By contrast to “I Am,” our second episode this week, “Jig-A-Bobo” concerns itself more with the seemingly endless grief of ongoing American racism and racist violence, rooted in past evils but still doggedly pursuing, mocking, and menacing us, just like the two creepy girls who follow Diana (Jada Harris) after she is spit cursed by Captain Lancaster, local cop and magic-wielding follower of the Sons of Adam cult.
Unnamed in the episode but listed in the show’s credits as Topsy (Kaelynn Harris) and Bopsy (Bianca Brewton), these creepy, stalking twins are clearly drawn from the characters Topsy and Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). During the episode, we even see a copy of the book on a shelf in Dee’s room. The old hardback features images of Topsy and Eva on its cover.
While Stowe’s hugely popular novel (second only to the Bible in 19th-century sales) has rightly been credited with stirring broad public anti-slavery sentiments and rousing the abolitionist movement in the years preceding the Civil War (1861-65), it was then and remains to this day a problematic work. One the one hand it names, dramatizes, and rails against the evils of slavery as impossibly immoral and profoundly incompatible with Christian values; however, on the other hand, as a melodrama it mostly fails to humanize its Black characters in most meaningful ways, relying instead upon the commonplace racial stereotypes of its time, which it then in turn reinscribes upon the popular imagination.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the character of Eva is portrayed as an innocent white girl, blond-haired and angelic, but naïve enough to become involved in the mischievous schemes of Topsy, an eight-year-old slave girl described as “the blackest of her race” with “round shining eyes, glittering as glass beads” and whose “woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction” and who “dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment.” If Stowe means for her readers to feel sorry for Topsy, she undermines that sympathy by portraying the girl as an inveterate liar and thief. She even describes her as “goblin-like” at one point.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the contemporary theatrical productions based upon the novel turned into Blackface minstrel shows that only served to reinforce the racial prejudices of white audiences by portraying the characters as comedic archetypes, buffoonish figures who loved their masters and either enjoyed being enslaved or were too simple to know any better.
Stowe’s Topsy quickly gives rise to the “pickaninny” stereotype of Black children with big red lips, wide eyes, messy hair, and raggedy clothes, who speaks English poorly and is always getting into trouble. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, this offensive, racist imagery even finds its way into stereotyped dolls and advertising. One of Thomas Edison’s early demonstrations of moving pictures is a short film called “Pickaninnies” (1894) that shows Black children dancing on a plantation. In 1931, Lucy Fitch Perkins published a book called The Pickaninny Twins as part of her series of “Twins Books.” Ostensibly, the series aimed to expose young readers to different cultures, but Sammy and Dilly in this book conform to almost all of the standard racist stereotypes. Several of Shirley Temple’s films in the 1930s feature use of the term as a racial epithet and in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) she sings “Oh, My Goodness” to her ethnically stereotyped dolls and addresses the Black one using the racist term. In her 1953 short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor has her white grandmother character use the term, but her grandchildren recognize the word as a slur and see their grandmother as old and out-of-touch with the times.
All of which is to say that by September of 1955, when this episode of Lovecraft Country is set, there was a long-established history of the term and the imagery as ways to dehumanize and degrade Black children. This pervasive, stereotyped way of viewing Black children like her is what haunts Dee so persistently though the apparition of Topsy and Bopsy. That others can’t even see them only makes the twins’ relentless pursuit of Diana more terrifying.
In our analysis of “Lovecraft Country,” and our previous horror film studies, we have often considered how horror tends to literalize metaphors to expose and to explore them. We’ve got a lot to consider in both “I Am” and “Jig-A-Bobo” this week.