Robin Bernstein examines American childhood and slavery in Racial Innocence. 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.
- 318 pages
- by Robin Bernstein
Black Dolls (February 25 -- June 5, 2022) explores handmade cloth dolls made primarily by African American women between 1850 and 1940 through the lens of race, gender, and history. Examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. It features more than 100 cloth dolls, alongside dozens of historical photographs of white and Black children posed with their playthings and caregivers. A coda explores 20th-century commercial dolls marketed to a broader audience of Black families seeking to instill pride in their children. Through these humble yet potent objects, Black Dolls reveals difficult truths about American history and invites visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation around the legacy of slavery and race.