- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
In his essay "From Work to Text," Roland Barthes contends that true interdisciplinary scholarship is to be found not in books that challenge the limits of already constituted disciplines, but rather in books that define new objects of knowledge and introduce new methodologies, new ways of knowing. Racial Innocence is such a book. Through inspired analyses of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and children's doll-play, Robin Bernstein reads nineteenth-century childhood innocence as "the performed transcendence of social categories of class, gender, and, most importantly . . . , race" (6). Because innocence effectively naturalized such categories, childhood functioned as a performative construct that was used to materialize various, even competing, racial ideologies. As she shows, "childhood figured pivotally in a set of large-scale U.S. racial projects," including "slavery and abolition, post-Emancipation enfranchisement and disenfranchisement[,] . . . antiblack violence, New Negro racial uplift, and the early civil rights movement" (3-4). Bernstein maintains that these racial projects were shaped by the way childhood innocence was conceived and performed—both onstage and off, in and among everyday objects of material culture.
To uncover the racializing force of childhood innocence, Bernstein moves nimbly through the sprawl of nineteenth-century popular culture in the United States, drawing evidence from visual, literary, material, and theatrical sources. Her impressive array of examples comes together through the new historical methodology that drives Racial Innocence: reading material artifacts as "scriptive things"—that is, as prompts for performance (8). Like a play text, a scriptive thing "deeply influences but does not entirely determine live performances, which vary according to agential individuals' visions, impulses, resistances, [and] revisions" (71). Reading material things as scripts for embodied behavior not only troubles Diana Taylor's famous distinction between the archive and the repertoire, but also leads Bernstein to fresh and astonishing conclusions about race, childhood, and US history.
Chapter 1 argues that the nineteenth century's sentimental conception of childhood innocence helped make racially charged "political projects appear innocuous, natural, and therefore justified" (33). The pervasive caricature of young blacks as "pickaninnies," or comic figures impervious to pain, "purged innocence from representations of African American children," redefining the black child as a "nonchild" (34). Because the pickaninny naturalized the exploitation and abuse of African Americans, it is surprising that this libelous figure managed to infiltrate adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. But as Bernstein demonstrates, adapters of Stowe's text, from George Aiken to Walt Disney, reinvented Topsy— an enslaved black girl—as popular culture's most enduring pickaninny.
Bernstein argues that when a racial stereotype like the pickaninny "is effectively countered or even delegitimized in adult culture, . . . [it] often flows stealthily into children's culture," as in Disney's 1933 animated short of Uncle Tom's Cabin (51). Chapter 2 illustrates this point in reverse by reading the topsy-turvy doll—in which a black torso and a white torso are fused at the waist—as a scriptive thing: "originally sewn by enslaved African American women in the antebellum South," the topsy-turvy doll "scripted its user to position neither black nor white permanently on top" (81, 88). By prompting white girls (who often owned topsy-turvy dolls) to engage in racially inversive play, black doll-makers smuggled resistance to racial hierarchy into the osensibly innocent realm of white children's culture.
Chapter 3, the most generative section of Racial Innocence, analyzes "Tomitudes"—inexpensive souvenirs of Uncle Tom's Cabin—as scriptive things [End Page 295] engaged in both "domesticating the theater and theatricalizing the home" (113). For example, Staffordshire figurines of Cordelia Howard—a child actress who famously played Eva in Aiken's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin—could be purchased in theatre lobbies for home-based play, decoration, and "worship" (125). By 1892, when traveling "Tom shows" typically announced their arrival in town with a parade, the young Hilda Doolittle (who later reinvented herself as the poet H.D.) had trouble distinguishing the enactment...