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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.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Fresh and astonishing"

The current issue of Theatre Journal just came out, and it features a fabulous series of reviews of recent books on African American theatre, drama, and performance studies. The issue reviews books by colleagues who have taught me so much: Koritha Mitchell, Stephanie Leigh Batiste, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Brandi Wilkins Catanese, Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Nicole R. Fleetwood, and many others. A grand total of fifteen recent books in African American theatre, drama, and performance! As Harvey Young points out in a review essay that precedes the book review section, we are witnessing a moment of extraordinary productivity and excitement in the field.

I'm honored that the lead book review in this issue is Christian DuComb's treatment of Racial Innocence. DuComb writes,

In his essay "From Work to Text," Roland Barthes contends that true interdisciplinary scholarship is to be found not in books that challenge the limits of already constituted disciplines, but rather in books that define new objects of knowledge and introduce new methodologies, new ways of knowing. Racial Innocence is such a book. Through inspired analyses of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and children's doll-play, Robin Bernstein reads nineteenth-century childhood innocence as "the performed transcendence of social categories of class, gender, and, most importantly . . . , race" (6). . . . To uncover the racializing force of childhood innocence, Bernstein moves nimbly through the sprawl of nineteenth-century popular culture in the United States, drawing evidence from visual, literary, material, and theatrical sources. Her impressive array of examples comes together through the new historical methodology that drives Racial Innocence: reading material artifacts as "scriptive things"—that is, as prompts for performance (8). Like a play text, a scriptive thing "deeply influences but does not entirely determine live performances, which vary according to agential individuals' visions, impulses, resistances, [and] revisions" (71). Reading material things as scripts for embodied behavior not only troubles Diana Taylor's famous distinction between the archive and the repertoire, but also leads Bernstein to fresh and astonishing conclusions about race, childhood, and US history.

Many thanks to Christian DuComb for this terrific review, and to Theatre Journal's book review editor, Julia Walker, for curating such a fantastic series that demonstrates the vibrancy of the field.