Ideologies of Black Masculinity

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an abolitionist novel that counters the arguments against the emancipation of black slaves. Due to the colour of his skin, Uncle Tom is subjected to the ideologies of black masculinity. An ideology points to “the ways that people think, act, and understand themselves and their relationship to society” (Fiske, 311). Fiske’s article, “Interpellation,” explains the processes which are recognized in the social order. He argues that you do not get to be an individual until you are recognized in the social order. Consequently, Uncle Tom is identified as a black slave, rather than an individual man, because he is not recognized in the social order. At the beginning of the semester, Humphrey’s pointed out that Uncle Tom as a character “fights the ideologies of black masculinity as a frightening force of savage sexual violence; uncivilized behaviour; immoral behaviour that needed to be controlled and regulated” (Humphreys, 2011). Stowe had to drastically shift how black men were interpellated, which is the process “whereby language constructs social relations for both parties in an act of communication and thus locates them in the broader map of social relations in general (Fiske, 313). Therefore, Stowe’s novel is attempting to re-categorize Uncle Tom from a scary, male, black slave who could easily enact revenge on his owner to an individual who merely stands up for what he believes in.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I came across a cover page from a 1943 Classics Illustrated comic book featuring Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I could not find the entire comic book,  the cover alone speaks wonders. I mentioned in a previous post titled “Things and Literature” that paraphernalia produced around the novel often reinforces the negative messages and highlights the racism in the text. Well, in the same way, this illustration frames how the literature was interpreted. Uncle Tom is depicted as a superhero in the comic, which can be related to his heroism in the novel. However, once again, we can see that the illustrations accentuate the negative and racist dimensions of the text. First off, in a number of other images and videos regarding Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom is predominately illustrated as an older man. Yet, the comic illustrates a sexualized young, muscular man, who is literally bulging out of his clothing.  The fact that his hands are forming fists enforces the idea that he is ready to fight. Also, the placement of his bare feet (one in front of the other) suggests that he is ready to ‘pounce’ at any moment.

When we first meet Uncle Tom in the novel, he is exceptionally loyal to his master and is treated well at the Shelby farm. He is a child-like slave who ‘knows his place,’ and follows orders (Humphreys). While this may be true on Mr. Shelby’s farm, where he felt no need to fight, once he was placed on Simon Legree’s evil plantation, the reader can see a shift in Uncle Tom’s character. For example, when Legree asserts that he would “have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on [his] place” and proclaimed that he would replace Uncle Tom’s church, “something within the silent black man answered No!” (Stowe, 481). The narrator then states that “that voice is one [Legree] shall never hear,” which is quite the opposite (Stowe, 481). In fact, while working at Legree’s plantation, Uncle Tom felt that he had no choice but to disobey orders from his master. In other words, he obeys a higher law. For instance, not only does Uncle Tom reject Legree’s demands, he also encourages two of Legree’s female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape. On top of that, Uncle Tom refuses to help Legree and his men capture the two women. Uncle Tom was “willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breathe in [him],” but he refuses to act in a way that compromises his beliefs (Stowe, 508). I could not help but compare this image of Uncle Tom to the Incredible Hulk. Similar to Uncle Tom, the Hulk is a good character who continually tries to help others. He only hurts people who are trying to hurt him or other innocent individuals. However, it is important to note that in the novel Uncle Tom defeats Legree through the power of speech rather than physical violence, which the Hulk enforces. In spite of this, the depiction of Uncle Tom in the comic illustration indicates physical violence. Clearly, the comic is another example that demonstrates the durability of a certain representation of black male identity, as it works against Stowe’s attempt to reshape black masculinity from sexual savagery to innocence and loyalty.


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Seeing is Believing

Throughout the course, we have learned that visual rhetoric is a form of communicating through visual images to create cultural meaning. In the short adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin below, we can see how black men and women were interpellated at the time the cartoon was featured. The six minute, 1944 cartoon, “Eliza on Ice,” portrays a very dark Eliza crossing on ice that pours out of a slot machine when she puts a nickel in and wins the jackpot.

Eliza's Leap

There are a number of things that come to mind after watching this clip. Even though I am aware that racial stereotypes were extremely common during the Golden Age of cinema, when I first watched this video, it shocked me that this cartoon manages to make a huge joke out of the entire institution of slavery. The scene shown is a vital scene in the novel that symbolizes a leap from slavery to freedom. Eliza’s leap literally represents her jump from the slave-holding states to the non-slave holding states. In the same manner, the cabin is a symbol of freedom as well, which is illustrated in the cartoon as a safe place where Eliza runs in order to escape Simon Legree. However, what caught me off-guard was the fact that the African-American characters in the cartoon, like Uncle Tom, Eliza, and her baby, are presented in blackface, which is exaggerated make-up worn by a white actor is playing a black person (Humphreys, 2011).


In a previous post, I mentioned how blackface was a common method used in acting during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Humphrey’s pointed out in lecture, “African-American identity was dislodged from its powerful position, and through blackface, interpellated back into the era of slavery” (Humphrey, 2011). Eric Lott’s, “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class” argues that blackface defines slavery as ‘amusing,’ which is exactly what this cartoon seems to be doing, especially with the comical music. The song “Dixie” was utilized in the cartoon, which is one of the best known songs of black minstrelsy (Wikipedia). Furthermore, there is an associate meaning that African-American’s use ‘proper’ English poorly. For example, Uncle Tom and Eliza do not speak proper English, whereas Simon Legree and even his dogs do. Therefore, ‘proper’ English remains a naturalized set of signs that stratifies classes, races, and citizens. The idea of an educated form of English encodes a certain framework of knowledge that excludes and dominates a number of cultural and social groups (Humphreys, 2011).

Little Eva

Additionally, the portrayal of Little Eva in the cartoon caught my attention. First off, I am sure you immediately noticed that she is illustrated much differently than depicted in the novel. For instance, her figure resembles a matured woman rather than a young girl, and she is wearing a lot of make-up. As a result, she is extremely sexualized in the cartoon. Nonetheless, she is still represented as a Christ-like figure, just as she is in the novel. For instance, she lives in a cloud, looking down on the community below, with angel wings, and a desire to help those in need. Stuart Hall’s, “Encoding/Decoding” in Media and Cultural Studies, mentions that superheroes stand outside of society and must do something to protect the society they are not a part of.  In the case of the cartoon, Little Eva resides above the society in heaven and literally looks down on the community below her, which may be interpreted in a number of ways. Therefore, even though Mr. Mighty Mouse saves the day, Little Eva is the one who called him in the first place. Thus, she can be seen as a heroic character in the video as well, just as she is in the novel.

Seeing is Believing

Our class syllabus states that “literature and its material culture mediates the ways in which we measure the value of each other, ourselves, and our contexts” (Humphreys, 2011). Thus, the portrayal of Little Eva is given value, whereas Uncle Tom and Eliza appear more animalistic and clownish. The ways in which African-American identity is depicted in the cartoon directly effects how these individuals are treated in the real world. After all, seeing is believing. Mieke Bal’s, “Double Exposure: The Subject of Cultural Analysis” emphasizes that common notion that “what you see must be real, true, present, or otherwise reliable,” which implies that when material is presented to us, we assume that it is displaying the truth (5). Similarly, Mark Poster’s, “Digital Networks and Citizenship” asserts that no one “can doubt the role of print and television…profoundly [altering] the way people think, fantasize and behave” (103). Therefore, the medium that carries the message is extremely powerful. As a result, the cartoon reproduces stereotypes and ideologies that create a reality for people to believe. Viewers of the cartoon, most likely children, are basically encouraged to see African-American identity in this manner. In the end, this short adaptation enforces that mediums “transmit cultural lessons and knowledge” (Humphreys, 2011).

I cannot help but think of popular cartoons today and the stereotypes they produce. Take “The Simpsons” for example. Cops loving donuts, senior citizens constantly complaining, and a convenience store owned by an Indian man are simply some of the common stereotypes used by the writers to make people laugh. Similarly, “Family Guy” works in much the same way. Both extremely successful animated cartoons overly exaggerate stereotypical characteristics for a satirical and comical effect, which seems to be working for the audience. Does it make it right? Has society really changed or are we just more accepting of stereotypes?

Here are some clips to show my point:

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Dolls and Identity

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Sara Humphrey’s showed us the Archives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which provides an overview of the story and access to various kinds of resources. There is a section on the website that offers games, puzzles, and other toys that were mass-marketed based on characters from Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, I was particularly interested in the Topsy and Eva dolls that were created.

Topsy-Turvy Dolls

In the same way that the Duncan sister’s advertisement (which I discussed in my previous post) positions Topsy and Little Eva in opposition to one another, the Topsy-Turvy doll does so in a more literal manner. Therefore, both the advertisement and the Topsy-Turvy doll contrast the differences between the two characters. Essentially, the doll emphasizes the differences between the powerful and the powerless. Interestingly, the doll of Topsy and Little Eva offers a dual identity, which reveals the popular stereotypes and cultural tensions of African-American and white female identity. For instance, held one way, the doll resembles Little Eva, with a bow placed in her blonde hair, wearing a childlike, pastel pink dress. However, when the skirt is pulled down, Topsy appears, more adult-like, with surprised eyes, wearing bright red lipstick that matches the bright red in her dress. Once again, Little Eva serves as a representation of a superior race, as she looks directly at the viewer, whereas Topsy takes the more submissive role as she continues to avoid eye contact. Additionally, the contrast between the colours of bright red and subtle pink of the two characters is extremely noticeable. Similar to the Duncan sister’s advertisement, the Topsy side of the doll has a lower modality than the Little Eva side, as Topsy appears to be clownish and unrealistic, whereas Little Eva is more genuine in another pastel colour that emphasizes her youth and purity.

Similarly, the McLoughlin brothers created paper dolls for Topsy and Eva, which came with cut-out paper outfits to dress the young girls. Although Topsy and Eva are generally portrayed as being the same height in the novel, advertisements, and other toys, it is apparent that the Topsy doll is much taller than the Eva doll. While this may point to a number of meanings, it is very possible that Topsy is taller in order to prevent her from wearing Eva’s clean and tidy outfits. On another note, once again, Topsy is dishevelled with her mouth open, legs spread apart and shoelaces untied, as opposed to Eva who appears to be very innocent and well put together. Interestingly, even though Topsy is finally looking directly at the viewer, her body language suggests that she is uncomfortable. In the illustrations above, we can see that the two dolls are standing on a floor, which appears to depict their class level. For instance, Topsy is standing on an wooden floor, while Eva is standing on a clean and elegant carpet, which enforces the ideology that Eva is clean and sophisticated, whereas Topsy is not. Lastly, Eva is the only girl found on the front cover of the envelope which they were originally sold in. This is most likely due to the fact that the target audience buying the product would have been wealthier white families. Therefore, they focused on Eva, who would more likely appeal to the wealthier class. As a result, the idea of white supremacy is disturbingly noticeable, as Topsy is consistently portrayed as racially and sexually inferior to Little Eva.

Today, we have multicultural dolls that are not represented as clownish like Topsy; in fact, these dolls are created to bear the true identity of people of ethnic backgrounds in their facial structure, psyche, skin tone and hair texture. Ethnic dolls are a step in the right direction to affirming the beauty of every race. In spite of this, children still believe that white represents good while black represents bad. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, married African-American psychologists,  were known for their 1940s experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. Their study found that “black children preferred white dolls and rejected black dolls when asked to choose which were nice, which looked bad, which they would like to play with, and which were a nice colour” (Hrba and Grant). Kiri Davis, a 17 year old film student, conducted a similar experiment in her 2006 award-winning documentary “A Girl Like Me.” She discovered that the results are unchanged, enforcing that these ideologies that were present in the Topsy and Eva dolls are still present today. Take a look at this short video that discusses both experiments:

The world today is drastically different from the world that was depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet these ideologies are clearly still alive. What do you make of this?

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‘Things,’ ‘Objects,’ and Literature

Professor Humphrey’s stated that our emotional attachment to ‘things’ is mediated through literary works. She called this the “Thing Theory.” I find it extremely interesting how objects are made out of literature. Characters come outside of the context of the book and take on a life of their own. Objects become ‘things’ to us and we treat them as if they were alive. As a result, humans make meaning out of these objects. For instance, take Stephanie Meyer’s, “Twilight” series. Everywhere I look, I see pillows, bed sheets, tattoos, mugs, t-shirts, jewellery, dolls, shoes, bags, and the list goes on, all revolved around the Twilight series. By owning these products, fans of the series feel connected to the main characters and remain in the fantasy world Meyer created. Our habitus tells us that Edward Cullen is the perfect man who embodies what most women want. He is an old-fashioned gentleman, smart and loving. He devotes his life to protecting Bella and being there for her whenever she is in need. On top of that, he is described as being overwhelmingly beautiful and muscular . Need I say more? Female readers can relate to that desire; the desire to find the love and security that Edward provides for Bella. Girls aspire to one day meet their own Edward and find their “true love.” Stephenie Meyer’s novels suggests that the ‘happily ever after’ ideology does exist, and that ‘true love waits.’ Therefore, Twilight is a hot commodity because young girls eat up the love story Meyer portrays.  J.K Rowling’s, “Harry Potter” series works in the same way, with the famous Harry Potter glasses and scarves. The main purpose of these mass-marketed items is to allow the reader to further immerse themselves in the world the author has created. I strongly believe that literature and commodity culture will forever remain inevitably linked. Check out the video below to view the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan:

Even back in the mid to late 1800s, people bought into the idea of pop culture selling products. So how do objects shape identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Well, after browsing the Archives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is clear that Tom-themed material culture further demonstrates how commercial commodities give visual representation to values derived from the literature. The commodity culture of ‘things’ perform cultural work as the objects often serve to reinforce certain belief systems. I came to the realization that paraphernalia produced around the novel often reinforces the negative messages and highlights the racism in the text. For instance, I came across “3D Tomitudes,” which are an assortment of Staffordshire figurines of some of the popular characters in the novel.

To the left, we can see a sentimentalized and stereotypical representation of Uncle Tom with Little Eva by his side. Uncle Tom is seated on a bale of hay with the Bible open in his lap, holding a bitten apple in his hand. He is barefoot, which enforces his social position. Note how Tom’s eyes are looking up to Little Eva, who is raised above and supported by him. Interestingly, the objects within the figurine itself also create meaning. For example, the apple and Bible may serve as symbols of good and evil, as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Uncle Tom appears to be offering Little Eva his apple, which may represent temptation. Therefore, the figurine is portraying Little Eva as good, while identifying Tom as bad, which plays into the racial stereotypes produced by the book. On another note, throughout the novel, Uncle Tom cherishes his relationship with Little Eva, and vice versa. Hence, the phrase ‘the apple of my eye’ comes to mind when looking at this figurine as well. Clearly, this image reveals how literary works and commodity culture are linked through the use of symbols and representations of one’s class and worth.

To the right, we have picture of a child’s mug, depicting a scene of Little Eva placing a flower garland around Uncle Tom’s neck. The caption on the bottom of the mug reads: “Eva dressing Uncle Tom.” Unlike the figurine above, here, we can see that the roles are reversed as Little Eva is now the one looking up and holding onto Uncle Tom, whereas Uncle Tom is looking down on her. I could not help but notice that the illustration of Uncle Tom on the mug does not seem to accurately portray the man we come to know and love in the novel. In the novel, Uncle Tom is described as a pious man with deep, religious values, who finds the good in everything. Yet, on the mug, his face looks mean and his body language is not welcoming to Little Eva. What do you think this implies? In an interview, Bill Brown,  a Professor of English and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, brings up that ‘thing’s’ have power over people and shape our attitudes towards the objects they represent. In other words, they shape social mindsets (Brown). The fact that the image to the right was placed on a children’s mug during the 1850s may indicate that it served as a warning to white children about black male identity. Even though the novel works against this idea of black masculinity as a “frightening force of savage,” the mug shows the durability of this kind of representation of black masculinity (Humphreys, 2011). Once again, we can see Little Eva portrayed as innocent and good, as she is dressed in all white, while Uncle Tom is encompassed by darkness. Furthermore, the significance of this being a cup sends the message of drinking into the images on the cup.

I have only looked at a couple of objects in regards to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To view more, check out the Archive of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!

Also, click here to view Bill Browns Interview.

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Multimodality and Advertising

Visual statements narrate identity in order for the viewers to understand multimodality, grasp the connections between language and image, and in turn, comprehend the connections between language, image, and identity (Humphreys, 2011). What is multimodality? Well, multimodality points to the truth value of credibility that we supply to the narratives and images that comprise our world, or particular contexts (Humphreys, 2011). In the introduction of Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, the theorists explain that “like linguistic structures, visual structures point to particular interpretations of experience and forms of social interaction” (2). Humans form conceptual frameworks and make meaning, which become internalized and acted out overtime. Like Kress and van Leeuwen, I am interested in how social actors are represented in a specific context. We can see this idea of multimodality in the Duncan Sisters advertisement below, featuring Topsy and Little Eva, two extremely popular, mass-marketed characters that came out of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is clear that images of Topsy and Little Eva used in the early 20th century advertising draw from specific character traits that define each character.


The Duncan Sisters were an acting duo who became popular in the 1920s with their act as Topsy and Eva, which is illustrated in the advertisement to the left. Interestingly, there is both racial and sexual grammar depicted in the advertisement. Firstly, we can see that the Duncan sisters used blackface in their performances; “a technique that bypasses the need to find an actual African American to behave in the buffoonish manner by white folks” (Humphreys, 2011). Secondly, it is clear that Topsy represents a certain form of African-American female sexual identity, just as Little Eva represents a certain form of white female sexual identity. Hence, both female actors in the Duncan sister advertisement are positioned as representation of race in relation to sexuality.

A Closer Look

Historically, black bodies have been labelled as sexual bodies. White women were socially constructed as civilized, modest, and sexually pure, while black women were considered to be uncivilized, immodest, and sexually promiscuous (Musial, 2010). These racist and sexist ideologies are present in the illustrations of Topsy and Little Eva in the Duncan sister’s advertisement examined. In one of her demonstrations, Professor Humphrey’s argued that Little Eva demands attention with her direct gaze at the reader, while Topsy demands nothing as she stands and makes herself available to be possessed by the viewer’s gaze was intriguing (Humphrey). Not only does the language that Humphrey’s used provide a sexual connotation, but when analyzing Topsy’s impersonator, one can definitely notice the strong presence of sexual imagery. The main difference between the Duncan sister’s representation of Topsy and Little Eva is in their poses. On the left side of the image stands Topsy, with her legs spread apart and chest pushed out, which seems to have caused her dress to rise in the front. Thus, she has provided the viewer to see what appears to be dirt on her legs or torn stockings. However, her stance is not the only element that calls for attention and creates awareness of her sexual identity. For instance, her blurred face causes Topsy to be washed out of the picture, allowing Little Eva to remain the dominant focus of the piece. Therefore, Little Eva is the centre of attention in order for the product to sell. Furthermore, the colour saturation is very bright and draws the reader’s attention to Topsy’s dishevelled clothing and overall unkempt appearance. Therefore, the Topsy impersonator in the advertisement depicts a stereotypical representation of a black female, who is identified as uncivilized, inhibited, and sexually promiscuous. On the right side of the image stands Little Eva in a plain, yellow sundress, with her legs together, blush on her face, and poised stance. Positioned in opposition to Topsy, the white sister portrayed as Little Eva exemplifies modesty, cleanliness, and purity. All of these examples enforce that Topsy represents female African-American identity, which was deemed as sexualized and dirty, whereas Little Eva is a representation of her white identity, which was considered pure and modest.

Check out this video clip I found of the Duncan Sisters performance (start at the 4:25 mark):

The Duncan Sisters

The examination of the Duncan sister’s advertisement is simply one example of an image that enforces the contrasting differences between the two characters of Topsy and Little Eva. Furthermore, even though images do not have the same grammar as language, it is evident that they can tell stories.

American Apparel is a fashion company that claims to represent the everyday woman. To the left, we have an American Apparel blackface image that appeared in a magazine. Just like the Duncan sister’s advertisement, this image draws on specific character traits that define that woman. Similar to Topsy’s appearance, the colour saturation is very bright in this ad. We can also see that there is both racial and sexual grammar depicted in the advertisement. Clearly, racist imagery continues to be incorporated in advertisements today.

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