In Racial Innocence, her historically focused cultural study of "scriptive things," those "items of material culture" that allow us to "discover otherwise inaccessible evidence of past behaviours" (8), Robin Bernstein invites readers to decode the ways that artifacts like books, dolls, and advertisements hail(ed) their users into a system of ideological racialization. Conversing with "thing theorists" like Martin Heidegger, Roland Barthes, and Bill Brown (whose A Sense of Things, also interested in nineteenth-century American "things," makes a surprisingly brief appearance in this book), Bernstein also channels Louis Althusser when she defines "enscription" as "interpellation through a scriptive thing that combines narrative with materiality to structure behavior" (77). The scriptive things that Bernstein showcases—no matter how one is to look at, play with, or cherish them—all insist upon one thing: sentimental narratives of childhood innocence are distributed along a colour line. From slavery until the Civil Rights Movement (and likely beyond), only certain children are scripted as innocent. Bernstein finds that, predictably, the "juvenile . . . of color" is narrated as "unfeeling" and therefore as "unchildlike" (35), rendering this figure and the subjects it represents "empty of innocence" (16). To claim a "sentimental childlike innocence" (6), [End Page 179] particularly following the nineteenth-century American shift whereby "[c]hildhood was . . . understood not as innocent but as innocence itself" (4), seems then to extend Jim Crow beyond the physical and into the conceptual.
Innocence Lost: Sentimental Materialism and Narratives of Childhood, Race, and Use
There is no doubt that Racial Innocence is a provocative, insightful, and bold text that demonstrates how important the field of cultural studies is and can be. Texts and topics are interwoven with poignant commentaries about race and identity in a way that insists that Bernstein's arguments are equally relevant to scholars interested in youth narratives and cultures as well as those of us working in critical race studies. Bernstein is also able to merge literary and cultural texts with sociological and historical findings in productive ways while hinting at the contemporary relevance of both her methodology and her findings.
Bernstein begins her argument by addressing, with a degree of attentiveness perhaps not previously ever granted them, black child figures that were simultaneously "juvenile yet excluded from the exalted status of 'child'" (35): pickaninnies. The description Bernstein offers of this figure outlines an easily recognized caricature: images of black youngsters with "exaggerated eyes and mouth[s]" devouring watermelons or finding mischief should evoke a myriad of popular culture references whose contexts are shamefully not as dated as we might like them to be (34). Pickaninnies, Bernstein impresses upon us, are "in all senses of the word, minor" (35), even more so because they are "non-child[ren]" (34), since the dominant representation of childhood was (and continues to be) coded as white. In order to elucidate upon this striking claim, Bernstein points squarely at the trope of unfeeling pickaninnies who are immune to pain as the culprit for their exclusion from the category of "child," insightfully noting that they are the "mirror image of both the always-already pained African American adult and the 'childlike Negro'" (36). Pickaninny characters, Bernstein implies, are liminal figures, unidentifiable because they do not suffer like either their black adult or white child counterparts do. This is certainly true of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Topsy, one of the literary pickaninnies that Bernstein uses to confirm her hypothesis, arguing that "Topsy, emptied of innocence, became the prototype for the black pickaninny"—characters who were so "grotestque as to suggest that only white children were children" (16). By this definition, we can also see how the label of "pickaninny" usefully extends beyond the African American context to other racialized youth; I think here of Shakespeare's abused orphan Caliban and Emily Brontë's Heathcliff, who in childhood seemed "hardened . . . to ill treatment," withstanding "blows without winking or shedding a tear" (38). It does [End Page 180] not escape me that each...