- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights
A timely and exemplary contribution to the historiography of racial formation in the United States, Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is an intervention of the highest order. The success of this meticulously researched and carefully argued book rests on two interrelated achievements: the development of a groundbreaking [End Page 143] theory and its application toward highly revelatory ends. That theory, which Bernstein first outlined in a 2009 award-winning article in Social Text, is what she calls the "scriptive thing," that is, as "an item of material culture that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors. The set of prompts that a thing issues . . . does not reveal performance, but it does reveal a script for performance. That script is itself a historical artifact. Examination of that artifact can produce new knowledge about the past" (71-72).1 These scripts are determined or implied; yet they are bound by their own historicities and therefore invite a limited range of actions. In order to establish that range, one must know the attitudes, ideologies, and sensibilities concomitant with that thing and its materiality. With this theory as its analytical charge, Racial Innocence centers on two extremely rich, though under-explored sets of scriptive things—namely, Uncle Tom's Cabin and dolls—as means to demonstrate how "childhood figured pivotally in a set of large-scale U.S. racial projects: slavery and abolition, post-Emancipation enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of African Americans, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, antiblack violence, New Negro uplift, and the early civil rights movement" (3-4).
Literary and cultural historians have long taken note of the card games, figurines, handkerchiefs, knickknacks, tins, and countless other "Tomitudes" based on Stowe's characters and scenarios. But, as Bernstein argues, they "have been able to say almost nothing . . . about what people actually did with these items" (9). Reading the everyday performances these scriptive things prompted in mid-to-late-nineteenth-century life, Bernstein explicates how Uncle Tom's Cabin was neither a "text" nor "cultural phenomenon," which "implies a unity or coherence among the disparate parts"; instead, it was a "subjectivization," or what Henry James famously described as a "state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness" (13-14). In addition to Stowe's political, racial, and social appeals, Americans flocked to Uncle Tom's Cabin because they embraced Stowe's explicit and implicit calls "to engage bodily, affectively, with her novel" and "the vivid visual description" she offered "as a tool by which to achieve that goal" (101). Bernstein unearths a number of these performances, and explores the ways Americans' experiences with Uncle Tom's Cabin were often extra-textual. For instance, a number of Tomitudes and stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin (including George Aiken's 1852 script, which is the most lasting) do not depict moments from Stowe's text but, instead, reproduce scenes from Hammatt Billings's promotional illustrations for the novel. Combining deft close readings with finely wrought theatre history, Bernstein explains how and why these artifacts and "Tom shows ultimately eclipsed Stowe's novel, replacing Stowe's characters with their [material and] theatrical counterparts in the popular imagination" (113). Billings's images and the items that recreated them stressed [End Page 144] the intimacy that Stowe embedded in her text—so much so that they imagined a number of "tender touches," particularly between Eva and Uncle Tom, that were not in the novel. While these touches derived from Stowe's insistence on black humanity and thus the immorality of slavery, Bernstein traces how by the end of the nineteenth century such haptic relations became stripped of their original ideological substance and served proslavery and antiblack ends. This transformation became most evident in renderings of Topsy.
With Topsy, Stowe "created . . . an extraordinarily sophisticated and powerful argument for enslaved children's essential innocence and their susceptibility to suffering" (48). But the vast majority of subsequent cultural producers accentuated Topsy's "wicked" ways, making her the...