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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture

I'm giving the Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture at Rutgers-Camden on Thursday, September 19. The talk is hosted by the Department of Childhood Studies, the first department in the US to offer a PhD in childhood studies. I'm looking forward to engaging with the wonderful students and faculty in this ground-breaking department.

In the talk, titled “Trayvon Martin and So Many More: Racial Innocence Today," I'm going to address the ways in which racial innocence continues to affect children and adults today--and the ways in which racial innocence has changed in crucial ways in the past fifty years. Rutgers Today posted a nice news release about the talk: Rutgers to Host Second Annual Childhood Studies Lecture, “Trayvon Martin and So Many More: Racial Innocence Today." If you're going to be in the Camden/Philadelphia area, I hope you'll come to the talk!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Full-page ad in PMLA

I am overwhelmed by this full-page advertisement that NYU Press placed in the current issue of the PMLA, which arrived in my mailbox today.

PMLA 128.1 (May 2013): 848

The PMLA, established 1884, is the journal of the Modern Language Association. Each issue reaches about 29,000 members of the MLA plus 2,000 libraries.

Sometimes all you can say is "Wow."

Thank you, Eric Zinner and NYU Press, for your ongoing, simply stunning support for this book.

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Arresting... shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground"

Jayna Brown, author of the brilliant, award-winning Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, has reviewed Racial Innocence in the current issue of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. She wrote:

“Through an amazing curation of materials carefully and painstakingly gleaned from a number of archives, including collections at the American Antiquarian Society and the Harvard Theatre Collection, Robin Bernstein shows how the innocence of white childhood was imagined and enacted in relation to fictional versions of the black child, rendered in advertisements, collectibles, children’s books and toys, and especially dolls, from the antebellum era into the 1910s. . . . Bernstein’s book is an excellent study of material culture, carefully reading the politics of the manufacture of these toys in their historical context. For instance, Bernstein explains how soft dolls were developed not only for cuddling but to withstand abuse, which she argues is profoundly racialized and gendered. Many dolls in Bernstein’s study accompany storybooks, such as the Golliwog dolls, based on characters invented by Florence Upton, and Raggedy Ann dolls, which John Gruelle designed to accompany his children’s books. Bernstein explains how these dolls have deep roots in minstrelsy. Bernstein’s elucidation of the cruelty involved in the creation of toys and the narratives of storybooks, that supposedly represent the innocence of childhood, is arresting. But it is how white children played with the dolls I find most disturbing in the book. . . . I had a strong response to these assaulting, violent images. The sheer number of the book’s examples began to accumulate on my back, and behind my eyes, as I read. A few of these toxic images went a long way in my case, and I found myself yearning for some kind of black [']answer back,' as my students call it, to counteract the symbolic torture and immolation of black children. But perhaps the very repetition of such images, things, and acts underlines a crucial utility of the book, as it shows how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground. Black resistance is the absent presence that threatens such naturalization. The last chapter opens with the ‘answer back’ I needed. She relates the childhood recollections of Daisy Turner, who as a little girl actively resisted a teacher’s scripted racism. The teacher planned a school pageant, in which every child was to represent a different country while holding a doll, dressed in the same clothes, which was meant to represent that nation. Each child was given a poem to read. Daisy Turner was given a black doll named Dinah, representing ‘the nation’ of Africa, and a matching poem. Daisy Turner refused to read the script given her by her teacher, and improvised her own recitation.” Jayna Brown, Callaloo 36.2 (Spring 2013): pp. 482-485.

When I was writing Racial Innocence, I was deeply conflicted about the violence I was representing. I worried that in describing violence against black dolls, I was replicating it and re-inflicting damage. At the same time, I needed to describe the violence in a way that took seriously the acts of white children and that held them accountable. A key point of my book is that the actions and material culture of white children have, over the past hundred and fifty years, been made to appear innocent. But they are not innocent. White children's violence against black dolls is real violence; it is not just "child's play." I wanted my book to rip the veil off of a century and a half of racial innocence, and to do so I had to expose violence. I tried to describe it in a simple, straightforward way that avoided, equally, sensationalism and trivialization. And I know that these descriptions have caused pain, as Jayna Brown describes.

I'm grateful that Brown recognizes the heart of my goal: I aimed to show "how the hegemonic project of white supremacy takes constant reinforcement in popular forms to naturalize racist practices on the ground." This is exactly what I wanted my book to demonstrate: the ongoing, always-forming-and-reforming historical relationship between the micro and the macro, between the seemingly innocent acts of individual children and the broadest structures of white supremacy. As Brown notes, white supremacy requires "constant reinforcement" to to continue to exist. In other words, white supremacy is fundamentally a lie, and the only way it can maintain any credibility at all is if it is constantly re-enacted "on the ground," as Brown puts it.

Brown's review prompted me to recall a passage from the Introduction to my dissertation:

As I wrote this dissertation, I frequently envisioned a machine capable of reversing gravity. I imagined a machine that could contain a space such as a room or a house and invert it, yet enable all objects within that space to function normally so that the people within the house could not sense that they were in fact upside-down. I imagined, in other words, a machine capable of convincing people that up was down and down was up. How much human genius would be necessary to invent a machine that could obscure the fundamental truth of gravity? How large would such a machine need to be? How much energy would it use? How much would it cost? How much constant effort, and from how many different populations, would be required to maintain this machine? What chaos would ensue if—or inevitably, when—a fly in the gears caused the machine to pause, even for a nanosecond, in its labor? And how would the upside-down people within the machine manage these intermittent episodes of chaos?

This imagined gravity-reversal machine provides the metaphor by which I understand white supremacy. White supremacist ideology was and is a tremendous, energy-gobbling machine that aims to convince all people within its influence of a fundamental falsehood: that people of color are essentially inferior to white people; that some of us are more and some of us are less human than others. Evidence against white people’s inherent superiority is and always has been abundantly available. . . . I wrote this dissertation because I wanted to understand machinery that could convince large numbers of people that a falsehood was true, that up was down and down was up, that some people are more human than others. I wanted to understand machinery that could manage abundant and assertive evidence—of gravity, of humanity—in such a way that that evidence did not shatter the illusions that the machine existed to construct. Childhood is one crucial gear—a “linchpin,” in Caroline Levander’s language—within the giant cultural machine of white supremacist ideology. This dissertation traces the teeth of that gear and shows how it performs within the cultural machinery of white supremacy.

May we all, like Daisy Turner, "answer back," throw down the props of white supremacy, and interrupt the constant, repeated acts--often banal, everyday behaviors that appear too minor to matter--that white supremacy depends on for its continuing, malignant existence.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Provocative, insightful, and bold"

The current issue of Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures includes Jenny Wills' terrific 13-page review--which toward the end bursts into a hybrid review/article in which Wills discusses contemporary subjects such as Barbie and Bratz dolls. Here are some highlights:

"Racial Innocence is a provocative, insightful, and bold text that demonstrates how important the field of cultural studies is and can be. Texts and topics are interwoven with poignant commentaries about race and identity in a way that insists that Bernstein's aruments are equally relevant to scholars interested in youth narratives and cultures as well as those of us working in critical race studies. . . . In Racial Innocence, however, we get more than a historically grounded cultural reading of print and non-print texts. We get a framework through which we might think through a variety of objects in terms of their implications on childhood, race, and innocence. Most importantly, Bernstein reminds us that sentimental, picturesque, and childhood playthings are not benign or devoid of serious racialized implications. This critical book goes beyond the specific texts that its author addresses, although Bernstein does move between subjects with finesse and expertise; Racial Innocence casts a much-needed spotlight onto so many of the artifacts from our daily environments." Jenny Wills, "Scripted Violence, Scripted Deferral: Pre- and Post-Civil Rights Racial Innocence," Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 5.1 (2013): 179-191.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beautiful Black Dolls at the Shelburne Museum

My partner and I recently visited the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, which is a museum whose collections are distributed among 39 buildings on an estate near Lake Champlain. The core of the museum consists of the personal collections of heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb, an aficionado of folk art and US material culture. The museum maintains collections in circus figures and circus posters, clothing, decorative arts, folk art, impressionist paintings, quilts, tools... and dolls. More than 400 of them. There's a whole book just about the doll collection.

I saw hundreds of dolls at the Shelburne Museum, but the ones that really stay with me are these two:

These are very special, rare, beautiful dolls. To explain what makes them so interesting, I have to provide some background on dolls and race.

Dolls are political--not only in how they look, but also in how they feel, and how their materiality invites different kinds of play. In Racial Innocence, I wrote a lot about soft dolls that were designed to accommodate children's rough play. In the U.S. in the nineteenth century, a few small cottage industries began manufacturing such dolls. Small-scale makers of soft commercial dolls included Izannah Walker, Martha Jenks Chase, and Julia Jones Beecher, half-sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe. These white women all lived and worked in the postbellum North, but each manufactured at least one Plantation-style black doll. The Shelburne Museum owns, for example, this "mammy" doll manufactured by Martha Jenks Chase sometime between 1890 and 1900:

As I showed in my book, white nineteenth-century American children routinely subjected soft black dolls to enormous violence, and this violence was not only tolerated but encouraged by white adults who viewed such acts as racially innocent.

But there's another part of the story. Until the Civil Rights Movement, most commercial black dolls in the United States were caricatured and grotesque--but in Germany and France, a whole other vision of black people flourished. As Myla Perkins demonstrates in her two-volume masterpiece, Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide, nineteenth-century dollmakers in France and Germany produced black dolls with the same molds they used to produce white dolls. The resulting black dolls were beautiful and non-caricatured. Unfortunately, because they were expensive imports, few African American children had access to them. In the U.S., most owners of these dolls were wealthy white girls.

Which brings us back to the white, wealthy Electra Havemeyer Webb, who added these beautiful dolls to her museum collection in 1951. These dolls are made of papier-mâché, and the Shelburne Museum identifies them as German, most likely produced in the 1850s (they were about a century old, then, when the museum acquired them). Unlike other German dolls which were produced with molds that were also used for white dolls, these dolls' faces and hair seem designed to represent the features of people of African descent.

The woman wears fine clothes and a bonnet, with detailing in the trim and buttons. While it is possible that the doll was intended to represent a servant, she does not present only that image (unlike the Martha Jenks Chase "mammy" doll and so many others like it). Her face is finely-drawn, realistic, and lovely. There is no hint of mockery.

The man is more ambiguous. He could represent a gentleman, or he could represent a servant in livery. Despite this ambiguity, this doll projects dignity. His clothing is, like the female doll's, carefully detailed in rich cloth. And the face beautifully represents African-diasporic features. In both cases, the large eyes and full cheeks reflect the period's conventions in doll-faces more than those of racist caricature.

Papier-mâché is delicate. Unlike the soft cloth "mammy" doll, who was created to endure ritualistic abuse, these beautiful, dignified, realistic dolls scripted gentle, respectful play.

How did these fragile dolls survive a century in which the abuse of black dolls was the norm? Were they owned by black children? Did they survive because they were loved and treated tenderly? Did they survive because they were unloved and ignored? As with most dolls, it is difficult or even impossible to determine precisely what relationship they had with individual children and adults in the past. But we can imagine. And we can pause to look these dolls in the face and to remember: no matter how deeply the nineteenth century was steeped in racist imagery, counter-images existed. "Mammy" and other caricatures dominated black dolls prior to the Civil Rights Movement. And because they were so dominant, so denigrating, and so damaging, it is easy to forget that other kinds of dolls existed. But they did exist--and when we see them in places like the Shelburne Museum, we should pause, pay attention, and really take in the beauty before us.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Winner, Award, International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL)

I am stunned to report that Racial Innocence has won the Award from the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL). This biennial prize "honours a distinguished work of research into children's literary and cultural texts published in the two (calendar) years prior to the Congress at which it is awarded." My partner Maya and I are hoping to get to Maastricht, The Netherlands, for the IRSCL Congress, at which I'll receive the award.

Many, many thanks are due to Perry Nodelman, who nominated Racial Innocence for the IRSCL Award. Professor Nodelman is the distinguished author of The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature, The Pleasures of Children's Literature (with Mavis Reimer), and many other scholarly works, as well as several works of fiction. Professor Nodelman also maintains a blog about salt and pepper shakers--yes, salt and pepper shakers--and the ways in which these seemingly simple things open up deep questions about the nature of pairing, about race, gender, and sexuality, about kitsch and cuteness, about the acts of collecting, and about binary opposition.

The IRSCL Award will be the final one for Racial Innocence. The book is not nominated for any other prizes. It has been a simply amazing run: the book won the Grace Abbott Best Book Award from the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, the Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, the Children's Literature Association Book Award, and the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize from the New England American Studies Association. Racial Innocence was also runner-up for the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize from the American Studies Association and honorable mention for the Book Award from the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. As this list shows, the book has won awards in the fields of history, literature, theatre/performance, and American studies.

I am just overwhelmed by the recognition this book has received from prize committees, and of equal importance, from the people who have read the book and the professors who have assigned it in their graduate and undergraduate classes. Many, many thanks are due to New York University Press, specifically Assistant Director and Editor-in-Chief Eric Zinner and Assistant Editors Alicia Kirin Nadkarni and Ciara McLaughlin; to the book series editors David Kazanjian, Elizabeth McHenry, and Priscilla Wald; and to the amazing publicity team that has included, at different times, Mary Beth Jarrad, Betsy Steve, Trish Palao, Bernadette Blanco (who managed the book prize nominations!), Joe Gallagher, and Tom Sullivan. I thank all of them for their unwavering support for this book. And I thank the IRSCL, deeply, for Racial Innocence's final award.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Many thanks to Anna Mae Duane for this splendid review in the current issue of MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US:

"Revelatory. . . . Bernstein’s theoretically sophisticated and engagingly written book achieves what few scholarly texts have done: she allows us to see the familiar artifacts of childhood in ways we had not yet imagined. She has crafted a methodology finely calibrated to engage the problems of studying children’s culture that is equally useful for a wide range of scholars working in material, performance, and ethnic studies." Anna Mae Duane, MELUS 38.2 (Summer 2013): 154-155

Duane's book, Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim, was a major source and inspiration to me as I wrote Racial Innocence. In her book, Duane argues that suffering crucially defined childhood in the US from the time of the early republic. This argument fundamentally shaped my thinking about popular culture during the second half of the nineteenth century, which systematically libeled African American children as unable to feel pain. If, as Duane argues, the ability to suffer defined American childhood, and if, as I observed, late-nineteenth century popular culture libeled black children as unable to suffer, then, I argued, popular culture gradually defined black youth out of childhood and excluded them from the right to protection. We still see the vestiges of this libel: even today, African American children are routinely subjected to abuses from which white children appear to deserve protection (as when, for example, The Onion used a most adult obscenity to describe black child actress Quvenzhané Wallis--a word that periodical never applied to any white child). In the most extreme case, black children who enter the judicial system are far more likely than their white counterparts to be tried--that is, legally defined, in opposition to biology--as adults. Anna Mae Duane's work focuses our attention on the political uses of children's suffering during the early years of this nation. It's our job to carry the inquiry forward to illuminate the racial politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--and today.