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

Visit Robin Bernstein's website at

View an interview with Robin Bernstein

Monday, December 24, 2012

“Dazzling… incredibly moving… new and field-expanding ideas”

American Quarterly is the defining journal of American Studies, which is the field of my Ph.D. Book reviews in AQ are expansive and deep, and are typically authored by scholars who drive the field. I am thrilled, then, that the December 2012 issue of AQ includes a glorious review of Racial Innocence by Sarah E. Chinn. The review essay places Racial Innocence in conversation with two other recent, influential books about race and US culture: Nicole Fleetwood's Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness and Kyla Wazana Tompkins's Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century (which is, like Racial Innocence, part of NYU Press's amazing series, America and the Long 19th Century). Chinn wrote very positively and at length about Racial Innocence. Some highlights:

“Bernstein argues convincingly and chillingly that the figures of black children we see from Topsy on are depicted as a special breed of child: pickaninnies. In her close analysis of the figure of the pickaninny, Bernstein reveals to readers what has been in plain sight all along, if we had only had the perspicacity to notice it. The pickaninny is white culture’s alibi for violence against African Americans: he or she is insensate to pain, able to withstand violence with a laugh and a toss of the head. . . . [Bernstein’s] archive here is breathtaking both in its depth and how much it appalls the reader. . . .

“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.

It is an honor to be reviewed in American Quarterly, and a review as thoughtful and appreciative as Chinn's is a rare thrill. I don't observe Christmas, but if I did, I'd say this review was a very good Christmas present indeed.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Daringly imaginative"

I'm honored that the distinguished scholar of children's literature Perry Nodelman has reviewed Racial Innocence in International Research in Children's Literature, the journal of the International Research Society for Children's Literature, of which I am a proud member. Professor Nodelman called my book

“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.

As I've written on this blog before, I deeply admire Perry Nodelman's work, so I value and appreciate this review tremendously. For information about how to become a member of the IRSCL and to join the international conversation about children's literature, please go to

Monday, November 19, 2012

American Studies Association, 2012!

Racial Innocence was runner-up for the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, which the American Studies Association awards every year for "the best-published book in American Studies." Also a runner-up this year was William Gleason's terrific Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature. Because both Racial Innocence and Sites Unseen are part of the NYU Press series, "America and the Long 19th Century," NYU Press threw a celebration at the ASA conference. My friend Brian Herrera snapped this photo of the poster NYU created. (I should have taken some photos at the party, which was awesome, but I didn't think of it until too late.) Thanks to Eric Zinner and NYU Press for continuing to support my book, to the ASA for recognizing my book in the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize competition, to Philip Nel for a great blurb on the poster, and to everyone who came to the party!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Melinda Gates... and me!

Today is International Day of the Girl! To mark the occasion, asked a selection of women what advice they would give to their fifteen-year-old selves. The women include Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Melinda Gates... and me! You can read my advice, as well as that of Christiane Amanpour, Queen Rania of Jordan, Fabiola Gianotti, Victoria Azerenka, Maria Shriver, Zaha Hadid, Maria Sharapova, and few others on's "Leading Women" page. I get a little vertigo being in such august company!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"intellectual espresso"

Michelle McCrary, who runs the terrific website Is That Your Child?, blogged a few weeks ago about Racial Innocence. I was so happy that Michelle put my book into dialogue with the issues confronted by contemporary parents, particularly those in multicultural families. The blog post received a lot of attention, so Michelle invited me to speak on her radio program. We spoke last night for almost an hour, and it was one of the most stimulating and enjoyable interviewing experiences I've ever had. Michelle asked the most insightful, penetrating questions about the history of race, childhood, and especially toys. We talked about topsy-turvy dolls, the Clark Doll Tests, nineteenth-century black dolls, innocence, and many, many other topics--including, ultimately, the possibility of anti-racist resistance. We could have talked for hours!

Michelle has deftly edited our interview and posted it on iTunes, Libsyn and on Stitcher (for mobile users and tablet users). She also blogged again about the book as well as our interview, and the interview is posted on that webpage. In her very kind introduction to the interview, Michelle called my book "intellectual espresso," and she said, "This is a really excellent book. I can't stop raving about it, and I can't stop encouraging people enough to just go out there and get it." Michelle also added a postscript to the interview in which she shared her own thoughts about the contemporary criminalization of black children, racist sports mascots, and Joel Chandler Harris. She also made some great points about how racial innocence lives on in the claims of contemporary white adults, especially members of the tea party, who wax nostalgic for an imagined past in which African Americans "knew their place." Michelle McCrary is one of the most thoughtful, closest readers I've ever had. I loved talking with her, and I hope for opportunities to continue the conversation. Thank you, Michelle McCrary, and hats off to!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

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

Racial Innocence has won the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize, given by the New England American Studies Association. I am thrilled and honored to win this award, and I thank the NEASA and in particular the Rudnick prize committee: Aaron Lecklider, Jeffrey Meriwether, and chair Ben Railton (who runs the terrific website American Studier). I am especially pleased because Lois P. Rudnick's research was useful to my own. Lois Rudnick is a wonderful literary scholar and biographer who has written many books on modernism and the "new woman," and in particular on Mabel Dodge Luhan, the famous patron of the arts who was in social circles that included, in Paris, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and, in Taos, New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe. In Racial Innocence, I cite an astonishing passage from Intimate Memories, The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, which Rudnick edited. In this memoir, Luhan recalls how, as a girl, she sadistically attacked the genital region of a black doll. The memory is offered with no apology or embarrassment; if anything, Luhan relates the racist violence with relish (she recalls that the attack on the doll aroused in her girl-self "a queer delicious kind of pleasure, both mysterious and yet familiar"). The incident is one of the most vicious and disturbing that I recount in my book (you can read about Luhan's attack on the doll on pages 209-210 in my book and pp. 17-18 in Intimate Memories). Rudnick's new book, The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture, was just published this year by the University of New Mexico Press, and I hear that the violence in that book is even more disturbing. I haven't read that book yet, but I certainly will soon.

Sometimes I have mixed feelings about the amplitude of violence that I document in my book. But then I am reminded that no matter how much violence I recount, there is infinitely more in history. I wanted my book to historicize violence in a new way--especially by taking seriously the violence perpetrated by white children like Mabel Dodge Luhan. I thank the NEASA for honoring this project, even as it brings to light so much pain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Runner-Up for ASA John Hope Franklin Prize

The American Studies Association has named Racial Innocence one of three runners-up for the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize for the best book in American Studies. I am simply stunned by this honor.

William Gleason's wonderful book, Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature is also a runner-up. Racial Innocence and Sites Unseen are both part of the NYU Press series, "America and the Long 19th Century." I'm proud to be a part of this series, and grateful to its editors--David Kazanjian, Elizabeth McHenry, and Priscilla Wald--for their vision and guidance.

It is a particular honor to receive this recognition in the name of John Hope Franklin, the distinguished scholar who transformed the study of African American history. Professor Franklin is a model of an academic life, with an emphasis on life. A simple list of his professional accomplishments would fill pages: his many, many books include The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, The Free Negro in North Carolina, Reconstruction After the Civil War, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, George Washington Williams: A Biography, A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Ante-bellum North, and In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South and Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, both with Loren Schweninger. Perhaps his most influential book is From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, the preeminent textbook on African American history, first published in 1947 and revised many times, most recently in co-authorship with my colleague, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. John Hope Franklin served as president of Phi Beta Kappa, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association. In 1995, Professor Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In that same year, with Franklin's support and vision, the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture was established at Duke University. In 1997, Professor Franklin was the subject of a 90-minute PBS film, First Person Singular: John Hope Franklin.

Any one of these accomplishments (and this is a very partial list!) would warrant nothing short of awe for this man. My admiration for him extends well beyond his professional accomplishments, however. I know many people who worked for years with or alongside Dr. Franklin, and from many voices I have heard one story: John Hope Franklin was a mensch, a true human being. He was the brilliant scholar who never lost sight of the individuals around him; he honored the generations that came before him and especially those that came after him. I understand that he dearly loved his family, especially his wife, Aurelia Whittington Franklin, to whom he was married for 59 years until she passed away in 1999. He remained not only academically productive but also intellectually alive and passionately open to new ideas throughout his life, right up until his passing in 2009 at the age of 94.

This short tribute to John Hope Franklin is painfully incomplete. I could easily have created a list that was equally long and equally impressive, but that repeated none of the above information. For a fuller picture of his professional accomplishments--his publications, awards, and many other triumphs--look here, here, and here. The warmth with which he touched others is apparent in the memorial website, where his students, colleagues, friends, and family have offered moving testimony to the effect Professor Franklin had on their lives. Along with so many others, I have long been the beneficiary of John Hope Franklin's scholarship and intellectual generosity, and I am deeply honored to become one tiny part of his expansive legacy through an award that bears his name.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Honorable Mention for Book Award from the Society for the Study of American Women Writers

Racial Innocence has received an Honorable Mention for the Book Award from the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, a wonderful organization of which I am a proud lifetime member. As I wrote my book, I hoped fervently that Racial Innocence would find its way to Harriet Beecher Stowe scholars, and also to scholars who care about Harriet E. Wilson, Frances Harper, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, all of whom I discuss at length. The honorable mention helps me connect with these scholars, because it signals my book's relevance to the study of U.S. literature, and especially U.S. women's literature. I'm so grateful and also deeply honored to be recognized by the SSAWW.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Racial Innocence and The Book of Mormon?

One of the best aspects of writing and teaching is that you never know where people will take your work. Ideas travel in ways that individual human beings never can. And sometimes ideas go places that their originators never could have imagined. Recently, the children's literature scholar Perry Nodelman blogged about how my idea of scriptive things has enabled him to think in new ways about salt and pepper shakers. When I wrote my book, I hadn't thought at all about salt and pepper shakers (but I've thought about them a lot since reading Perry Nodelman's blog!), but I had thought about related material items of domestic life--tableware and food, for example. So I was delighted but not entirely surprised when Perry Nodelman made the connection between scriptive things and shakers.

Sometimes, though, other scholars take your ideas someplace completely unexpected, someplace that you never could have imagined. That happened this week when Allan Davis of Brigham Young University (and an alum of my alma mater, the University of Maryland) used my ideas to explicate a chapter of The Book of Mormon, specifically Alma 43-52.

I haven't read The Book of Mormon, so I don't have any thoughts about Allan Davis's interpretation. But I'm honored that he found my ideas useful in his own intellectual and spiritual practices. And I'm grateful to be reminded, yet again, of just how far our ideas can travel. When we publish, when we send our ideas out into the world, we never know where they will have an impact--and that fact is as exciting as it is humbling.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Racial Innocence "stunningly informative" with "broad implications"

Thanks to Michelle McCrary for blogging about Racial Innocence on the terrific website, Is That Your Child: Parenting in Full Color. She called Racial Innocence

stunningly informative ... As I make my way through her book, I realized the broad implications of her work and how it relates to the ways in which society views children of color, especially black children.

It means a lot to me that my book is proving useful to parents and other non-academics who care about children, culture, and racial politics. ITYC has a radio show that looks awesome--you know I'll be listening.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"magnificent and stylish... truly groundbreaking"

I'm honored that Richard Flynn, a scholar I have long admired, has reviewed Racial Innocence in The Lion and the Unicorn. And how fitting that the review appeared in a special issue, edited by Marah Gubar, on children and theatre. What excellent company on all counts.

“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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"A tremendous resource....An exemplary model for any interdisciplinary project of similarly ambitious scope"

Another review is out! This one is in the Journal of Popular Culture. The review is by Meredith Bak, who maintains a very interesting blog about optical toys. Here's the final paragraph of her review:

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.

Monday, July 23, 2012

"illuminate[s] the racialised residues of our own childhoods in our everyday adult lives"

Another review is in! This review by Aaron C. Thomas just appeared in the journal Cultural Studies. The review summarizes the book extensively and accurately, and I especially appreciated the way in which Thomas picked up on how the book claims girls and girlhood as central to US racial formation. Here's the closing paragraph of the three-page review:

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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"A historiographic tour de force... a classic."

A few weeks ago, I received the wonderful news that Racial Innocence co-won the Award for Outstanding Book from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). I'll receive the award in a ceremony at the 2012 ATHE conference, which is the first week of August. The conference program just went online, and here's what the prize committee said about why my book received the award:

"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."

Many thanks to the awards committee--Harvey Young, Suk-Young Kim, and Patricia Ybarra--for this award and for the wonderful response to Racial Innocence. I'm deeply honored.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"horrifying historical content built into supposedly innocent items of everyday culture "

The journal Girlhood Studies has run a special issue, edited by Miriam Forman-Brunell, on dolls and girls' culture. The issue includes Elizabeth Chin's great review of my book. Here's an excerpt:

“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.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Perry Nodelman and the Scripts of Salt and Pepper Sets

The distinguished children's literature scholar Perry Nodelman, author of The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature and many other important books, has been blogging about his hobby: collecting novelty salt and pepper sets. These sets raise fascinating questions about the nature of pairs, about humor, and about representations of race, gender, and sexuality. As Prof. Nodelman points out, salt and pepper shakers also raise questions about the nature of things: in the language of Racial Innocence, they are scriptive things in that they prompt or invite a range of behaviors, including but also extending far beyond the actions of salting and peppering. Today, Professor Nodelman blogged about scriptive things, Racial Innocence, and salt and pepper sets. He wrote,

As I read Racial Innocence, I learned a great deal I hadn’t expect to learn about how concepts of race have found expression in American culture in a variety of ways, in a number of surprising contexts, and in a number of surprisingly subtle scripted actions invited by a range of interesting (and interestingly scripted) scriptive things. But I also found myself thinking that much of what Bernstein had to say about the scriptive things she described might also be applied to novelty salt and pepper shakers–most obviously, to ones like those representing black stereotypes like the one I’ve described in previous entries, such as this set of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose I discussed here and here[.] But, I found myself thinking, why stop there? The concept of scriptive things seemed like an intriguing and, for me, new of thinking about the objects we surround ourselves with and use on a daily basis. It might well throw light, not just on the shaker sets with African American connections, but on a whole range of other sets depicting a whole range of different kinds of subjects. So I’ve decided to do some thinking about that, in a series of entries to follow.

Yes, why stop there? Kitchens--indeed, whole houses--are full of scriptive things that create meaning in a myriad of ways. This is the best part of being an academic: when other scholars apply your ideas in contexts you never could have imagined. I'm so glad that my book has proved useful to Perry Nodelman, and I can't wait for the "entries to follow!"

Thursday, May 31, 2012

"One of those rare books that shifts the paradigm... A landmark."

The first review is out--and it's the kind of review every author dreams of receiving. Philip Nel, the author and editor of many books about children's literature and social justice, has reviewed Racial Innocence in the current issue of the journal Children's Literature. I've admired Phil and his work for a long time: they both exemplify the ethical thinking, honesty, good humor, political commitment, and quality of thought to which I aspire. I faithfully read his blog, Nine Kinds of Pie, because it always takes me in an unexpected direction, teaches me something worth knowing, or moves me. One of my favorite of his recent entries was his tender, illuminating meditation on and interview with Maurice Sendak.

Two years ago, I was thrilled when Phil listed my article, "Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race" (Social Text n. 101 [December 2009]), as his pick for the "Best Literary Criticism" that he read in 2010. And so it means so much to me, to say the very least, that this month Philip Nel called Racial Innocence

"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.

I am so honored by this response to my book. Many thanks to Philip Nel and to Children's Literature, and I hope that the book lives up to this wonderful prophesy!

Friday, May 18, 2012

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

I am thrilled to announce that Racial Innocence has won the Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) “on the basis of the study's potential to interrupt, change and/or challenge” the field of theatre studies. This recognition means so much to me--not only because it's a major honor, but also because it comes from an academic organization that has been central to my intellectual life since 1998. That year at the ATHE conference, I gave my first two papers on the respective debut panels of the American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS) and the Theatre History Focus Group. ATHE and the ATDS supported me in so many ways as I wrote this book: both provided opportunities for me to sound out my ideas with other scholars, and both recognized my article, "Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race" (Social Text n. 101 [December 2009]), parts of which later folded into Racial Innocence. And finally, I'm honored that winning this award puts me in such good company: previous winners include scholars I deeply admire such as David Rom├ín, Shannon Jackson, and Diana Taylor, and I co-won the prize with Susan Leigh Foster, whose work on dance regularly blows my mind. Many thanks to the awards committee and to everyone else who helped make this happen!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Just for fun, I've written a little quiz on African American literature. The format is unusual: I name three characters' names, and the challenge is to name the author and title of the novel, memoir, or play (don't worry, it's multiple choice). The questions range from easy to tough. And in some of the questions, many of the wrong answers have a theme. Check it out if you dare!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A "wonderful defense of slavery"?

In 1880, Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the "Uncle Remus" stories, described Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "wonderful defense of slavery." At first glance, this statement seems to be a gross misreading, or perhaps an act of wishful thinking from a man who would soon become one of slavery's most influential apologists. But the truth is more complicated. In fact, Harris did not simplistically misunderstand Stowe, nor did he merely impose or project his own proslavery politics onto her abolitionist novel. Rather, Harris read Stowe with a warped genius for selectivity, and he crystallized his selective reading in the fictional relationship between Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. In these books, Joel Chandler Harris told the story of what could have happened if Uncle Tom had never left Kentucky.

In honor of the bicentennial of Stowe's birth and the 160th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is re-serializing Stowe's novel in the same weekly installments that originally appeared in the National Era from 1851-1852. The Stowe Center is simultaneously running a blog with commentary linked to the weekly installments. I'm honored that the Stowe Center invited me to be one of the bloggers. My essay about Harris and Stowe, which is excerpted and adapted from Racial Innocence, runs this week. Hope you enjoy it!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading at Drama Book Shop in NYC

When I was a freshman at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, I made chocolate and sold it in school. In a typical day, I made about $5 profit, which was just what a Samuel French playscript cost. Then, after school, I went to the Drama Book Shop, which was then hidden up several flights of stairs in a nondescript building in Times Square (above, I'm told, a gentlemen's club--but I was too naive to realize that!). I bought a Samuel French play and read it on the long train ride back to my home in Coney Island. Then I looked at the ads in the back of the script and decided what play I'd buy next. And that's how I read my way through my freshman year of high school.

Given this history, it was a singular pleasure to return to the Drama Book Shop (in its new location on 40th Street) to read from Racial Innocence. The event, called "The Brilliance of the American Theatre," is an annual collaboration between the Drama Book Shop and the American Theatre and Drama Society, a community that has been central to my intellectual life since 1998. Every year, three ATDS members who have published new books read at the DBS, and this year I was thrilled to be one of the lucky few. My co-presenters were Soyica Diggs Colbert, who read from her new book, The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage, and Stuart Hecht, who read from his new book, Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical. Mark Cosdon, president of ATDS, moderated the panel.

Left to right: Stuart Hecht, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Robin Bernstein

Many thanks to the DBS and the ATDS (especially Mark) for creating such a fabulous event, to Soyica and Stuart for being such brilliant and congenial co-presenters, and most of all to the many people, including my family and friends, who came out on a beautiful Thursday night to fill every seat in the house.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Show and Tell at the Stowe Center

On March 8, I had a blast doing a "show and tell" presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin material culture at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Stowe Center was central to the process of writing Racial Innocence: about a decade ago, when the book was just starting to germinate, I visited the Stowe Center. There, Dawn Adiletta, then a Stowe Center curator, generously spent a couple of hours talking with me about the material goods, from statuettes to tableware to textiles to paper ephemera, that depicted characters from Stowe's novel and that hit U.S. and European marketplaces in an avalanche in the 1850s. As Dawn and I talked, I felt like I understood most of what I saw: I understood why someone would want a teacup or a jigsaw puzzle depicting characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin. But then, one item stopped me in my tracks: an 1852/1853 handkerchief depicting Little Eva and Uncle Tom reading the Bible in the arbor.

I couldn't understand this object. "Would someone actually blow their nose in this?" I asked Dawn. She assured me that the handkerchief would not have been put to such blasphemous use. "Oh, no," she said, "this handkerchief was 'for show, not blow.'"

"OK," I said. "I understand why someone wouldn't blow their nose in it. But what would someone do with it?" And we were both perplexed. Neither of us could quite imagine how this handkerchief would have been used. The question troubled me for years, because I knew that if I didn't understand the handkerchief in use, then I didn't understand the handkerchief itself, and I was therefore missing some key understanding of how Uncle Tom's Cabin functioned as material culture. Much later, when I read Claire Parfait's excellent book, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–2002, I learned that John P. Jewett, the first American publisher of Stowe's novel, had invested significant labor and expense in creating the handkerchief, which he reissued several times. Jewett commissioned Hammatt Billings to create the engraving of Tom and Eva in the arbor, he commissioned John Greenleaf Whittier to write a poem about Little Eva and her death, and he hired Manuel Emilio to set the poem to music. Then he hired a printer to put all these elements together on a handkerchief. But after all that effort, Jewett seems not to have sold the handkerchief, but instead to have given it away--quite possibly to customers who had already bought Uncle Tom's Cabin. This deepened the mystery for me: why did Jewett work so hard, and spend so much money, to create something that generated no income--and whose use was so unclear to me?

Meanwhile, I was developing a theory of how material things prompt, invite, or "script" their own use (I write about "scriptive things" in Racial Innocence and also in an article in Social Text, and I explain my key ideas in an interview with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education). So one day it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the Jewett handkerchief could tell me how to use it. So I looked again. And there was my answer, plain as day:

The first line of Whittier's poem answers my question in the imperative: "Dry the tears for holy Eva!" Whittier's poem, Billings's image of Eva predicting her own death, Emilio's hymnlike music, and the material properties of the handkerchief all combined to invite the user to weep and then to use the handkerchief to dab the tears--those treasured signs of nineteenth-century sentiment. (For a discussion of why the handkerchief's prompt toward weeping and tear-drying matters politically and culturally, see pp. 8-13 of Racial Innocence.)

This handkerchief, then, inspired some of the key theoretical moves in Racial Innocence. And the Stowe Center was the place where that journey began. So it was, to say the least, a deep pleasure and honor to return to the Stowe Center to discuss material culture.

When Katherine Kane, the Stowe Center's Executive Director, invited me to speak, I proposed to do a "show and tell" rather than read a paper. Katherine, Program Coordinators Sonya Green and Amanda Roy, Director of Education & Visitor Services Shannon Burke, and especially Collections Manager Beth Burgess all made this event possible.

Amanda Roy, me, and Beth Burgess

Together, Beth and I chose an amazing set of items from the Stowe Center's archive, and Beth made all these items available to the public.

Here you can see paper items: an 1850s American card game, a German card and dice game, and figures for a "toy theatre" that was a popular plaything in the nineteenth century.

Here are some Staffordshire figurines and different editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, all of which I discuss at length in Racial Innocence. You can see the edge of the Jewett handkerchief in the lower right hand corner of this photo. (By the way, if you'd like to see more Uncle Tom's Cabin artifacts, check out the "Tomitudes" page of the fantastic University of Virginia website, Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture.)

Beth and Amanda kindly carried the items into the audience so people could see everything close up:

I can't offer enough thanks to Beth and the entire Stowe Center staff for making these rare items available to the public for this event. Thanks also to a wonderful audience (including some members of my family!) that asked super questions. The material culture of Uncle Tom's Cabin is an amazing window into the intersection of consumer culture with both racial justice and racial oppression. By understanding the ways in which quotidian household items invite physical engagement, we can understand how our everyday lives connect to the broadest and most urgent of political stakes.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New York Review of Books

Check out the rear cover of this week's New York Review of Books!

That's the cover of Racial Innocence, second from the left. The book is also listed above the image. Many thanks to the American Literatures Initiative and New York University Press for creating this beautiful ad and featuring Racial Innocence so prominently. I'm delighted!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Robert M. Gay Memorial Lecture at Simmons College

I was very honored to deliver the 2012 Robert M. Gay Memorial Lecture this past Wednesday at Simmons College. I spoke about the Clark Doll Tests and the ways in which children's literature integrates with material culture to script children's play-performancs in everyday life. Many thanks to the Department of English and epecially to Kelly Hager for inviting me, to Rachel Lacasse for making every aspect of the event smooth, to the many students who attended the talk and asked such great questions (we had a full house!), and to the faculty in English and Africana Studies who were the most enjoyable and stimulating dinner companions anyone could ask for. It was a delightful event, and I hope to have many more opportunities to think with the faculty and students of Simmons.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Second printing!

Racial Innocence is going into its second printing--less than three months after the first print run! Many thanks to everyone who bought a copy, everyone who asked their library to buy a copy, and especially everyone who assigned my book in courses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Radio, Video, and Print, Oh My!

This past fall and winter, I was interviewed 19 times on regional NPR and other stations. I had a blast talking about childhood and race, Raggedy Ann dolls and the Scarecrow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and lots more on a variety of African American, feminist, religious, queer, and progressive shows. Many thanks to all the interviewers who asked such great questions. Here's the archive--along with some older video and print interviews about Racial Innocence. Enjoy!


"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


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


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

"The Invention of Childhood Innocence," interview in The Harvard Gazette, April 29, 2010.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Advertisement in New York Review of Books

Check out the rear cover of next week's New York Review of Books! I'm thrilled to be included in this ad, and especially grateful that NYU Press featured my cover image.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Interview with Uprising Radio

Many thanks to Sonali Kolhatkar and Uprising Radio for a terrific interview on W-KPFK. Sonali asked me great questions about the history of childhood innocence, topsy-turvy dolls, and changes in the perception of black and white children. You can hear the interview
here. Thanks, Sonali, and thanks, Uprising Radio!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Radio Interview with Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is interviewing me live THURSDAY, February 2, at 8:40 Pacific Time, on Uprising Radio. If you're not in Los Angeles, you can listen online here. Hope you can tune in!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Launch Feb. 8!

I'm launching my blog with notice of my BOOK LAUNCH PARTY on Wednesday, February 8, at 6:30 pm at the Thompson Room of the Barker Center (110 Quincy Street) at Harvard University.  All are welcome!

This should be a great event: there will be a public conversation between me and Grace Chen, a Harvard undergrad, then general conversation followed by a reception.  This event is generously co-sponsored by the Harvard Foundation, the Program of Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and the Department of African and African American Studies.  Here's a link to the facebook page:

Do come to the book launch!  And please do come back to my blog.  I'll post all the events relating to my book.  Upcoming events include radio interviews, the Robert M. Gay Memorial Lecture at Simmons College, a reading at The Drama Book Shop in New York, and a "show and tell" at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, where I'll be showing and talking about 19th-century material culture relating to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Come dig into the archive with me.