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  • Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
  • Michelle H. Martin (bio)
Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. By Robin Bernstein. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence offers an impressively rich and thorough analysis of late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century materials related to childhood, illustrating the means through which black children were systematically excluded from being categorized as innocent. Relying on personal accounts, archival records, historical documents, toys, and other articles with which children played, she then illustrates how, through their own forms of play and performance, black children effectively resisted this systematic negative scripting and assaults upon their childhood and humanity. Most noteworthy is the way that Bernstein pieces together layer upon layer of evidence from multiple sources—written documents, accounts of performances, musical scores, sales records from toy companies, and documented interviews with descendants of slaves—to make a convincing argument that runs counter to how Americans have historically thought about black children and their play.

Bernstein begins the first chapter, "Tender Angels, Insensate Pickaninnies," by juxtaposing a documentary photograph of a young white female cotton picker standing in a cotton field with an illustrated advertisement for Cottolene, a lard substitute, featuring a black child. The photograph, taken by Lewis Hine, who used his camera to fight against child labor in the early decades of the twentieth century, evokes the viewer's empathy and clearly shows fieldwork as an inappropriate burden for a preadolescent white girl. The advertisement for Cottolene, on the other hand, naturalizes the black child's embrace of a baby-shaped mound of cotton and "sells black child's labor as worthy of being embraced rather than burdensome" (33). Through illustrations from popular culture and printed artifacts, Bernstein effectively articulates the bifurcation of childhood that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; though these representations were by no means monolithic, the white child generally was depicted as innocent while the black child character was "increasingly and overwhelming evacuated of innocence" and ultimately "redefined as a nonchild—a pickaninny" (34). A defining characteristic in the portrayal of the pickaninny was the child's inability to feel pain, and "[a]t stake in this split was fitness for citizenship and inclusion in the category of the child and, ultimately, the human" (36). [End Page 96] Central to Bernstein's argument is the figure of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin—a novel whose influence spanned many decades following its publication.

In chapter two, "Scriptive Things," Bernstein uses the relationship between Eva and Topsy in Stowe's novel to demonstrate how slavery could harden otherwise sensitive individuals—like this slave child—but how humane treatment could reverse this hardening process. Uncle Tom's Cabin remains a touchstone and point of reference throughout Racial Innocence, beginning with Stowe's book but proceeding into a lengthy discussion of its cultural impact, manifested in countless stage plays, toys, figurines, handkerchiefs, and other artifacts of popular culture for both children and adults which kept the story in the public imagination long after the book's publication. Bernstein also delineates how apologists for slavery made subtle shifts in the story as they reinterpreted and refashioned it in numerous forms, turning Stowe's antislavery message and sentimentalism "topsy-turvy" (50), thereby changing the figure of Topsy from a sympathetic character who, with Christian love, human tenderness, and salvation, could become the good person Eva wants her to be, into an insensate, humorous pickaninny who invites abuse because she, like the black child characters in E. W. Kemble's A Coon Alphabet, cannot feel pain or be damaged by violence. This characteristic of Topsy later led to the manufacturing of black dolls whose very construction invited abuse and rough play.

In Bernstein's third chapter, "Everyone Is Impressed: Slavery as a Tender Embrace from Uncle Tom's to Uncle Remus's Cabin," she reads children's dolls and toys as "scriptive things" that issued a set of prompts to children who played with them (71). In other words, although it is difficult to say with any certainty what children actually did...


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