Racial Innocence : Performing Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights

Robin Bernstein

Winner of the Grace Abbott Best Book Award,  Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, 2013

Winner of the Outstanding Book Award, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, 2012

Winner of the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize, New England American Studies Association, 2012

Runner-Up for the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, American Studies Association, 2012

Honorable Mention for the Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Study of American Women Writers, 2012

Winner of the Children’s Literature Association Book Award for books published in 2011

Beginning in the mid nineteenth century in America, childhood became synonymous with innocence–a reversal of the previously-dominant Calvinist belief that children were depraved, sinful creatures. As the idea of childhood innocence took hold, it became racialized: popular culture constructed white children as innocent and vulnerable while excluding black youth from these qualities. Actors, writers, and visual artists then began pairing white children with African American adults and children, thus transferring the quality of innocence to a variety of racial-political projects—a dynamic that Robin Bernstein calls “racial innocence.” This phenomenon informed racial formation from the mid nineteenth century through the early twentieth.

Racial Innocence takes up a rich archive including books, toys, theatrical props, and domestic knickknacks which Bernstein analyzes as “scriptive things” that invite or prompt historically-located practices while allowing for resistance and social improvisation.  Integrating performance studies with literary and visual analysis, Bernstein offers singular readings of theatrical productions from blackface minstrelsy to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; literary works by Joel Chandler Harris, Harriet Wilson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett; material culture including Topsy pincushions, Uncle Tom and Little Eva handkerchiefs, and Raggedy Ann dolls; and visual texts ranging from fine portraiture to advertisements for lard substitute. Throughout, Bernstein shows how “innocence” gradually became the exclusive province of white children—until the Civil Rights Movement succeeded not only in legally desegregating public spaces, but in culturally desegregating the concept of childhood itself.