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Reviewed by:
  • Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
  • Jayna Brown (bio)
Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York UP, 2011.

Through an amazing curation of materials carefully and painstakingly gleaned from a number of archives, including collections at the American Antiquarian Society and the Harvard Theatre Collection, Robin Bernstein shows how the innocence of white childhood was imagined and enacted in relation to fictional versions of the black child, rendered in advertisements, collectibles, children’s books and toys, and especially dolls, from the antebellum era into the 1910s. Dolls and toys are “scriptive things,” Bernstein argues, “item[s] of material culture that prompt meaningful bodily behaviors” (Bernstein 8, 71). Violence against African Americans is the key “inscription” Bernstein traces through the performed relationships white children have with their black dolls. Child’s play with black effigies was most often scripted for acts of degradation and cruelty, and is crucial to understanding how racist violence against African Americans was naturalized. At the center of her argument is white girlhood, as embodied in the dyad Topsy and Little Eva from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its aftermath in popular culture. [End Page 482] This dyad is embodied powerfully in the topsy-turvy doll, that inverts into either Eva or Topsy depending on which way you turn the skirts.

As opposed to earlier versions of the child, as born into original sin until saved, the blessed and “tender angel” Eva embodies the shift to the idea of the child as born innocent and pure. Eva is an American trope, made possible through her performance of generous intimacy with the insensate picaninny Topsy. Not only childhood but slavery is made innocent through Eva’s touch, as Bernstein shows in the pictorial relationship between Eva and Uncle Tom found in illustrations to Stowe’s novel.

A few years ago I was made cognizant of the durable, widespread ubiquity of the trope of Topsy and Little Eva. In an Ikea store in Southern California with my newlywed friend (a black woman) and her white mother-in-law, my friend left us alone for a moment. When she returned, her mother-in-law exclaimed, “Here comes Topsy now!” Tears and apologies ensued, but I will never forget how easy it was for the older woman to find that reference, lodged, as she told us, in memories from her girlhood in North Carolina.

Bernstein’s book is an excellent study of material culture, carefully reading the politics of the manufacture of these toys in their historical context. For instance, Bernstein explains how soft dolls were developed not only for cuddling but to withstand abuse, which she argues is profoundly racialized and gendered. Many dolls in Bernstein’s study accompany storybooks, such as the Golliwog dolls, based on characters invented by Florence Upton, and Raggedy Ann dolls, which John Gruelle designed to accompany his children’s books. Bernstein explains how these dolls have deep roots in minstrelsy. Bernstein’s elucidation of the cruelty involved in the creation of toys and the narratives of storybooks, that supposedly represent the innocence of childhood, is arresting. But it is how white children played with the dolls I find most disturbing in the book.

Out of the many examples of white girls and their interaction with their black dolls and figurines, a few will continue to haunt me. Bernstein relates the case of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who in her girlhood memoir The One I Knew Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child reminisces about her relationship with a particular black doll, made of a hard rubber called “gutta percha,” that she named Topsy. According to Bernstein, the hard bodied material of the doll “script[ed] broadly violent play,” enacting the fantasy of black imperviousness to pain (Bernstein 71). In one instance, Burnett renamed the doll Uncle Tom and acted as the slave master Simon Legree, binding the doll to a candelabra and beating it, while “furious with insensate rage” (Bernstein 69). Bernstein explains, “Burnett’s act was one of many that installed childhood innocence as a powerful component...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 482-485
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-30
Open Access
No
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