- Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein’s groundbreaking Racial Innocence is richly researched, inspiring in its analysis of archival material, and impressive in its deft ability to traverse disciplinary borders, including childhood studies, performance studies, literary studies, and American history.
Bernstein demonstrates that through performance onstage and in everyday-life interactions with material culture, the concept of childhood—particularly childhood innocence—became essential to how blackness and whiteness would be constructed in the US from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries. She argues that a phenomenon called “racial innocence” emerged when arguments about race, even opposing arguments (e.g., pro-slavery vs. anti-slavery), covertly occurred through, and resided in, children’s toys, dolls, books, advertisements, play, and bodies.
Bernstein presents a revolutionary methodological argument, validating the viable role performance studies should play in archival research. Delineating archival artifacts as “scriptive things,” she positions the “item of material culture” not simply as an object, but as a thing “that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors” (71). Bernstein makes the case that “scriptive things contain massive historical evidence” and that “by reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior” (80). She roots her methodological questions in a performance studies framework, asking: “What historically located behaviors did this artifact invite? What practices did it discourage?” (8). With the “histories of oppressed peoples” often embedded in such scripts and the gaps of the archive (80), this approach reveals the significance of continually striving for imaginative ways to recover that which appears to be lost. Through this “tool for analyzing incomplete evidence [...] to make responsible, limited inferences about the past” (79), Bernstein has found another plausible answer to the methodological query posed in Diana Taylor’s 2003 field-changing book The Archive and the Repertoire: “How can we think about performance in historical terms, when the archive cannot capture and store the live event?” (2003:xvi).
Combining this convincing approach with literary and visual analyses, Bernstein presents an absorbing historiography in an introduction and five chapters abounding with chilling visual illustrations. At the text’s discursive and evidentiary center stands Uncle Tom’s Cabin—including the 1852 novel and its spillage onto the theatrical stage and into material culture like handkerchiefs and figurines. In the first chapter, Bernstein persuasively establishes how the construct of childhood innocence would be “raced white” (8)—particularly from the characterization and polarization of innocent white-child Little Eva and wild black-child Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This divergence of performances (i.e., white children’s ability to feel bodily pain and black children’s “insensateness”) gave rise to “(white) tender angels” and “(black) insensate pickaninnies” [End Page 179] (chapter one’s title) onstage, in books, and in advertisements. In subsequent chapters, Bernstein skillfully analyzes the scripts of specific archival artifacts and their historical contexts. She shows how antebellum dolls sewn by black women prompted cuddling of “a Trojan horse that smuggled an enslaved woman’s emotions, analyses, and critiques into white slaveholders’ homes” (90; chapter two); how antislavery arguments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were twisted by the end of the 19th century into proslavery arguments in Uncle Remus tales (chapter three); and how the Raggedy Ann doll, a 1915 repackaged descendant of blackface minstrelsy, invited children to reenact nostalgic scenes of slavery (chapter four).
Some of the most poignant readings occur in Bernstein’s accounts of the “Scripts of Black Dolls” (chapter five’s title), including her discussion of the famous Clark doll tests of the 1940s and highlighting of the materials from which black dolls have been manufactured. In the latter case, she chronicles how late-19th-century black dolls made from durable materials (e.g., rubber) to withstand long-term abuse scripted violent play from white children. In the early 20th century, African Americans advocated for black dolls constructed of fragile materials instead, thereby...