Turning Uncle Tom’s Cabin upside down

Alison Saar's Topsy and the Golden Fleece

Alison Saar, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, 2017, wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint and gold leaf, 35-1/2 x 11-1/2 x-8 1/2 inches (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Alison Saar). Speakers: Dr. Halona Norton-Westbrook, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

Saar, Topsy

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Key Points

  • Although Harriet Beecher Stowe supported the abolitionist movement and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was an effective component of that campaign, her story also created stereotypes of African-Americans that have persisted in popular culture. In particular, Topsy, often considered the embodiment of wickedness and wildness, was widely caricatured and dehumanized and became an image of ridicule. Amid rapid social changes, Vietnam War protests, debates on gender roles, and civil rights, the stability of middle class American life during the 1950s gave way to a period of disillusionment and uncertainty by the 1970s.
  • In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy is powerless. Not only is she a slave, but her character is a passive vehicle for other people’s feelings, a stereotype created to contrast with the Christian spirit of Eva. (The gift of a lock of Eva’s hair, given from the young girl’s deathbed, then becomes a catalyst for the redemption of Topsy.) In Topsy and the Golden Fleece, Alison Saar reimagines Topsy as an empowered and angry force who has seized a blood-streaked Golden Fleece and now controls her own destiny.
  • Alison Saar combines elements of two mythic narratives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jason and the Golden Fleece, to dismantle an African-American stereotype and give her a new sense of power and authority. Saar may be reacting to the continuing racial inequalities and contemporary tragedies that have prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.

Go deeper

This sculpture at the museum

Read more about Alison Saar and her work

See an interview with Alison Saar and other videos from the Topsy Turvy exhibition

Explore the complicated issues surrounding Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin through primary sources and an annotated text

Read more about the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece

Watch an interview with the feminist and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom on stereotypes of black women that persist today

More to think about

In Topsy and the Golden Fleece, Alison Saar reimagines the life and story of a literary character, reclaiming Topsy from her role as a passive stereotype. Think about a character from another story who lacks control or power in his/her life, or a figure that has been used as a popular cultural stereotype. How could you reimagine their story and write a different ending for them?

What are some negative stereotypes that you’ve encountered? Consider how they are reinforced, or challenged, through depictions in the media and popular culture. What strategies do you think are most effective for calling out such negative stereotypes in society?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.