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  • Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
  • Samantha Christensen
Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. Robin Bernstein. New York: New York UP, 2011. 307 pp.

In Racial Innocence, Robin Bernstein engages in a discursive commentary on race, childhood, and innocence in American texts emerging from the antebellum period (the period prior to the Civil War). Bringing slave narratives and theatrical adaptations into discussion with Stowe’s seminal text Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bernstein explores the racism and Eurocentric values implicit in nineteenth-century American understandings of childhood innocence. She recognizes that Stowe’s influential work, often linked to the spark that ignited the American Civil War, was more than a work of literature: it carried with it a material culture that cut through class, gender, and racial boundaries. Bernstein refers to Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a repertoire, as it existed as prose, parlor performance, visual art, and in other cultural forms. Throughout Racial Innocence, she offers close readings of texts and other material, particularly white and black dolls, and unpacks the implications of white supremacy implicit in the romanticized notion of the African American as childlike.

Bernstein introduces the first chapter with a comprehensive analysis of the book’s cover image, a nineteenth-century advertisement for Cottolene (a brand of cooking fat), by comparing the image of the African American child to a similar advertisement for the same product depicting a young white girl. Bernstein recognizes that understandings of [End Page 99] childhood shifted in the nineteenth-century, and (white) children were no longer viewed as small adults, but rather as fragile and innocent beings. The author argues, however, that nineteenth-century cultural material portrayed black children as “pickaninnies”: wild, gluttonous, and immoral creatures who were unable to feel pain or respond emotionally to actions or events. The ability to feel pain was a key component of childhood innocence, and because the pickaninny was thought to be immune to pain, the notion of childhood innocence did not transmit to the black child. Bernstein supports this argument with contrasting analyses of the violence which was encouraged toward black rubber dolls and the nurturing attitudes promoted through white porcelain dolls. She also reads the recurring touches shared between Eva, the pure and innocent white child in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Topsy, the wild and misbehaving black slave-child. The touch is a key factor in the adoption of childhood innocence on Topsy’s part, and Bernstein offers an insightful discourse on the transfer of innocence in shared touches between white slaveholders and black slaves. She also begins to explore the discourse of racial innocence at work in the popular Topsy-Turvy doll of the nineteenth century, which she carries into the following chapter.

In the second chapter, Bernstein looks more closely at the Topsy-Turvy doll—a popular double-ended children’s toy depicting Eva and Topsy fused at the waist and separated by a shared skirt. Highly popular all over antebellum America, the Topsy-Turvy doll helped the repertoire of Uncle Tom’s Cabin come to life, and Bernstein explores the problematic relationship between the widely loved doll and the racial consciousnesses of white and black children alike. She suggests that the black and white characters convey images of the mixed-race child and subtly comment on issues of rape and miscegeny in slave-holding America. Bernstein notes that these dolls were often sewn by slave women in the domestic sphere, and the social commentary attached to these bi-racial, “crotchless” dolls “was not only intellectually brilliant but also angry and bitterly witty” (89). Bernstein offers a deeply insightful and innovative analysis of the well-known Topsy-Turvy doll, and foregrounds an exploration of issues of miscegeny, rape, and slave women’s experiences sewn into this popularly well-loved toy.

In the third chapter, entitled “Everyone is Impressed: Slavery as a Tender Embrace from Uncle Tom’s to Uncle Remus’s Cabin,” Bernstein suggests that nineteenth-century social understandings of childhood and its inextricable link to innocence masks a sexual relationship between Eva and Uncle Tom. She contends that, had Eva been an adult character in the...


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pp. 99-101
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