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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.