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Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (review)

From: Modern Drama
Volume 55, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 566-569 | 10.1353/mdr.2012.0052

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

So much depends upon dolls in pain. Do they feel their beatings at the hands of children? What’s at stake in thinking a doll can feel distress?

This is a drama. The liquid idea or crystallized tactility of such a possible sensation for a doll, for a black doll the sense that it could recoil, with tenderness or sorrow, if you were to hit it tells us volumes about the race of childhood, from the time of slavery up to Civil Rights. Childhood, which en-thrones innocence, which shapes race (and rights that start in childhood), hangs upon pain doll pain, in part. Expertly, persuasively, and often brilliantly, Bernstein tells us why.

With her inventiveness, thoroughness, and carefulness always in evidence, always remarkably impressive and required, always surfacing in apt formulations, she makes her focus on dolls indispensable to grasping racial cruelty in the nineteenth century and even beyond. That is to say, in this conspicuously well-researched study, Bernstein surprises us with fractures that we know. Pain as a possible, meaningful sensation a feeling we attribute to others, even dolls marks specific borders, especially between enslaved and free, but also between childhood innocence and something like juvenile inuredness to hurt. Who feels suffering and so needs shielding from it? Who, in other words, has racial innocence, a sensitivity to possible harm? Children rehearse these relations with their dolls. And adults rehearse them by watching children play and by watching dramas or reading certain novels that induce beliefs surrounding human pain.

Such beliefs tell us whether slavery as a system harmed human beings or just put to use insensate creatures, who, because they were unfeeling, were rightly used, according to slavers. Such beliefs tell us whether black youth deserved protection, since unfeeling children need not be protected. In fact, these beliefs essentially tell us whether black children even existed before the 1960s, given that children, by definition, or so it’s been agreed upon for the last centuries in Euro-America, are those people who must be protected. Still, why do dolls of particular shades get slipped inside this story black rubber dolls, minstrel dolls; soft-cloth dolls that signify rape, yet are made for children to take to bed with them; dolls with a history, dolls who go onstage; dolls who eventually have their day in court? The doll is a prompt, in the language of the theatre, for a set of actions connected to feelings. It’s a crucial index to forms of human hurt or an invitation to believe in insensation.

There’s another stage in the drama being told, one that works in tandem with the prompts of dolls. In fact, it explains, at least to my mind, how the material culture of dolls takes its cues from narrative and theatre, in some measure. Bernstein names as a major archive of racial innocence”– no surprise here – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And her presentation of its role in these formations is rich, indeed, packed with factoids about the Tomitudes, as they were called (playing cards, figurines, handkerchiefs, and plays) that accompanied Uncle Tom’s Cabin to fame. In fact, she reminds us that the novel never existed on its own, prior to the cultural phenomena it spawned. Before Stowe’s fiction was ever serialized, it appeared as pages she read to her children and as illustrations, immensely influential, that were advertisements. Or as Bernstein states it, using terms from theatre: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is best understood as a repertoire of thought, emotion, and gesture (14). And the array of items, images, and dramas it birthed were scriptive things that archive that repertoire, the latter being by definition relational, since it exists among people, over time, and . . . through people’s everyday physical engagements with things (14).

Why, exactly, was Stowe so central to these racial repertoires? And what do they have to do with dolls? In short, Stowe did not invent racial innocence, but through her iconic child-characters”– the white angel-child, Little Eva, and the unruly slave-child, Topsy, based in part on minstrel humour –“Stowe captured and refracted the practices of racial innocence from existing sentimental culture, and transmitted those practices back...