Lovecraft Country: Imposter Syndrome & Black Girl Joy

Dee encounters demons at the subway station

Diana “Dee” Freeman (Jada Harris) was the focus of episode 8 titled “Jig-a-Bobo” (a riff on an anti-Black racial slur and the nickname of Emmett Till). The show begins with the funeral of Dee’s friend (Till) that, in real life, took place in Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket. The adults around Dee were concerned about her seeing the funeral, but, as we will soon see they won’t help when she really is in danger.

Topsy & Bopsy

Dee leaves the Till event and finds herself alone with Captain Lancaster and his partner who harass and assault her in an alley. Lancaster puts a curse on her and she soon encounters Topsy & Bopsy, both representing the ‘picaninny’ girl on the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” book cover she sees earlier. Topsy is described in the book as “eight or nine years old, and, besides being very black, had round shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, and wooly hair braided into little tails, which stuck out in every direction.” She was dressed in rags, and spoke in broken English, and is described as an “imp of darkness.”

Left: Josephine Baker as “Topsy Anna”; Right: Judy Garland as “Crazy Eyes”

Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, “Little Black Me: The Touring Picaninny Choruses” and “Letting the Flesh Fly: Topsy, Time, Torture, and Transfiguration” speak to specific moments in the evolution of Jim Crow entertainment and the implications for the black body in relation to itself and white audiences. Topsy and other characters (ex. Tom, Mammy) were tools used to validate white supremacy. The Topsy caricature was made popular through 20th century minstrel shows and films, which depicted her as humorous instead of sympathetic.

Dee prepares to face and fight her demons

In Diana we see a girl who is 180° from Topsy. Dee is the future. She is an artist who has learned how to create new worlds in her comics. Dee made her mother into a superhero and translated her parents’ love of travel into outer space. Lancaster’s curse took away her voice and, by the end of the episode, we see that her ability to draw is also taken away as she attempts to draw a storyboard about what is happening to her.

Dee succumbs to Topsy & Bopsy

It would seem that, in the absence of her parents, the adults around her are trying to keep her safe but if we look closer we can see they are pre-occupied. Ruby is tired of trying to enter spaces that were not made for her; she yearns to create her own space away from the signs of systemic racism (she thinks magic is the key). Leti makes herself small(er) in order to love Tic; she seeks protection not for herself but her him. Tic is trying to protect his future through his unborn son and his father, Montrose, is willing to sacrifice his life for his son and grandson… but who is looking out for Dee? Who is saving her?

Imposter syndrome

Topsy and Bopsy are what all Black children look like to racist white people, something wicked and less than human. The messages we, as black girls, pick up on even from those who would not label themselves as racist is often somewhere in the vicinity of Topsy. Racial discrimination and imposter syndrome often go hand-in-hand. The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

Dee with her parents Hippolyta and George

Dee is ‘black girl joy’; she is passionate about creating things and her parents give her the freedom to be bold, to speak up and express her feelings. Dee is defiant until the last, even when facing Lancaster and the demon dolls. Topsy and Bopsy are what happens when we, as black girls and women, become what racists imagine us to be, when we give in to the messages that persuade us to be small… to ignore the paths we create for ourselves.

Kierra Wilmot

Model student Kiera Wilmot was arrested and removed from her high school for doing a science experiment on school property and thousands of people across the country signed petitions asking for charges to be dropped and for her to be reinstated in school. Wilmot writes,

The principal and dean of discipline came over and asked me to tell them what happened. I was kind of scared, but I thought they’d understand it was an accident… I told him it was my science experiment.

They didn’t read me any rights. They arrested me after sitting in the office for a couple minutes. They handcuffed me. It cut my wrist, and really hurt sitting on my hands behind my back.

I thought about Kiera Wilmot when I watched Captain Lancaster curse Dee in the alleyway. I thought about Wilmot when the demon doll tore away at her drawing arm at the end of the show. I also thought about my personal experiences and how determined and defiant I was. I had to make some sacrifices in order to stay the course. It’s unfair but I knew that if I didn’t I would succumb to my own demons.

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.