a Topsy-Turvy doll: one side Black, the other white. Perhaps most famously Topsy and Eva were recreated into a popular Vaudeville act by two white sisters, Rosetta and Vivian Duncan, which became a 1920s silent film which had D.W. Griffth, of Birth of a Nation fame, as a director.
Lovecraft Country have Topsy and Eva step out of a literal book on Dee’s shelf: white created nightmares from our history that become all too real. In this retelling, it appears Eva is remade as a type of Topsy: a lighter-skinned Picaninny named Bopsy, who is as inhuman and grotesque as her twin. At least that’s what I assume, as I’m not familiar with a Bopsy minstrel–but who knows. We had the Gold Dust Twins after all. Together the two stalk after Dee, dancing and laughing with maniacal glee the whole time–performing a herky-jerky cakewalk of horror across our screens. And this is all backed up by a minstrel song that seems now more haunting than whimsical: “Wid a who dar? who dar! who dar? and a who dar a knocking at my door?”
In the Matt Ruff novel, the bit of racist memorabilia brought to life by white sorcery is an “African Pygmy Devil Doll”–with its own relatedness to the various racial caricatures meant to terrorize black psyches. But the idea of using minstrel characters by the writers of the HBO adaptation was pure genius. The distortion of children evoked in the Picaninny stereotype and set against the backdrop of Emmett Till’s murder, only amplified the overall dark tone. It’s even there in the episode’s name: Jig-a-Bobo: the “Jig-a” being a reference to the racialized minstrel-derived slur “jigaboo,” and Bobo being Emmett Till’s real-life nickname. Here was the most frightful thing from a Black perspective: to have the terrorizing dehumanizing caricatures you are forced to endure day-in and day-out in mass media brought to life, and to have them hunt you down. Monsters born of the white imaginary: a perverted mimicry of Blackness conjured up in a racialized fun house mirror.
In a way this makes sense, because for Black people those images have never really been funny. Even when we laugh, it is more at the absurdity than anything else. They have always been threatening in their own way, seeking to consume us, to make us over into them. They have always been our monsters. And maybe showing them for exactly what they are, is a way of getting the last laugh on the likes of Thomas Rice–and an entire lengthy history of grotesque caricatures.