AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum
Re: Tosspot in KY
In Response To: Re: Tosspot in KY ()
Good to hear continuing thoughts here.
"Tosspot" originated and functioned as a culturally embedded reference, not something those outside of Anglo-American popular culture would necessarily understand upon first hearing. Even if most languages of the world have a term signifying "drunken lout," those outside of the originating culture would need to go through the interim step of hearing an explanation from native-speakers and then searching their mind for the equivalent in their own language. Once they made the linguistic match, they would show in some way that they "get it," through laughter, upset, etc.
Someone who has a term thrown at them, or a name tagged to their person, might come to an understanding that the term or name is an insult through the alternate route of experience, observation and intuition. The name is mentioned when the slave "Tosspot" comes into viewing range, causing native English speakers to laugh, elbow each other, enjoying the inside joke. For purposes of producing this reaction among a planters' friends, neighbors and peers, "Tosspot" is summoned, frequently and intentionally brought into viewing range so that the joke can be accomplished and everybody on the 'inside' of the joke can feel more fully inside the cultural "us."
In this scenario, "Tosspot" would rather quickly come to an understanding that this name he's been tagged with is an insult. It seems, along the same lines of reasoning, that an African man of slender build who has been tagged with the name "Hercules," but who is not yet familiar with Greco-Roman mythology, would discern over time that it's an insult in his case from watching the reaction of whites around him each time this name is invoked. Over time, absent informed explanation on the irony, he might puzzle it out by seeing, for example, that all the other "Hercules" in his vicinity are large and muscular.
A "tosspot" is a "drunken lout." Unlike "Hercules," "Scipio," etc. "Tosspot" was not a widely assigned name, and I have never seen it used outside of this one instance, first appearing on the Isle of Wight land grant in the 1690s. From what I understand, people listed on a headright land grant could have arrived a decade or so earlier, and there was much double-listing of people. Hence, the temptation to name incoming Africans "Tosspot" would have been countered by the fact that such a unique name reappearing on multiple headright grants would send up a red flag to land-granting officials.
As a descriptor of the man "Tosspot" on the 1690s headright grant, it suggests that at the time the name was assigned, he was experiencing extreme mental and physical disorientation, was unable to make himself understood through language, and fiercely resisting efforts at physical constraint.
I'm guessing that by the early 1800s, when Timothy and Sarah Tosspot were established in Winchester as a young, growing family, they knew perfectly well the pejorative meaning of the surname. Timothy was eventually a hostler at the McGuire family's tavern there, managing the horses of arrivals. There was some degree of occupational competition among FPOC in Winchester, judging from information on the FPOC lists over time. It might be, then, that the surname "Tosspot" was an occupational advantage in this context. McGuire could play the genial host, making guests feel at home, "insiders" though strangers to the place, by summoning the hostler Tosspot on this or that pretext, an errand to run, etc, and then re-tagging him each time he came into viewing range with this name "Tosspot."
If this line of reasoning is sound, we might suppose that for Timothy and Sarah's sons who migrated to Ohio and New York, the surname proved similarly advantageous. Two sons who were barbers in Ohio would, in effect, have an advantage over other African American barbers, because this surname would tend to draw white clients, men choosing this barber shop over others so as to be able in later conversations to get to the punchine, "So, I was talking to a Tosspot, and..."
Records indicate that Timothy Jr., up in Buffalo NY, was not literate, although all of his children were except the eldest daughter. But it seems a safe assumption that he knew that "Tosspot" was pejorative. The same dynamic among whites in the vicinity when hearing the name in his presence may have helped him get established in Buffalo as a property owner. He ran a boarding house, not aimed at white clientele. Although African Americans apparently did not pick up this term "tosspot" in its original culturally inflected meaning, as a surname it was nonetheless unique in all the world. Total speculation at this point, but let me try it out: Buffalo, Canada, runaway slaves, a boarding house, a unique and thus memorable surname, perhaps a help and advantage to runaway slaves safe haven in this borderland.
Just my thoughts here, and I welcome peoples' thoughts on the plausibility of this interpretation and conjecture.
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