Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

PLEASE NOTE: I am in the process of migrating my website. The most current information about my work is online at http://scholar.harvard.edu/robinbernstein

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  • By Robin Bernstein

    December 1, 2011, New York University Press

    Second Printing February 2012

    Third Printing January 2013

    Winner, OUTSTANDING BOOK AWARD, Association for Theatre in Higher Education

    Winner, GRACE ABBOTT BEST BOOK PRIZE, Society for the History of Childhood and Youth

    Winner, BOOK AWARD, Children's Literature Association

    Winner, LOIS P. RUDNICK BOOK PRIZE, New England American Studies Association

    Runner-Up, JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN PUBLICATION PRIZE, American Studies Association

    Honorable Mention, BOOK AWARD, Society for the Study of American Women Writers

    Buy Racial Innocence at Amazon, Powell's, or NYU Press.


    In Racial Innocence, Robin Bernstein argues that the concept of "childhood innocence" has been central to U.S. racial formation since the mid-nineteenth century. Children--white ones imbued with innocence, black ones excluded from it, and others of color erased by it--figured pivotally in sharply divergent racial agendas from slavery and abolition to antiblack violence and the early civil rights movement.

    Bernstein takes up a rich archive including books, toys, theatrical props, and domestic knickknacks which she 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.


    "Nineteenth and early twentieth-century material culture comes alive in Robin Bernstein's brilliant study of the racialized and gendered ideologies that shape, inform and continue to haunt notions of American childhood into the present day. Through imaginative and masterfully innovative archival research, Bernstein shows how representations of childhood and child's play are integral to the making of whiteness and blackness and citizenship in this country. Racial Innocence is a groundbreaking book that for the first time illuminates the powerful and critical connections between constructions of girlhood, racial formations and American popular culture." --Daphne Brooks, Princeton University

    "Bernstein's powerful account of how the sentimental ideology of childhood innocence, and particularly its highly gendered manifestations, function to articulate racial hierarchies gives strong and detailed evidence for how paying attention to childhood serves to refocus many all too familiar, and troublesome, facets of American culture. I know of virtually no one of her generation who writes with this kind of verve, authority and pleasure. Racial Innocence will prove an important and widely read book--in part simply because it will be so much fun to read." --Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Amherst College

    “One of those rare books which, as I'm reading it, is giving me all sorts of disconcertingly new and disconcertingly persuasive ideas about subjects I've been thinking about for years. Apparently I don't know everything about the textuality of childhood--at least not yet. But I am learning more, and very much enjoying it. Highly recommended.” --Perry Nodelman, Professor Emeritus, University of Winnipeg, and author of The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature

    "Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is a historiographic tour de force that traces a genealogy of the invention of the innocent (white) child and its racialized roots in 19th and 20th century U.S. popular culture. With special attention to objects that perform as “scriptive” things in themselves and in relation to dramatic works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—Bernstein argues for the importance of everyday objects and print items as formative of racial ideologies that haunt us to the present day. Especially crucial is Bernstein’s focus on objects and texts especially designed for girls and women--i.e. dolls--that are often not taken seriously as cultural artifacts of great import. Her rich archive and nuanced analysis will make this a classic book for theater historians and performance theorists." The Outstanding Book Award prize committee, Association for Theatre in Higher Education


    "One of those rare books that shifts the paradigm--a book that, in years to come, will be recognized as a landmark in children's literature and childhood studies . . . . This is not one of those scholarly books that offer a thesis and then proceed to pummel the reader into submission by piling example on top of example. Instead, it develops a certain line of argument, and then turns, moving in a different direction, developing this new direction fully before changing tack once more. Structuring the argument this way makes for a much more interesting reading experience. . . . [F]ew scholars can write a sentence like Bernstein can: packed with insight, theoretically sophisticated, and yet lucid--even, at times, lyrical. . . . Few critics. . . write prose that is such a pleasure to read." --Philip Nel, "Animated. Scripted. Not Innocent," Children's Literature 40 (2012): 305-310.

    “In a dazzling analysis, Bernstein convincingly argues that the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark were so eager to see doll choice as ‘transparent revelation of black children’s damaged self-esteem’ that they ignored black children’s actual cultural experiences of black and white dolls as dolls, which had ‘their own histories of performance’ as scriptive things. Children both black and white knew the [violent and degrading] roles to which black dolls were relegated, and the Clarks’ study forced the black children both to implicitly acknowledge that status (in the request, ‘Give me the doll that you like to play with’) and explicitly identify their own blackness with the degraded status of the black doll (in the request ‘Give me the doll that looks like you’). No wonder that the black test subjects either clammed up, wept, or ran out of the room, since the ‘impossible, binary demand that the Clarks’ subjects faced [was]: liken yourself to a black doll or appear to reject your own racial identity.’ It is a credit to Bernstein’s carefully documented and at the same time expressively written discussion throughout Racial Innocence that I found this moment incredibly moving. In their desire to achieve racial justice, the Clarks were not just tone-deaf to black children’s relationship to the racialized world of dolls but traumatized them further. . . . Reading Racial Innocence. . . I experienced moments of excitement and delight that come with encountering new and field-expanding ideas.” --Sarah E. Chinn, "Racialized Things," American Quarterly 64.4 (December 2012): 873-883.

    “A timely and exemplary contribution to the historiography of racial formation in the United States, Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is an intervention of the highest order. The success of this meticulously researched and carefully argued book rests on two interrelated achievements: the development of a groundbreaking theory and its application toward highly revelatory ends. . . . [W]hat ultimately emerges in Racial Innocence is a historiographic framing that positions children as central actors, literally so, in American economic, political, and social projects. Bernstein writes, ‘Because the culture of childhood so often retains and repurposes that which has elsewhere become abject or abandoned, the study of childhood radically challenges many established historical periodizations’ (7). This is just one of the many invaluable lessons from this powerhouse of a book. Richly illustrated with stunning color plates and a bounty of black-and-white images, Racial Innocence will quickly become a cornerstone text in many fields, ranging from critical race theory and performance studies to American cultural history and childhood studies.” Douglas A. Jones, The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 27.1 (Fall 2012): 143-146.

    "Innovative… nuanced and original… compelling… It should be apparent by now that Bernstein's is a richly complex argument. What may not yet be apparent is that the book is also a magnificent and stylish performance of its own, consistently provocative, consistently illuminating, and consistently well written. The scholarship is impeccable--indeed, the footnotes alone provide a wealth of information for future scholars. It is not often that a truly groundbreaking book in the field of childhood (or children's) studies comes along. Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is just such a book." Richard Flynn, The Lion and the Unicorn 36.2 (2012), 209-213.

    "So much depends upon dolls in pain. Do they feel their beatings at the hands of children? What's at stake in thinking a doll can feel distress? This is a drama. The liquid idea or crystallized tactility of such a possible sensation for a doll, for a black doll--the sense that it could recoil, with tenderness or sorrow, if you were to hit it--tells us volumes about the race of childhood, from the time of slavery up to Civil Rights. Childhood, which enthrones innocence, which shapes race (and rights that start in childhood), hangs upon pain--doll pain, in part. Expertly, persuasively, and often brilliantly, Bernstein tells us why. With her inventiveness, thoroughness, and carefulness always in evidence, always remarkably impressive and required, always surfacing in apt formulations, she makes her focus on dolls indispensable to grasping racial cruelty in the nineteenth century and even beyond. That is to say, in this conspicuously well-researched study, Bernstein surprises us with fractures that we know. Pain as a possible, meaningful sensation--a feeling we attribute to others, even dolls--marks specific borders, especially between enslaved and free, but also between childhood innocence and something like juvenile inuredness to hurt. Who feels suffering and so needs shielding from it? Who, in other words, has racial innocence, a sensitivity to possible harm? Children rehearse these relations with their dolls. And adults rehearse them by watching children play-- and by watching dramas or reading certain novels that induce beliefs surrounding human pain." Kathryn Bond Stockton, Modern Drama 55.4 (Winter 2012): 566-569

    "Intellectually exhilarating. . . . Racial Innocence will fascinate and inform readers across numerous disciplines." Martha Saxton, JoJournal of the History of Childhood and Youth 6.1 (Winter 2013): 179-181

    "Racial Innocence is an invaluable contribution not only because it exposes the racial dimensions of the concept of childhood innocence, but also because of its unique methodology, which addresses a critical gap between discussing childhood as a concept and addressing children's lived experiences. Bernstein's careful treatment of primary materials through the lens of performance expertly illuminates the intended uses and meanings of these objects, but crucially, she attributes agency to the real children who interacted with them by suggesting how these meanings are mutable and were reshaped in practice, leaving space for resistance to the dominant scripts. While the book is certain to find application within black studies, performance studies, material culture studies, and history, it is also a tremendous resource to those working in the areas of literary and media studies. It enlivens a diverse constellation of evidence, making it an exemplary model for any interdisciplinary project of similarly ambitious scope." Meredith Bak, Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (August 2012): 913-915.

    “Daringly imaginative… Racial Innocence is an unsettlingly convincing and therefore usefully unsettling book… Bernstein[’s] careful, subtle, and richly detailed analyses act as an almost anthropological thick description, revealing the complex ways in which apparently simple objects express and interact both with history and culture and with the people who use them. They provide a model for scholars brave enough and wise enough to attempt to apply her methodology in other contexts. Racial Innocence has taught me more than I expected possible about subjects I thought I knew too well for something like that to happen. I highly recommend it.” Perry Nodelman, International Research in Children’s Literature vol. 5, no. 2 (December 2012): 227-229.

    "Bernstein's book will be of keen interest to those working to study either childhood or toy culture in the United States, as well as to scholars of critical race theory or postcolonial studies. The author's deep understanding of nineteenth-century childhood play and the black-and-white imagery of minstrelsy in the United States allows her to describe in a clear and meaningful way the long-term effects of racialised nineteenth-century culture on our present day. Further, because Bernstein presses on Michel de Certeau's notion of tactics, or the ways in which consumers put the objects in their lives to productive use, Racial Innocence outlines new methodologies with which to analyse the seemingly inert objects that are marketed to consumers across the globe. Perhaps even more importantly, Bernstein's theory of the scriptive thing asks us to see children as active participants in culture, and, in fact, as expert agents of the culture of childhood into which they have been interpellated. In this way, Bernstein is able not only to describe the effects of nineteenth-century racialisation on twenty-first century US culture, but also to illuminate the racialised residues of our own childhoods in our everyday adult lives." Aaron C. Thomas, Cultural Studies

    "Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence offers an impressively rich and thorough analysis of late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century materials related to childhood, illustrating the means through which black children were systematically excluded from being categorized as innocent. Relying on personal accounts, archival records, historical documents, toys, and other articles with which children played, she then illustrates how, through their own forms of play and performance, black children effectively resisted this systematic negative scripting and assaults upon their childhood and humanity. Most noteworthy is the way that Bernstein pieces together layer upon layer of evidence from multiple sources--written documents, accounts of performances, musical scores, sales records from toy companies, and documented interviews with descendants of slaves--to make a convincing argument that runs counter to how Americans have historically thought about black children and their play. . . . Racial Innocence not only offers a new perspective on an important era in African American history and children's literature history; it is so well written and well researched that it offers a riveting read for any scholar interested in the subject. Bernstein's research is informed by major resources as well as obscure documents and records that would have been easy to overlook, but which add a wealth of support to her argument. Any reader who ingests Racial Innocence will look at this historical era with different eyes, and I, for one, will never see Raggedy Ann and Andy in quite the same way." Michelle H. Martin, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina and Past President, Children's Literature Association, Children's Literature Association Quarterly 38.1 (Spring 2013): 96-101.

    "It is a great pleasure to see a book of this sophistication that takes on children and childhood to argue their centrality in larger issues. From the outset, Bernstein makes it clear that both childhood and child material culture have been key in the discourse and practices of making race and racism in the United States. Especially important is the chapter on Raggedy Ann, which highlights that doll's ancestral ties to the golliwog and other racist characters. After reading Bernstein's careful and compelling account of that particular staple of many a girl's childhood, I find it hard to imagine buying one ever again. This focus on the horrifying historical content built into supposedly innocent items of everyday culture is surely the book's most important point. It is one that I imagine will hit home quite hard with undergraduates in particular; this book would be a great resource for courses on race, children and childhood, power, and U.S. culture. Bernstein is at her best when demonstrating the ways in which the everyday walks a tightrope with balancing exactly those dilemmas most of us claim to have avoided: racism, sexism, and hegemony more broadly. Perhaps more than almost any book I have seen, this one is a vehicle for showing students the paradoxical ways in which even against our will, we are drawn into dynamics of power and inequality in the most subtle and everyday ways. . . . It is certainly both striking and disheartening how easily the scripts identified by Bernstein can be applied to . . . present-day items of material culture. The power and relevance of her analysis is thus something we are likely to discover not just in our own everyday lives, but in those of girls for whom [present-day] dolls are ostensibly intended. As the stuff through which much of their understanding of the world around them begins to take shape, these objects of material culture are, as Bernstein richly demonstrates, powerful vehicles for complex agendas usually thought to be far outside the realm of childhood innocence." Elizabeth Chin, "Scriptive Things: Reading Childhood and Analyzing Discourses through Dolls," Girlhood Studies Volume 5, Number 1 (Summer 2012): 160-164.


    Interview with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education on the occasion of winning the award for Outstanding Article in a Journal. This interview explains some of the key ideas in Racial Innocence.


    “Is That Your Child? Thought in Full Color” with Michelle McCrary, multi-ethnic/multi-cultural web radio program, 60-minute taped interview, October 10, 2012.

    "Uprising Radio" with Sonali Kolhatkar, KPFK, Pacifica in Southern California, 15-minute interview, February 2, 2012

    "Women-Stirred Radio" with Merry Gangemi, WGDR, Plainfield, VT, 30-minute live interview, January 12, 2012

    "Voices of Our World" with Kathy Golden, program run by the Maryknoll, a progressive religious community, nationally syndicated to over 100 radio stations, 25 minute taped interview (click "Not So Innocent"), December 12, 2011

    "The Women's Show" with Arly Helm, feminist radio program, KVMR-FM, Grass Valley, CA, 50-minute taped interview, December 12, 2011

    "The Wimmin's Music Program" with Laura Rinaldi, feminist radio program, KKUP, Santa Cruz, 30-minute live interview, December 4, 2011

    "The Bob Salter Show," progressive radio show, WFAN/WXRK, New York City, 30-minute taped interview, December 3, 2011

    "Peace and Social Justice" with Laurel Avalon, KZFR, Chico, CA, 30-minute live interview, December 2, 2011

    "Northern Spirit Radio" with Mark Judkins Helpsmeet, progressive Christian radio program, hour-long taped interview, December 1, 2011

    "Radio with a View" with Marc Stern, progressive radio program WMBR FM, Cambridge, MA, 40-minute live studio interview, November 27, 2011

    "Perspectives" with Richard Baker, Progressive radio show syndicated on 23 NPR stations, 30-minute taped interview, November 21, 2011

    "Late Mornings with Jeff Schechtman," progressive radio show, KVON-AM, Napa, CA, 30-minute taped interview, November 15, 2011

    "Lambda Radio Report" with Charone Pagett, African American LGBT radio show, WRFG-FM, Atlanta, 30-minute live interview, November 15, 2011

    "Culture Shocks" with Barry Lynn, progressive radio show sponsored by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, syndicated to 9 radio stations in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and California 40-minute taped interview, November 14, 2011,

    "An Evening With Guy Rathbun," progressive radio show, KCBX - FM, (NPR) San Luis Obispo, 20-minute taped interview, November 14, 2011

    "Queer Voices" with Jone Devlin, KPFT (Pacifica), Houston, TX, 15-minute live interview, November 14, 2011

    "LIBRadio" ("Living in Black Radio") with Keidi Obi Awadu, Afrocentric radio show, Black Star Media, Inglewood, CA, Hour-long live interview with callers, November 11, 2011,

    "Feminist Edition with Charlotte Crockford," WUML, Lowell, MA, 30-minute taped interview, November 8, 2011

    "The 8:00 Buzz with Stan Woodard," progressive radio show, WORT-FM, Madison, Wisconsin, 20-minute live interview, November 8, 2011

    "Conversations with Peter Solomon," Progressive radio show, WIP AM and FM, Philadelphia, 30-minute live interview, November 6, 2011


    “To My 15-Year-Old Self: Things I Wish I’d Known.” Invited entry for cnn.com, “Leading Women,” special feature for International Day of the Girl, 11 October 2012. (click on 11th thumbnail image)

    "Exploring Racism in Overlooked Objects," article by Alexandra L. Almore in The Harvard Crimson, 21 February 2012.

    "Professor Revisits Clark Doll Tests," article by Michael G. Proulx in The Harvard Crimson, December 1, 2011.

    "The Invention of Childhood Innocence," article by Krysten A. Keches in The Harvard Gazette, April 29, 2010.


    Thursday, March 22, 2012: public reading with other members of the American Theatre and Drama Society at the Drama Book Shop, 250 West 40th Street, New York City

    Monday, March 12, 2012: Robin Bernstein and William Gleason discuss their books, Racial Innocence and Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature, both of which were recently published in New York University Press's series, "America and the Long Nineteenth Century."

    Wednesday, February 29, 3:30 pm, Simmons College Department of English, Robin Bernstein delivers the 2012 Robert M. Gay Memorial Lecture. Location TBA.

    Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 6:30 pm: panel discussion of Racial Innocence, sponsored by the Harvard Foundation, followed by a reception sponsored by the Program of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Thompson Room, Barker Center, Harvard University

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011: public talk, "Psychological Damage or Resistance? Re-Evaluating the Clark Doll Tests through the Lens of Performance Studies," the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute Colloquium, Harvard University, Barker Center, Thompson Room, noon-1:30 pm

    Return to Robin Bernstein's Home Page

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    PLEASE NOTE: I am in the process of migrating my website. The most current information about my work is online at http://scholar.harvard.edu/robinbernstein