Nine Postma: The Racial Iconography of the Topsy-Turvy Doll: A Historical Research on Nonverbal Communication of Enslaved Women


Advisor/tutor: Ana Teixeira Pinto

August 2020


This thesis aims to read the topsy-turvy doll as a coded object, from which nonverbal communication can be recognized and comprehended to expand our understanding of quiet resistance from a place of polarizing oppression. The doll has survived its makers and tells a contradicting and ambiguous story of racial interdependency and oppositional gendered relationships. This handmade play object, showing a black woman and a white woman sewn together at the waist, allows only one of the ends to be played with at a time. A proposed altering hierarchy reveals itself, while emphasizing the seemingly inevitability of raced concealment. 

To unpack this object, I situate the social, economic and political position of the dollmaker, and the two figures represented in the doll in the antebellum South of the United States. How did racial power relations influence experiences of womanhood and motherhood? This leads me to regard the intended owner of the doll and the childhood culture it becomes part of. How do toys and childhood culture serve as vehicles reinstalling and enforcing racial binaries? Finally, I assess how the shape and materiality of the topsy-turvy doll invite a performance of care while carrying coded messages of inhumane violence inflicted upon the bodies of enslaved women.