- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein’s intellectually exhilarating study, Racial Innocence, shows readers how the study of childhood illuminates what she identifies as the “American question” of “who is a person and who is a thing” (p. 240). Through her fruitful explorations of literature, theatrical props and performances, and dolls and the play they generate, Bernstein helps us understand this central national problem from the antebellum period through the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. How using ideas about children and childhood helped the post–Civil War South succeed in romanticizing slavery and the plantation system in historical memory lies at the center of her work. She contributes a powerful complementary interpretation to the groundbreaking one that David Blight offers in Race and Reunion. Two among her many other contributions include theoretical insights into the elasticity of meaning in child’s play as well as uncovering the ways Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a source of performance and play after the Civil War superseded in duration, significance, and variety of meanings its life as an antebellum text.
In Bernstein’s textual analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she shows us how the abolitionists’ understanding of the growing national consensus about the innocence of childhood led Harriet Beecher Stowe to try to extend that consensus to black childhood through her treatment of the orphaned slave girl, Topsy. Stowe uses the convention holding that black children were widely understood to be impervious to pain. When the reader meets Topsy, she has been whipped and abused repeatedly but presents a stoic and comical façade. The girl learns nothing from Aunt Ophelia’s physical punishment and is only moved to tears—which stand for both her ability to register pain as well as her developing moral sentience—when little Eva lays a loving hand on her and witnesses to the terrible losses and torture she had suffered.
While Stowe’s bestseller pushed to include black children in the category of persons, not things, Bernstein shows how the Lost Cause revisionists managed [End Page 179] to exclude black children from the protected circle of childhood innocence. Dolls and children’s scripted play figure importantly in closing the cultural door on black children as innocents. The persistence of minstrel shows into the early twentieth century helped inform the ways in which children construed the proper roles of newly emerging dolls, particularly Raggedy Ann, who traced some of her heritage to Topsy. The postbellum Topsies, like Raggedy Ann, are once more impervious to pain: flat comic characters who can endure anything thrown at them, just like the black-faced white actors who played Topsy on the stage. As Bernstein explains, “material culture [coordinated] behaviors that relentlessly performed slavery as intimate desire circulating around and though white children” (p. 132). Bernstein shows that white children had Raggedy Ann and black rag dolls cherish white children, perform menial tasks, and receive punishment. White dolls “mistress,” dressed well, and disciplined their black dolls. The play of white children sanitized exploitation and violence and depicted subordination as natural and cozy.
Bernstein’s discussion of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus enriches this argument as Uncle Remus tells his tales of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit’s trickery while holding the plantation mistress’s son in his lap, The Boy’s head resting on his arm. The Boy in Uncle Remus’s embrace redeems slavery through the child’s guileless love and purity. Gone is labor, the lash, destroyed families, rape, and objectification. In its place are warmth, whimsy, reciprocal obligations, and contentment.
In its last section, Bernstein’s ambitious work brilliantly reinterprets Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll experiment that informed the NAACP’s successful strategy in arguing Brown v. The Board of Education. She points out that, ironically, the Clarks’ inability to understand the dual nature of dolls and child’s play with them led them to misinterpret their findings. The Clarks did not see the difference between dolls as “objects...