- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
The body of scholarship on racist imagery and resistant popular cultures of the nineteenth century organizes a well-covered terrain and leaves little room for innovation. Works like Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997) and Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent (2006) thoroughly deconstruct the residues of slavery in U.S. visual, literary, and theatrical cultures. Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence joins a conversation on “racial Americana” that turns scholarly attention toward the material culture vestiges of slavery, and their relevance to childhood, in order to offer a fresh approach to national fixations on racial difference.1
This work aims to explore the racial entanglements of childhood that resulted from slavery and that remained relevant through the Civil Rights era. Covering extensive ground, the text uses children’s dolls, storybooks, cartoons, and stage performance ephemera to explore the racialization of childhood in the mid-nineteenth century, and its perpetuation into twentieth-century questions about African American enfranchisement. Specifically, Bernstein argues that “performance, both on stage and, especially, in everyday life, was the vehicle by which childhood suffused, gave power to, and crucially shaped these racial projects” (4). Bernstein has authored other books on theater and on children’s literature, but combines that expertise in Racial Innocence to analyze the performance of childhood on stage, as well as the childhood performances initiated by material culture. Bernstein argues, “children and childhood give body to each other” through performance and reveal how slavery’s remnants of racialization dispersed into U.S. conceptualizations of the child, and by consequence, humanity and citizenship (22).
Racial Innocence makes these claims across five chapters (two are theoretical, which she uses for critique in the remaining chapters) and a close reading of approximately forty images. In chapter 1, Bernstein explains the divergent paths of racial childhood for Blacks and Whites. Whereas abolitionists worked to reveal the pain of slavery inflicted on Black adults, Bernstein illustrates the ways in which this agenda failed to attend to Black children in an adequate manner. Instead, Black children, represented in visions of the pickaninny, became the location for slavery’s concept of Blacks as insensate. In the second half of the nineteenth century, “pain functioned as a wedge that split childhood innocence,” distinguishing Black children from White children, creating “racial innocence” through “the use of childhood to make political projects appear innocuous, natural, and therefore justified” (33). Foregrounding divergent paths of racial childhood, Bernstein goes on to read the ways in which materials like books, toys, and dolls do not simply evidence these concepts, but invite performances of childhood in line with concepts of racial difference. [End Page 461]
Bernstein lays out the ways in which a study of childhood performance is a difficult thing to trace because of its fleeting nature, and thus a key intervention of this text is her organization of the “scriptive thing” as a theory of play and a research methodology. In chapter 2, Bernstein describes this approach at the intersection of archives and repertoires, at the juncture of narrative documentations and embodied knowledge of past performances, where “scriptive things” connect the two.2 Bernstein argues that scholars can engage things for how they “script” behavior, to look at material culture for how it “prompts meaningful bodily behaviors” (71). Unpacking the example of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin handkerchief, Bernstein demonstrates the way in which scholars can ask questions about the behaviors invited by material cultures to think through meanings in context. While consumers used other kinds of bandanas for blowing one’s nose or adorning a jacket pocket, things like the antislavery handkerchief scripted performances of sentimentality by inviting the owner to dab the tears she cried for poor Eva (10). Bernstein follows this line of thinking through three critical chapters, using her theory of “scriptive things” to critique performances of childhood invited by a diverse array of items associated with Uncle Tom, Raggedy Ann, and Black dolls.
In chapter 3, Bernstein connects material culture and performance to...