- Considering the Racially “Inscrutable” Child: Letter Response to Laura Soderberg, “Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child”
In our current moment, the criminalization and incarceration of children in the United States remains in the public eye. From the overpoliced children of the school-to-prison pipeline to the immigrating children separated from their families and detained indefinitely in concentration camps, the figure of the “incorrigible child” looms behind arguments about children’s culpability and justifications for their punishment. With these twenty-first-century conditions of childhood in mind, I eagerly approached Laura Soderberg’s essay “Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child” (Fall 2018) and am honored to have the opportunity to respond.
For me, Soderberg’s excellent close readings of juvenile prison records are the highlight of her article. Presenting these alongside the more familiar archive of domestic child-rearing manuals, Soderberg analyzes profiles of “delinquent” children to show how adults deemed such children inscrutable and therefore outside the realm of normative strategies of rearing and guidance. Ultimately, she concludes, “the final blow of incorrigibility is thus to isolate those lives it has touched and cut them out of history.” This article therefore raises important questions not only about the histories of incarcerated children’s experiences but also about archival research and interpretations. Focusing on a “collective of children raised to be left out,” Soderberg presents childhood studies [End Page 222] with the very problem of reading these supposedly inscrutable children behind these adult-produced archives and narratives of them.
Soderberg holds that discourses of the incorrigible child (whether assuming childhood deviance or its absence) “converge on the same questions: by what means can one assert authority over an unformed subject and transition that disciplined subject into socialized, adult citizenship?” However, I cannot help but consider children who were not intended be incorporated into mainstream US notions of citizenship: namely, non-white children. Notions of incorrigibility are historically racialized, as most white people in the nineteenth century US considered all Black people to be perpetual children in need of the white paternal “care” of enslavers; Native children as able to be “saved”—that is, assimilated into the white nation—only if white boarding school “educators” first suppressed their native languages, cultures, and sovereignty; and the children of Chinese immigrants as perpetual foreigners, excluded from citizenship even when born in the US. As Soderberg shows, “This newly independent conception of child character, when applied to affluent white children, worked to manage contradictions between US individualism and the dependency of childhood.” Here, Soderberg’s article occasions an interrogation of larger patterns of whiteness in childhood studies. We might find in these contradictions a theory that nonwhite children and their treatment are not exceptions to mainstream (white) notions of childhood criminality and incorrigibility but essential to them. How might such an argument inform our methodological approaches to childhood studies?
Recognizing that “what we still know less about are the figures of childhood that exist outside of that narrow tradition and the relationship that those excluded children still had to discourses of youth,” Soderberg cites Black girlhood studies as a notable exception to this pattern. What would it look like, though, to fully engage with these exceptions in mainstream scholarship on childhood, rather than to normalize the treatment of white children and childhood while holding other childhoods as tangential? How might scholars integrate mainstream discussions of childhood so as to fully consider nonwhite children rather than to simply acknowledge their exclusion and set them aside for other conversations?
Within juvenile prisons, nonwhite children were included among the supposedly incorrigible. In 1835 the New York House of Refuge opened a separate dormitory for “colored” prisoners. This structure of racial segregation acknowledges the fact of incarcerated Black children. It shows also that the infrastructures designed to govern or reform the incorrigible [End Page 223] child did not limit their scope to potential citizens. Nonwhite children also appear in these institutional records. Austin Reed, author of the first known African American prison narrative, was initially incarcerated at age ten or eleven in the House of...