- The Ambiguous Role of Agency in Childhood Studies
Childhood studies frequently exhibits dueling interests regarding child agency: while some scholars critique the ways in which children’s rights are limited, others champion the means by which children still exercise control. Recent books by Robin Bernstein, Courtney Weikle-Mills, and C. Dallett Hemphill demonstrate just how much assessments of children’s agency can vary. While Bernstein focuses on how children’s culture can be appropriated for political agendas, Weikle-Mills looks at how literature for and about children often affirms changes in their status as citizens. Finally, via an archival analysis of family culture, Hemphill reconstructs the experience of actual historical children to demonstrate the significance of sibling relationships to one’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural landscape.
In a world filled with DVD collections and streaming media, many of us find ourselves returning to the television shows and films that delighted us as children, only to discover how thickly they are layered with the prejudices of the period in which they were created. Believing we are escaping to a world free of a political agenda, we instead find ourselves bumping up against the same problematic ideologies we ask students to identify and resenting the “education” we received without realizing it. Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights focuses on this tendency of children’s culture to give the appearance of existing outside a political context.
Bernstein’s concept of “racial innocence” refers to the ways that the child can be used to “make political projects appear innocuous, natural, [End Page 304] and therefore justified” (33). Bernstein illustrates this process in her first chapter, in which she compares the cover image of the book—a Cottolene advertisement from the 1890s featuring a young, smiling black girl hugging a soft cloud of cotton—with a photograph of a young white child in a cotton field. While the photograph of the white child is clearly meant to protest child labor, the Cottolene advertisement nefariously presents the black child as happily embracing the product she helps to produce and, by extension, the labor she had to perform to produce it. Such images, Bernstein argues, were responsible for perpetuating the idea that black children were insensate, immune to pain, a belief that culminated in the figure of the invulnerable pickaninny.
Bernstein’s second chapter then demonstrates her methodology for examining material culture, explaining that the primary question to ask about a material object is what practices it both invites and discourages. Bernstein shows that a wide variety of material objects historically scripted affirmations and approval of black insensateness: from black rubber dolls whose very composition encouraged rough treatment, to E. W. Kemble’s 1898 A Coon Alphabet, a collection of rhymes about black children that frequently end in violence and that invite the reader to participate in that violence by turning the page to reveal it. In subsequent chapters, Bernstein examines how illustrations and theatrical adaptions altered the ideologies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; analyzes the forms of play “scripted” by the popular cuddly doll Raggedy Ann and the books sold with it; and questions whether Kenneth and Mamie Clark were correct to assume, as they did in the 1940s, that black children’s preference for white dolls bespoke their internalized racism rather than attitudes about play.
Weikle-Mills’s Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640–1868 also presents a concept with far-ranging applications for childhood studies: that of “imaginary citizens,” individuals who could not exercise civic rights but who were, in Bernstein’s terms, scripted to see themselves as citizens. “Imaginary citizenship” is a concept that would seem to have particular relevance today, with the current celebrity that many child activists have enjoyed, a cultural trend most...