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America and the Long 19th Century Series

Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

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Beginning in the mid-19th century in America, childhood became synonymous with innocence—a reversal of the previously-dominant Calvinist belief that children were depraved, sinful creatures. As the idea of childhood innocence took hold, it became racialized: popular culture constructed white children as innocent and vulnerable while excluding black youth from these qualities. Actors, writers, and visual artists then began pairing white children with African American adults and children, thus transferring the quality of innocence to a variety of racial-political projects—a dynamic that Robin Bernstein calls “racial innocence.” This phenomenon informed racial formation from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.

Racial Innocence takes up a rich archive including books, toys, theatrical props, and domestic knickknacks which Bernstein analyzes as “scriptive things” that invite or prompt historically located practices while allowing for resistance and social improvisation. Integrating performance studies with literary and visual analysis, Bernstein offers singular readings of theatrical productions, from blackface minstrelsy to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; literary works by Joel Chandler Harris, Harriet Wilson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett; material culture including Topsy pincushions, Uncle Tom and Little Eva handkerchiefs, and Raggedy Ann dolls; and visual texts ranging from fine portraiture to advertisements for lard substitute. Throughout, Bernstein shows how “innocence” gradually became the exclusive province of white children—until the Civil Rights Movement succeeded not only in legally desegregating public spaces, but in culturally desegregating the concept of childhood itself.

Writing in Children’s Literature, Philip Nel notes that Racial Innocence is “one of those rare books that shifts the paradigm—a book that, in years to come, will be recognized as a landmark in children’s literature and childhood studies.” In the journal Cultural Studies, reviewer Aaron C. Thomas says that Bernstein’s “theory of the scriptive thing asks us to see children as active participants in culture, and, in fact, as expert agents of the culture of childhood into which they have been interpellated. In this way, Bernstein is able not only to describe the effects of 19th-century radicalization on 21st century US culture, but also to illuminate the radicalized residues of our own childhoods in our everyday adult lives.” Racial Innocence was awarded the 2012 Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and the award committee noted that the book “is a historiographic tour de force that traces a genealogy of the invention of the innocent (white) child and its racialized roots in 19th and 20th century U.S. popular culture.”

328 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 2011

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Robin Bernstein

8 books25 followers

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Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews
Profile Image for Cara Byrne.
3,146 reviews18 followers
February 16, 2014
What an outstanding critical look at race, gender, childhood and innocence in nineteenth-century American material and literary culture. Even before her complex analysis of works like _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ and _Uncle Remus_ and cultural juggernauts like Raggedy Ann and Topsy-Turvy dolls, she proposes these worthwhile questions: “Why is abstracted childhood so flexible that it can simultaneously bolster arguments for and against interracial marriage? How did childhood acquire so much affective weight that the exhortation to ‘protect the children’ seems to add persuasive power to almost any argument? How did the idea of ‘childhood innocence’ become a crucial but naturalized element of contests over race and rights?” (2). Through analyzing material culture (with emphasis on dolls and illustrations in books and on advertisements), Bernstein begins to answer these questions and interrogates "the racial limits of innocence" and "the American question of who is a person and who is a thing" (243). I hope she writes "part two" in which she explores twentieth century material culture and texts. She begins to reflect on early to mid-twentieth century court cases and studies (even challenging the famous Clark doll experiment) in this book, but I would love to see her do a similar analysis with more contemporary artifacts.
Profile Image for Irma Mayorga.
Author 3 books4 followers
December 6, 2014
"Dolls of all colors anxiously raise questions about the definitions and limits of humanity. As I have argued throughout this book, all dolls in play, and all stories about sentient dolls, trouble the boundary between person and thing--the terror at the ontological core of slavery. Nineteenth-century black dolls, however, uniquely literalized these functions in that they were owned, insentient things that often explicitly represented enslaved humans. Black dolls marked and eroded the border between person and thing; thus they functioned as devices in the meaning and memory of slavery." Scriptive things.
Profile Image for RaeAnn.
12 reviews
June 23, 2022
What a thought-provoking, dense, heavy book. If it were me, I would be giving this out to the masses in order to read, because it quite damningly casts light on the idea that children are apolitical and therefore their violence against Black children is okay. Many of the notes I took were related to how we see this same language being coopted today, as well as how these ideas might have been complicated through the use of media (like how childhood is still largely seen as a White phenomenon and how dolls complicate into that image of who is afforded childhood and who isn't).

Absolutely horrifying and eye-opening stuff that I wish we as a culture had the thought to unpack. Alas, I don't know if "enjoy" is the right book here. There are moments that are gut-wrenching, times where you need to pause to simply think about the ramifications of these cultural touchstones. But an absolutely well-researched, thoughtful analysis on how childhood was (and continues) to be racialized, even if no one would tell you that directly.
Profile Image for Allan.
64 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2012
Very rich argument. This was the kind of book that made me excited to be in graduate school, studying American cultural history, and focusing on performance. Good stuff. Bernstein's argument about "dancing things" in material culture which script our behavior is not simply a powerful contribution to historical cultural studies, it's also an answer to a question I've had this last year: does theater studies have anything to offer other disciplines?

Over the last 15 years, with the definitive emergence of Performance Studies, this question has become more pointed. In other words, historians, anthropologists, and literary critics have embraced the interventions and ideas offered by Performance Studies, whereas theater studies still has a tendency to feel like the insecure red-headed step-child that is concerned that it's just borrowing from everyone else: be it history, literary criticism, or anthropology. Now sure, Bernstein's work has a little theater history material and for the most part actually focuses on performance studies, particularly when she argues that agency is sometimes born out of our interaction with inanimate objects or things and the scripts which things prompt; however, her framing argument of what a script is, how things script behaviors in our lives--the notion of a script comes out of literary studies but also theater studies. It is refreshing to see theater studies outside of and in conversation with literary and performance studies offer a viable framing metaphor or intervention like Bernstein produces here.

Plus who does not love to read about how Raggedy Ann has her origins in blackface minstrelsy? Also, I find it incredible that in terms of material culture, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the "Star Wars" of its day.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
Author 4 books5 followers
August 18, 2016
Loved this very interesting book. Focusing mostly on the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Bernstein discusses how the performances around that book portrayed black people and influenced whites. Black children were not given that "innocence" that white children were presented with. Interesting ideas about objects and how they influence performance of play. Recommend for people interested in race, education, toys, or literature.
Profile Image for amyleigh.
440 reviews5 followers
July 23, 2021
This was endlessly interesting. Dolls, cuddling, violence, topsy-turvy intimacies between blackness and whiteness, childhood, innocence, forgetting, and American projects of racial hierarchies. I am now so interested in dolls and other childhood things...
Profile Image for Rachel.
428 reviews
July 6, 2022
I will never look at dolls (and toys) the same way again, which is a big deal for a collections manager in a children’s museum. A fascinating read how material culture as archive and ways to “read” an object… or thing.
Profile Image for Karen Jean Martinson.
188 reviews1 follower
November 29, 2012
I finally, fully read a book over the course of the semester! And Bernstein's is an excellent book. I find her concept of "scriptive things" to be incredibly useful. Sometimes theories get too abstract for me, but her application of thing-theory elucidates the subjects of race and childhood in innovative ways, as does her tracking of the various performances of race as they crossed media: books to stage plays to pictures to advertisements to dolls.

I'm glad she won the book award for this!
Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews

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