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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.

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