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  • Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
  • Tavia Nyong’o
Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. By Robin Bernstein. New York: New York University Press, 2011. pp. 318. $24.00 paper.

The enduring popularity of the trope of “internalized racism” in the pedagogy of minority empowerment has always been somewhat paradoxical. The explanatory power of this catchphrase would appear weak. Since racism is targeted at people, how could it be other than internalized, given that it hits its mark? Furthermore, the strategic value of this trope is hard to see, insofar as it redirects attention from the perpetrators of hatred and racism and toward their victims, among whom an invidious distinction is drawn between those who manage to ward off the racist interpellation and those who reenact it upon themselves and all who share their identity. Such a pernicious dualism between good and bad victims of racism would appear counterproductive to any robust psychology of empowerment and liberation. But this has not prevented the dualism from being drawn, as taxonomies of racial self-hatred continue to proliferate in the vernacular.

Robin Bernstein’s impressively researched, cogently written, and deeply theorized new book, Racial Innocence, offers one ingenious answer, at least in the case of the U.S. black/white dichotomy, to the popularity of internalized self-hatred as an explanatory model. Turning to the rich archive of childhood as lived, imagined, and performed, she argues that we must turn to a critical genealogy of the concept of childhood innocence to understand the paradoxical appeal of “damage.” Children, she reminds us, were not always considered innocent, vulnerable subjects, but (at least within Calvinist orthodoxy) as guilty of original sin. When children began to be reimagined as innocent in romantic and sentimental American culture, their innocence found a privileged figure in the little white girl. It wasn’t American childhood as such that became innocent but a specifically raced and gendered childhood. This had important consequences for abolitionist and, later, civil rights activists. Embracing the culture (or was it [End Page 146] the cult?) of the child, antiracists sought to extend this privilege of innocence to black boys and girls, in part by demonstrating their equal capacity to suffer.

But, as Bernstein shows with depressingly exhaustive evidence, the culture of white supremacy inculcated an ideology of black insensateness, contrasting with white sensibility. White supremacy excused performed and real violence against black bodies because of their allegedly greater capacity to endure pain and be obliviously happy. Pedagogies of childhood play—evidence of which Bernstein finds in novels, memoirs, illustrations, playbills, figurines, songsheets, photographs, and dolls, to sample just some of the range of her evidence—reinforced this white supremacist dichotomy between white fragility and black obdurateness. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who sought to demonstrate the damage slavery did to black children through her character Topsy, found that her own creation became one of the most enduring sites for the reproduction in performance of the mythically insensate black child. Harmless, innocent fun (as evidenced in an astonishing chapter on the minstrel roots of Raggedy Ann and Andy) became a disavowed site for the reproduction of white supremacy.

Elements of this argument have been outlined in the literature, for instance in Saidiya Hartman’s influential Scenes of Subjection (1997). What Bernstein contributes is a novel methodology for interpreting the archival record for its performances, or “scripts” as she calls them. Her chosen term is deliberately situated between the historical/textual and the embodied/live. It draws upon performance studies, thing theory, material culture, visual culture, and literary analysis to propose that objects in the archive leave evidence as to how they “want” to be used. That is, much as a playscript inclines the performance derived from it toward particular ends, even if a particular staging is revisionist or resistant toward those ends, things possess “scripts” that direct their users toward forms of model behavior. These directions can be derived both from their contexts (descriptions and prescriptions of their uses) and a close analysis of the things themselves. Much of the book is engaged in tracking these everyday scripts of childhood: crying, cuddling, laughing; touching...


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pp. 146-148
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