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  • Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights
  • Richard Flynn (bio)
Robin Bernstein. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York UP, 2011.

Combining performance studies with historical and cultural analysis, Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence offers an innovative argument, demonstrating that the performance of childhood is central to “large-scale racial projects” from slavery and abolition to the early civil rights movement. Bernstein attempts to “intervene in a central problem in the field of childhood studies: the relationship between young people (‘children’) and the cultural construct of ‘childhood’” (22). She painstakingly and cogently supports her claims through sensitive and well-documented close readings of material, literary, and visual culture, from the “repertoire” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the “Black-and-Whiteness of Raggedy Ann” with its roots in minstrelsy, and from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series to the doll studies of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which black dolls scripted a performance of innocence that “refuted the libel that black youth could not feel pain” (241).

Noting that “constructed childhood and juvenile humans exist in tension with if not in opposition to each other,” Bernstein draws important insights from the field of performance studies that scholars of children’s literature and culture might usefully explore as a way out of some of our dead-end arguments. The recognition that “childhood is a performance” can help us account for “the simultaneity and mutual constitution of children and childhood” (22). Building on the theories of Joseph Roach, Peggy Phelan, Diana Taylor, and others, Bernstein engages the reader in a complex, nuanced, and original examination of the ways in which notions of childhood innocence in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America have provided “deep cover” for “the construction and maintenance of whiteness” (7–8). Performance theory enables Bernstein to practice a method of reading material culture as “scriptive things” (8). This method, she argues, allows for a dynamic reading of children’s culture and a corrective to critics such as James Kincaid and Jacqueline Rose, who present children’s culture as “created by one empowered group (adults) and given to or forced upon another disempowered group (children)” (28–29). A script, Bernstein points out, offers directions for structuring a performance that in theatrical practice will, in the hands of “actors, directors and designers,” result in “complex, variable performances that occupy real time and space” (12). Live performance itself is both embodied and temporal. Building upon Peggy Phelan’s work in Unmarked: The [End Page 209] Politics of Performance (1993), Bernstein recognizes that childhood, “defined by loss and consternated memory,” is “always in the act of disappearing” as it is being enacted (23–24). Applied to material culture, a “‘scriptive thing,’ like a playscript”

broadly structures a performance while allowing for agency and unleashing original, live variations that may not be individually predictable. Items of material culture script in much the same sense that literary texts mean: neither a thing nor a poem (for example) is conscious or agential, but a thing may invite behaviors that its maker did and did not envision, and a poem may produce meanings that include and exceed the poet’s intentions.


The “top-down understanding of children’s culture” fails to understand that children are “experts in the scripts of children’s culture,” that they are “virtuoso performers” (28), and that the meanings of their performances “cannot be easily contained or controlled”: “Children do not passively receive culture. Rather, children expertly field the co-scripts of narratives and material culture and then collectively forge a third prompt: play itself. The three prompts then entangle to script future play, which continues to change as children collectively exercise agency” (29). Bernstein recognizes, of course, that dominant cultures interpellate children, but the performance of childhood is a complex process that “occurs through surrogation, which Joseph R. Roach defines as the process by which ‘culture reproduces and re-creates itself’” (22). “Childhood itself,” argues Bernstein, “is best understood as a process of surrogation, an endless attempt to find, fashion, and impel substitutes to fill a void caused by the loss of a half-forgotten original” (23).

In chapter 1...


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pp. 209-213
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