- Childish ThingsA Review of Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion, and Courtney Weikle-Mills’s Imaginary Citizens
In 1656, Thomas Hooker wrote that “in infancy a man lives little more than the life of a Plant or Beast, feeding and sleeping, growing and increasing” (268). This quotation, dismissive of both children and the quotidian acts that take up their time—eating, sleeping, growing—implies that such everyday functions are so natural, so devoid of thinking and imagination, that they barely merit human status. Three recent books explore children as the median point between “man” and “beast,” the human and the thing, to offer startling new approaches to early American constructions of race, gender, consumption, and citizenship.
The difficulty of studying early American children evokes a larger dilemma that all three of these books investigate through different methodologies and archives: How do we negotiate the past’s relationship between the material and the symbolic, between the thing and the affect that thing accrues, without falling prey to anachronism? These three texts explore, in different ways, the powerful work of fantasy as it emerges in the pleasure and pain of children’s consumption. Critics such as Jacqueline Rose and Lee Edelman have argued that the child is inextricable from adult fantasies, even in our current day. How, then, can we honestly engage children whose lives are long over? If, as Edelman writes, history is “obedient to origins, intentions, and ends whose authority rules over all,” then children offer the tantalizing promise of eliciting those origins even as they themselves appear as ghostly echoes in the archive (180). “It is that inaccessibility and its attendant yearnings,” Karen Sánchez-Eppler suggests, “that prompt the search for the evidence of documents and records, [End Page 129] as well as the acts of imagination, interpretation and narration that transform these shreds into the weft and warp of ‘history’” (215).
Robin Bernstein’s remarkably original book occupies this space between imagination and history as she theorizes the relationship between children and the things that surrounded them. Drawing from a rich and provocative archive that runs the gamut from nineteenth-century children’s literature to child theater stars to Raggedy Ann dolls to Civil Rights–era interviews, Bernstein argues that children are continually being asked to perform certain roles. To be more specific, Bernstein reveals that the artifacts of childhood, like all artifacts, contain embedded scripts that call forth behaviors, emotions, and actions. Children are no less enticed by such “scriptive things” than adults are (69). Perhaps most importantly, like the adults that often hand them the scripts, children can either embrace or rewrite the prompts. Approaching history through the idea of “scriptive things,” Bernstein points out, does not mean that we can somehow retrieve the lost experience of an individual child; rather, we can open a host of possibilities about that which has long been considered the ephemera of childhood experience. “The method of reading material things as scripts,” Bernstein explains, “aims to discover not what any individual actually did but rather what a thing invited its users to do” (11).
Bernstein’s text unfolds with a readerly pleasure few scholarly books achieve, as she offers stunning close readings while steadily constructing a compelling narrative arc built upon each piece of evidence. She begins by arguing that a hierarchy of pain divided black and white childhood in the nineteenth century, creating an opposition between the innocent (white) child who must be shielded from the harshness of life and the pickaninny who is somehow insensate to slings and arrows. The Raggedy Ann doll is just one of the ostensibly innocent objects that Bernstein implicates in these historically violent scripts. Raggedy Ann’s innocence, Bernstein explains, was a careful evocation of the innocence retroactively imposed on slavery as Reconstruction sought to find a way to reconcile North and South. Just as the doll evoked the violent “play” of minstrel shows, Raggedy Ann offered children a script that sanctioned cruelty. As just one example of how this script circulated, Bernstein offers a contemporary poem, spoken in the voice of a child-consumer: “I love ‘er ‘n spank ‘er ‘z much...