- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
In recent years, Anna Mae Duane’s Suffering Childhood in Early America (2011), Elizabeth Barnes’s Love’s Whipping Boy (2011), Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s [End Page 187] Dependent States (2005), and a variety of other interdisciplinary studies have demonstrated the centrality of the child figure to early American sentimental culture. Literary scholars and historians such as Mary Niall Mitchell and Caroline Levander, among others, have likewise analyzed the constitutive ties between racial identity, childhood, and national belonging. Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights presents a vibrant new contribution to sentimental studies, critical race theory, and the history of childhood, and brings these interrelated fields into dialogue with performance studies and material culture. Racial Innocence offers provocative new insights into how cultural constructions of race and childhood have not only been reinscribed, but also subverted and reimagined through performance.
Bernstein’s densely analytical synthesis of American literature, history, and visual culture reveals that the “connection between childhood and innocence is not essential but is instead historically located” (4). She establishes that childhood itself is a performance and one that is inextricably intertwined with racial ideologies. Bernstein’s five chapters are organized around the historical development of “racial innocence,” which she defines as “the use of childhood to make political projects appear innocuous, natural, and therefore justified” (33). In so doing, she not only charts the racialization of childhood but also helps us to see how innocence itself, through cultural productions of childhood, is “raced white” (4). Paradoxically, the abstraction of childhood has been used to both advocate for and resist racial equality; the performance of the white child’s innocence often allows contradictory political positions to appear “natural, inevitable, and therefore justified” (4).
Racial Innocence is a persuasive study, in part, because of its highly effective structure: its five chapters present tightly focused but also gracefully interwoven arguments. Chapter one, “Tender Angels, Insensate Pickaninnies,” contends that in the second half of the nineteenth century, “pain functioned as a wedge that split childhood innocence, as a cultural formation, into distinct black and white trajectories” (33). With a focus on the “pickaninny figure,” Bernstein emphasizes the racial polarization of childhood: white children were increasingly constructed as angels, whereas black children were portrayed as “unfeeling, noninnocent” children (33). Chapter two considers the relationship between dolls and “scripted behaviors”: the set of prompts the plaything issues, with special attention to the role of the half white/half black “topsy turvy” doll (71). She explores the complex symbolism of this doll, which originated in the antebellum era and was often a site of agency and resistance for African American women (81). Through “scriptive things,” Bernstein argues, racial innocence provides a cover “beneath which dominant groups dominated and oppressed groups resisted” (91).
One of the most striking features of Racial Innocence is its incorporation of visual and material culture, which includes black-and-white and color prints of nineteenth-century advertisements, handmade dolls, and other cultural artifacts. Bernstein demonstrates how two of the most iconic child figures of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva and Topsy, were reimagined and rescripted through toys, illustrations, figurines, and playing cards. By unraveling the complex and often troubling histories of some of the most recognizable icons of twentieth-century childhood, such as Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she illustrates how the minstrel tradition and cultural memory of slavery continued to shape the performance of childhood. Bernstein shows that the racialized construction of childhood innocence may appear innocuous, but it is deeply engrained in the American cultural imagination; it plays a crucial role in shaping social hierarchies, personal and collective identities, and the contours of citizenship and national belonging.
In her final three chapters, Bernstein explores the development of racial innocence from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Chapter three demonstrates [End Page 188] how Stowe...