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Racial Innocence

Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Robin Bernstein
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 318
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  • Book Info
    Racial Innocence
    Book Description:

    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 toUncle Tom's Cabin toThe 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8709-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: Playing Innocent: Childhood, Race, Performance
    (pp. 1-29)

    In October 2009, Keith Bardwell, the justice of the peace in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish, refused to perform a wedding ceremony for Beth Humphrey, who is white, and Terence McKay, who is African American. “I don’t do interracial marriages,” Bardwell explained, “because I don’t want to put children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves.”¹ Bardwell, a white man, said that in his observation, “There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage” and that therefore “the children will later suffer.”² He asserted that his refusal to marry Humphrey and McKay did not constitute discrimination...

  5. 1 Tender Angels, Insensate Pickaninnies: The Divergent Paths of Racial Innocence
    (pp. 30-68)

    In an advertising trade card from the 1890s, an African American girl smiles as she cuddles an armful of cotton (figure 1.1 and plate 1).¹ She advertises Cottolene, a lard substitute made out of cottonseed oil and animal fat.² The girl is well dressed and also well fed, as her chubby face and limbs attest. A yellow flower decorates her pigtail. The girl replicates the qualities of cuteness that coalesced at the turn of the twentieth century: her eyes are large in proportion to her head, her nose is small, her face is broad, her lips are plump but not...

  6. 2 Scriptive Things
    (pp. 69-91)

    In about 1855, more than three decades before Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the best-selling children’s bookLittle Lord Fauntleroy,she was a child—Frances Eliza Hodgson—and she read Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin.She found Stowe’s novel, like all the stories she encountered, to be “imperfect, unsatisfactory, filling her with vague, restless craving for greater completeness of form.”¹ The form the girl craved—that is, the material she believed she needed to complete the narrative—was a black doll. Burnett obtained a black rubber doll with a “cheerfully hideous grin,” named it Topsy, and used it to “act” out the...

  7. 3 Everyone Is Impressed: Slavery as a Tender Embrace from Uncle Tom’s to Uncle Remus’s Cabin
    (pp. 92-145)

    To the modern nose, much nineteenth-century literature might seem to stink of pedophilia. Uncle Tom spies Little Eva on the steamboat and “cut[s] cunning little baskets out of cherry-stones” to “attract” the child. Little Eva is initially “shy,” and Tom finds it “not easy to tame her.” But the girl “bashful[ly]” accepts Tom’s gifts, and soon the two get “on quite confidential terms.” In this reading, the seduction culminates when Eva “whisper[s] softly . . . ‘I want him.’”¹ In a later best-selling tale of interracial, cross-generational love, Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus “initiates” a white, unnamed Little Boy by...

  8. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  9. 4 The Black-and-Whiteness of Raggedy Ann
    (pp. 146-193)

    In September of 1915, a young commercial artist named Johnny Gruelle seemed headed for a sustained if undistinguished career as a cartoonist and illustrator. The son of Richard Buckner Gruelle, a member of the Hoosier Group of impressionist painters, Johnny Gruelle had contributed incidental cartoons to theIndianapolis Sun,theIndianapolis (Morning) Star,theCleveland Press,and other midwestern newspapers.¹ In 1910, while still in his twenties, he glimpsed fame when he bested 1,500 entries to win theNew York Herald’scompetition for a new comic strip. TheHeraldran Gruelle’s eponymous strip about an elf, Mr. Twee Deedle, on...

  10. 5 The Scripts of Black Dolls
    (pp. 194-244)

    In 1985, at the age of 102, Daisy Turner recalled an incident from her childhood in which she transformed a black doll from a tool of coercion into one of resistance. Turner, an African American woman, was born in Vermont, where she lived for most of her life. In about 1891, when Turner was about eight years old, a teacher in her predominantly white elementary school concocted a verse pageant for the students to perform at the end of the school year. Poetry had long been an important part of Turner’s home life: her family habitually created, memorized, and recited...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 245-294)
  12. Index
    (pp. 295-307)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 308-308)